Marcia McFee: Metamorphosis Moment: Ritual Artistry and the Work of the People
For many reasons, places and ways of worship change throughout time. The artifacts communities leave behind––stone henges, burial passage tombs, baptistry ruins, roofless and glassless medieval church edifices, abandoned chapels retrofitted for B&B’s, and, more recently, church property broken and shared as a sacrament of affordable housing––testify to the impermanence of what we try desperately to believe is timeless. The human need to find meaning and mark sacred place and time, however, is indelible. And we will keep doing this as long as we are humans, for this is as much who we became as the development of our upright posture.
I believe that we are at a moment of change that I call a “metamorphosis moment.” The exact stage of metamorphosis is not clear, but we are metaphorically hanging upside-down like a caterpillar doing what it might not understand but knows it must do. As beings who would rather be upright with firm ground beneath our feet, we are uncomfortable in this state. This experience of liminality comes with a certain amount of pain as we release our illusions of permanence. We can see this moment as the iconic symbol of death and resurrection that butterfly metaphors tend toward, but we can also marvel at the proof that life is simply progressing especially because we are living this great change.
While change is ongoing, phenomenal moments in the timelines of history exacerbate and accelerate change. The extended pandemic lockdown provided sufficient impetus for one of these pupal moments for our liturgical practices. But as quickly as necessity precipitated new rhythms and modes of communication, the residual metamorphic effects take time and the next fifty years will be full of the “goo stage” for us. This stage is when structures and organs that kept the caterpillar operating are broken down in order to reconfigure for new functions. So, what do we do in the goo? A caterpillar contains “imaginal discs” comprising the DNA for its new butterfly structures and organs in cells that multiply during the pupal stage when fed and nurtured by its disintegrating body. Here are some imaginal discs––possibilities––that I'd like to offer during this moment in history when we feel anxious about that which seems to be disintegrating.
At one of my recent retreats for liturgical leaders, someone proclaimed that more than half of her parishioners were “lazy,” because they had not come back to regular Sunday morning worship. This comment became an opportunity to explore our own biases and expectations about worship practices, rhythms, and forms. Pre-pandemic, “regular” church-going attendance was already reduced by one-third since 1993. The multitude of choices for spending our time and filling our spirits has drastically increased since the time when going to church on Sunday met significant social and communal needs as well as spiritual ones. When we let go of expectations based on the past, we release resentments born of these expectations and embrace the curiosity and creativity we need in this moment.
As we consider more flexible visions for gathering, we trust that sacred spaces need not necessarily be fixed in form or location. The configuration of the sanctuary spaces of our churches can shift to reflect and embrace the reality of smaller groupings. Changing the configuration of seating from being spread out across mostly empty pews to a more intimate gathering can offer the communal sense for which those who come physically to the space often yearn. More consolidated and flexible seating in a worship space also makes way for the possibilities of liturgical/missional use, such as the packing of backpacks for hungry children as a “response to the Word” or extended “communion” practice and room for labyrinths and prayer stations that incorporate active and embodied prayer practices when desired.
As we consider what we are doing in our sanctuary spaces to include those who participate remotely, we could highlight, rather than hide, the existence of cameras. These instruments of technology are representations and conduits of the total community that is made up not only of those present, but those who are in the sacred sanctuary spaces of their homes, either simultaneously or in the future. Integrating the experience of in-person worshipers with those participating online begins to blur the lines between “us and them.” Creating visual installations “in the moment that are translatable through common color choices and meaningful symbols made of objects that can be found in our homes can offer participants both in the church and at home a sense of an extended “sanctuary” and a more active sense of belonging.
Shifting the mindset from “what can we do about this predicament” to “what will we do with this possibility?” opens us up to so many opportunities for growth. My friend Jason Moore, author of “Both/And: Maximizing Hybrid Worship Experiences for In-Person and Online Engagement” describes the apostle Paul as a “both/and” communicator, spending time physically with communities where he traveled but also proliferating the good news by circulating letters through the early Christian communities. We would not judge those who never met Paul but only heard him through his letters, nor would we think any less of the scattered “diaspora” of the Body of Christ in any time period. Why would we judge our new modes of communication that make it possible to spread the liberating Word to so many who are able now to access worship from anywhere they are in our increasingly mobile and transitory lives?
I believe what is emerging and unfolding has potential for spectacular beauty. As we create greater empowerment of all people for ritualizing, we invite them to engage liturgy––whether via live-streamed, recorded, audio, written, or casually encountered––as the starting point for a rich experience of meaning-making that dances with a faith narrative. We truly train “liturgists” who are guided by the liturgical fodder we create and which is then fulfilled in the work of the people themselves––wherever they are, whomever they are with, whenever the need arises.
The elemental building blocks for ritualizing are the same no matter the form they take from generation to generation. Liturgy will resemble many things when we emerge from the goo. If we embrace this time as an experimental opportunity and trust in the human instinct for ritualizing, the pupal disintegration of this moment will support imaginal discs that thrive and multiply, form new and beautiful expressions, break through the chrysalis that birthed them, unfurl, and stretch, then fly.
Marcia McFee, the Ford Fellow at San Francisco Theological Seminary, a ritual artist, author, and travel-retreat leader through the Worship Design Studio she created, is the author of ‘Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages.’
See the full article as it appears in the journal Liturgy HERE. Get the full journal HERE.
Marcia McFee (2023) Metamorphosis Moment: Ritual Artistry and the Work of the People, Liturgy, 38:1,40-45, DOI: 10.1080/0458063X.2022.2154517
Looking for worship resources to help your congregation engage with a journey of transformation? Check out my fully-scripted worship series, “Emerge”. This series contemplates the butterfly as a potent natural metaphor for transformation and helps us explore metamorphosis in our own lives and faith journeys. Perfect for starting on Easter Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, or anytime. worshipdesignstudio.com/emerge