Crafting liturgy in a time of disaster

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“In responding to disaster close to home, as people of faith, what we find out is that we need to pray, but we also need to do something,” says Dean of Christ Church Cathedral Ansley Tucker, during a workshop at the National Anglican and Lutheran Worship Conference in Victoria, B.C. Photo: Joelle Kidd

When disaster strikes, where is the Church? What do we have to offer? How do we pray?

These were the questions posed by the Very Rev. Ansley Tucker, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in the diocese of British Columbia, during a workshop at the National Anglican and Lutheran Worship Conference in Victoria, July 18.

This year’s conference theme, “Responding to Disaster: Prayer, Song, Presence,” set the tone for the workshop, which addressed the challenges of creating liturgy and ritual in light of tragedy.

The importance of this topic was highlighted as workshop attendees, who were in large part clergy members, voiced the range of disasters that had affected their own communities: car accidents, people lost at sea, the fires in Fort McMurray, Alta., the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, the recent deaths of three priests in the diocese of Niagara, missing persons, the SARS outbreak in Toronto, forest fires, flooding among others.

Tucker began by drawing on two recent experiences from her time in ministry: the 2013 flood in Calgary, Alta., and the 2017 murder of two young girls in Victoria, B.C.

While these were two very different types of disaster, Tucker said, both presented a challenge in how to create a liturgical response.

‘Not the work of the people, but work for the common good’

“I think the reality is, in responding to disaster close to home, as people of faith, what we find out is that we need to pray, but we also need to do something,” said Tucker. Her experience as rector of Christ Church in the diocese of Calgary revealed the importance of offering practical help in times of need.

“Around about the 20th of June, we were beginning to kick back in the diocese of Calgary. We were having a barbecue in the backyard of our regional dean,” Tucker recalled. News was spreading of some violent flooding in nearby Canmore, Alta. “We thought, isn’t that too bad? It’s awfully close to home. Then it began to rain.”

By 2 a.m., police were banging on the doors of homes along the Bow and Elbow rivers; by morning, there was up to eight feet of water in some homes.

Christ Church, Elbow Park, sat near the confluence of the two rivers, near the epicentre of the flood zone. But, “by some quirk of elevation” the church remained dry, Tucker said. Unlike many residences in the neighbourhood, the church had running water and power.

Drawing on a metaphor from the Rev. Ruth Meyers—keynote speaker at the 2014 National Anglican and Lutheran Worship Conference in Edmonton, Alta.—Tucker compared liturgy to a Mobius strip, a shape which has only one side. “If we think of mission as what we do that faces the world, and liturgy is what we do when we get together, and you just do that one little twist in the middle…before you know it, the outside puts you on the inside of the circle. There is no longer any distinction, so that our worship and our ethic are of a piece,” said Tucker.

Meyers had broken down the word liturgy to its roots, laitos and ergon, Tucker said, meaning ‘body politic’ and ‘work for public good.’ “So liturgy is not the work of the people”—as is traditionally said—“but work for the common good,” said Tucker.

In the face of the severe flooding, the church in which Tucker ministered took stock of what they had and began to reach out to their neighbours. Members of the congregation  put out signs advertising cell phone charging, internet access, power, hot coffee, running water, help for those emptying out their flooded homes. “That’s what people needed,” said Tucker. “Really practical stuff.”

For the first week, the church served a hot dinner every day in the parish hall. They offered prayer, small groups, and the Eucharist. A chiropractor and massage therapist set up stations at the church so that those who had been lugging waterlogged drywall could get some pain relief. A grade six graduation that had been cancelled when the school flooded took place in the church. Eventually, when people were ready, the church hosted healing circles.

“There was a real sense of community coming together,” said Tucker. The experience also taught Tucker the importance of recognizing one’s own place in relation to disaster. Response, she said, must be dictated by context and proximity. Christ Church was in the thick of things: the muster point for emergency responders was right across the street. Another church nearby, though it had the resources to help, was too far away to share power with emergency services. “To be effective in this situation required it to be your disaster,” said Tucker. “Which is hard, because you’re affected.”

For those who are not directly affected, she says, the best thing to do is ask what help is needed and avoid “disaster tourism.”

“Stop phoning me and saying, ‘We’d like to bring brownies!’” she said with a laugh. “We’ve got enough brownies!”

How, then, should we pray?

Though the church was under an evacuation notice and services were cancelled during the flood, Tucker said around 60 people still came to worship. The liturgy is particularly equipped to offer what people need in a disaster, Tucker told workshop attendees: gathering, stories, prayer and song.

“In the immediacy of disaster…people need to be with each other, to know they’re not alone.”

People also need stories, she says, to help make sense of their situation. In the case of the flood, “we read about Noah. But we didn’t put the happy ending on it. Nobody was feeling happy yet,” said Tucker. “In my opinion, there’s nothing more manipulative than to rush people past the purple to the white in our liturgy.”

Tucker says she had to think through how to pray in such a situation. “How do you pray in the midst of a flood? People have lost everything. Their wedding dresses are on the front lawn. People would say, ‘You know, it’s just stuff.’ And other people would say, ‘You know, the stuff that’s in your basement is the stuff you couldn’t bear to part with just yet.’ It’s not really just stuff, is it?”

They ended up praying through the crossing of the Red Sea. “That’s an amazing story. The water, it looks like certain death, but somehow you come through it. And my God, it’s a wilderness on the other side—you’ve got to say that too. But you’re alive. You’re alive, you’re liberated, [and] you’re going to be okay.”

While music can be healing in a time of pain, deciding which songs to use in light of disaster can be difficult, Tucker pointed out.

“Where I really had trouble with the hymnody of the church was with the murder of the two children,” she said.

In 2017, two young girls, aged 6 and 4, were found dead on Christmas Day in their father’s apartment in Oak Bay, B.C. Their father was charged with second-degree murder in their deaths.

The eldest sister had attended Christ Church Cathedral School, and Tucker was charged with presiding at the funeral. Most funeral hymns, she says, did not address the prominent emotions at a service for two girls who had died violently.

“‘Goodness and mercy all my life will surely follow me’—you cannot ask some people to sing that when two little girls have just been murdered…I don’t want to engage in liturgical lying. I want to be careful about what words I put in other people’s mouths,” she said.

She chose ‘From the falter of breath’ and ‘All divine, all love’s excelling,’ songs that offer God’s comfort without erasing pain.

For Tucker, it was important to acknowledge the “complexity of sin and the rawness of grief” that were felt, to allow space for lamentation rather than platitudes.

However, she said, she was comforted by the power of the liturgy beyond simply the words spoken and sung.

“We place far too much confidence in the power of words,” notes Tucker. “Yes, I get it: ‘the word became flesh.’ But the word became flesh. Liturgy is song. It’s prayer. It’s silence. It’s not just words.”

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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