September 14, 2023

Offertory Revisited

Representatives of the congregation bring the people's offerings of bread and wine, and money or other gifts, to the deacon or celebrant. The people stand while the offerings are presented and placed on the Altar.
Book of Common Prayer p. 361

It’s called the Offertory.

When I was a child, my mother would hand me a quarter to drop in the plate that was passed along the pew, adults would add greenbacks, or maybe a check. We don’t see (or hear) that much anymore. Especially since Covid. Now a lot of folks pay their pledges online. Or in some churches, they use a QR code printed in the bulletin to make an offering. Other churches have a place to put checks on a Sunday morning, but don’t process them forward. Still, the Offertory often includes an anthem sung by a choir. In many churches, there is a hymn sung by the congregation in addition or instead. And in some, The Doxology still rings out.

All of this represents threads of the church’s traditions. According to Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Christian Eucharistic worship has long included an offertory with procession of alms, bread, and wine. Though how the alms were collected and who did the processing and what was sung by whom has varied from century to century.

Here in the 21st century, the Offertory has largely become a time for the clergy to prepare the altar and for the congregation to sit back and listen to the choir. I wonder if this might be a century for revisiting the Offertory once again.

At its best, the Offertory presents an opportunity for the congregation to participate more fully in the liturgy, to be formed in their stewardship, reminded that all that they are and all that they have is a gift from God, reminded, too, that they are a part of the Body of Christ, and they are about to experience that identity more fully in the Eucharistic liturgy that follows.

The “offertory sentence” is an optional line of scripture pronounced by the Celebrant, used to invite the people to get ready for the Eucharist. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer provides several options, taken from Scripture, such as:

Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; bring offerings and come into his courts. Psalm 96:8

I appeal to you brethren, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1

These sentences, if used at all, are declared by the Celebrant, usually at the end of announcements and before a song, hymn, or anthem is sung. These offertory sentences could be preceded by a sentence or two reminding the congregation that the offertory is, importantly, a time for offering our gifts to God. If there is a choir, the choir is offering an anthem to God on our behalf. But that’s not all. It is a time in which we also offer ourselves to God, as well as any gifts we may want to share with others from the abundance we have received. Sentences added carefully, yes, repeating the same words Sunday by Sunday, so they become internalized.

What if the “representatives of the congregation” who bring gifts forward were the whole congregation? What if, instead of sitting and passing a plate, the people came forward with their offerings? Or if a church is collecting pledges, people came forward with those? What if, in addition to money, checks or pledges, the people brought food for the hungry or even food for the fellowship meal that follows the liturgy (though that could be logistically challenging)? What if people simply came forward and offered themselves to God week by week? It may not be possible in a congregation of hundreds, but with fewer than 150, it certainly is.

It is an introduction to a stewardship of self and of resources. And it also gets people moving, putting their bodies into worship. Certainly, some will be self-conscious, nodding sideways as they pass by the altar, others may live into a deep piety, stopping to take a deep and solemn, bend-at-the waist, kind of bow. People with mobility challenges will likely take longer and need assistance, kids will be glad for a chance to move. Behold, the Body of Christ!

It takes time. Maybe a bit more than a four-verse hymn or choir anthem. Still, it is time well spent, time well given, this time that is used to teach and to form the people of God to become and to be the people of God.

Bring the offerings of your lives and come into God’s courts!