Just sit right back and you’ll read a tale, a tale of a very long worship service.
Katie and I met Rev. Dr. Joe Lüdemann, a pastor in the Durban Central parish of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa, a few weeks ago. After nearly two hours of conversation about various church things, he invited us to the Durban circuit’s joint worship service this past Sunday. The Durban circuit is made up of thirteen parishes, each of which has multiple congregations in it. For example, the Durban Central parish has seven separate congregations, served by three active pastors and a retired pastor.
This past Sunday morning we traveled down to City Hall, in Durban, for the joint service. Joe encouraged us to arrive at 8:50, as the service was to start promptly at 9. We arrived at 8:45, went through a metal detector, briefly said hello to Joe, and took our seat. Worship started almost immediately after we sat down – around 8:50.
A procession began at the back at this time, led by a young person carrying a crucifix, another with a thurible (it carries incense) other young people behind, and then a group of twenty-odd pastors. They processed in, bowed in front of the altar, stood in the smoke of the thurible, and took their seats. A processional song was sung at the same time by the whole congregation.
The seating was half full at the time of the procession. After another half hour or forty-five minutes, every seat was taken. The majority of the service was in Zulu. The sermon, some songs, and a few other pieces of the service were in English. At a few random times, people would break out into song, then the whole congregation would join – even when someone up front was speaking.
After the procession, the opening prayer, welcoming each other to worship, the Dean stood up and began an official welcome. During this time there were people milling around with bulletins for R5 each (about 45 cents). I passed some money along to the aisle and received a bulletin in return – which I think greatly helped our understanding of what was going on.
Confession and Forgiveness followed, then a sermon and the Nicene Creed. Then there was a fundraising talk/sermon, and an offering prayer though no offering plate/bag was passed. Pastor Joe sent a Zulu hymnal to us partway through all this. Not that we understand Zulu – but we at least have heard enough of it to know how it is pronounced. This was apparently a BYOH – Bring Your Own Hymnal – affair.
I should mention that the picture at the end of this post shows a little of the service. Lutherans in South Africa, at least at public/official gatherings, wear colors specific to Lutherans – black and white. Other denominations wear other colors. So the Lutheran women where white hats and black dresses with white lapels/collar. The men where black suits and white shirts.
After this there was a break from the official order of service in the bulletin. Each of the thirteen parishes in turn gathered at the back of the church. Each had a special worship song picked out, and as they danced down the center aisle, they and the rest of the people present sang with them. After the parishes, it was time for the “leagues” (women’s prayer league, men’s prayer league, youth, and others). They danced, and they sang, mostly in Zulu. And they danced, and sang, proud of their parishes, worshiping God. For two hours the processions continued. For two hours the singing remained strong and the dancing was full of joy. Only near the very end did the fervor subside somewhat.
After this they talked about each parishes money – I will admit I don’t know exactly what they were talking about regarding these. I do know it was money and parishes, because although they were speaking Zulu, most of the parish names are in English, and Zulus use English numbers. Zulu numbers apparently are a mouthful, so the great majority just use English numbers. So every once in a while I would here “2000 Rand” and would know that we were still talking about money.
After this came Communion. Parts were in English, parts in Zulu. After the Words of Institution (“In the night in which he was betrayed…”) the young people kneeling by the altar rang bells. They had eight communion stations around the outside of the room, where we received a wafer and then drank out of the cup.
During this we sang many, many songs. Afterward, there were multiple more speeches in Zulu, a hymn, and a recession. But before the recession finished, many people were already leaving.
It was a long, long service – the longest I’ve ever been to, I think. Six hours.
But more than the longest service, the thing that struck me the most was the mix of high- and low-church elements. (For those who might not know, “high-church” is roughly characterized by certain things such as, but not limited to, wearing robes and stoles, incense, bowing in front of the altar, processing the cross in and out. “Low-church” is roughly characterized by the absence of many of these things, a more free-flowing worship service/less structure, and spontaneous singing. These are not full descriptions. Another way to think about it is that Catholic services are more high-church and non-denominational churches are generally low-church.) I haven’t seen a service like that before, where there is random congregational singing, dancing in the aisles, as well as incense and vestments and bowing.
It was odd, which made me think. This kind of worship is very real for this group of people. They are reverent and acknowledging of traditions and the past – but they felt moved to dance and sing and shout and interrupt the flow of worship so they could sing to their God. It was church that was alive, yet grounded. It may not be able to be recreated in other places with authenticity – but it inspired me in that moment. It showed me that the church has a vibrant future – and that future is grounded in its past.
Finally, partway through the service (I can’t recall if it was two, three, or four hours in, honestly), the power went out. It was only for a minute or two, I think, and then it came back on. But we then had a brownout/flickering lights and momentary blackouts the rest of the service. “Load sharing” is the phrase they are using around here. A silo at a coal plant collapsed a few weeks ago, so there isn’t enough electricity being generated for everyone who wants to use it. So, we are on rolling blackouts (we had one in Gillitts tonight) for the foreseeable future.
There’s the tale of the very long worship service! Now, time for bed before going to church in the morning!