On Sunday, with English-speaking Protestant churches in short supply in The Eternal City, I took advantage of streaming audio but also decided to observe the 10:00 Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. When in Rome do as some of the Romans do (I say some because the Saturday before Pentecost Sunday, Romans turned out loudly and brightly for a gay pride parade). While observing the proceedings, which included a Cardinal and about 25 assistants with the liturgy (how do they pay them all?), a choir that sang better than the liturgical music I’ve heard in U.S. Roman Catholic parishes but that did not hold a candle to the evensong performances in Christ’s Church Cathedral (Dublin) or St. Mary’s Cathedral (Edinburgh), and a surfeit of images (statues, paintings, tile work in the ceiling, I couldn’t help but think that U.S. Roman Catholics who worship in Rome must feel a tad underwhelmed when they return to their home parish. Rome simply has more stuff than Lansing, Michigan. In fact, place seems to matter for Roman Catholicism in ways that rival Judaism and Islam — certain locales are holy and function as the spiritual capital for the faith.
In comparison, I can return to the States (in a week or so) after worshiping with Presbyterians in Dublin and Edinburgh and not think twice about missing the liturgical bling — and I can say that even while admitting Presbyterianism’s debt to the Scots, and to the charms of what might qualify as Presbyterianism’s capital city — Edinburgh. For Presbyterians, worship doesn’t depend on the tie between the minister and another church official, nor does it include relics or objects that point to holy persons who inhabited that space. The services in Dublin and Edinburgh were not any more special or meaningful because they were closer to Presbyterianism’s original space.
That would seem to confirm Jesus’ point to the Samaritan woman at the well that Christian worship depends not on place or space but on word and Spirit. Sure, that’s a root-for-the-home-team point. But it does account for the lack of liturgical envy among New World Presbyterians. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Spirit and the word are just as much a part of worship as in the Presbyterian heartland.