Canoeing for Creation

Philadelphia: Wednesday, 23 July 1997


One of the best things about General Conventions in our Church (PECUSA) is the opportunity to participate in unusual types and forms of liturgy. Many of these liturgical opportunities, due to the special nature of being the Church transplanted for a time, are experimental in nature. Or, rather, they seem to be experimental until you get through one and feel the deep connection between the old and new.

I was pleased to be included on July 20 in the liturgy named "Canoeing for Creation", perhaps a title that makes you smile. It was an environmentally-focused Eucharist service held in the early morning on the banks of the Schuylkill River, not far from the steps of the Arts Museum.

More than 150 people gathered early, bringing canoes they had brought with them from their homes, carrying them to the river at 7:30 a.m., and paddling in honor of the Native-American principle of living lightly upon the Earth. Ducks, geese, and Episcopalians in boats moved silently and gracefully over the glassy surface of the river. Two busloads of Convention delegates arrived at around 8:30 a.m., released from the buzz of the Convention Center, and began blinking like emergent moles as they saw the sun for the first time in days.

This outdoor service was sponsored by the Episcopal Environmental Coalition steering committee. Canoers in light-blue "Canoeing for Creation" T-shirts glided back to shore, and joined us on the banks of the river for a Eucharist honoring the beauty of God's Creation. The Table, our temporary altar, was an upside-down canoe balanced firmly atop wooden supports. We gathered in a circle. Ana Hernandez and I, in our role as the musical group The Miserable Offenders, began the worship with the accappella singing of "Shall We Gather At the River". Everyone sang along and swayed back and forth.

We had planned to bring our synthesizer keyboard along, but a thoughtful message which said, in its entirety: "Sorry--No Electricity At River!" arrived in time to spare us the heavy lifting. So we brought drums, shakers, and mouth-flutes, and even a Sruti box (pronounced "shrooti"), a drone-bellows instrument from India similar to a portatif organ.

Native American singers, including the newly-elected Bishop of Alaska, from several tribes sang psalms in Ojibwe and other Native American languages. Incense burned from clay pots. It was cathedral non-choking blend melded with sage, buffalo grass, sweet grass, and a tiny bit of traditional tobacco. We gathered in a circle standing near to excited ducks and geese, who seemed never to have seen such a gathering before. Episcopal tribal Native-Americans addressed the four directions--North, East, South, West hallowing the time and space for our shared worship.

This traditional worship in untraditional situ commenced under the softly dancing trees, reminding many of us that trees can indeed "clap their hands" [Isaiah 55:12]. The lessons were read and the canticles sung. We joined in the chant of St. Francis, praising Brother Sun and Sister Moon, gifts of God's Creation. The liturgy reflected thanksgiving and reverence for breath, wind, water; the deep relationships amongst all life upon our Earth.

Our preacher was Bishop Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, who was arrayed in full bishoply raiment: rochet and chimere. He drew the circle closer, so that all could hear, and as he said, so he could speak to every eye, each and every face of God's people there gathered.

Bp. Charleston is always mentioned when Episcopalians speak of excellent preachers. A charismatic preacher whose words are full of fire and music, and the blessed certainty of the Word, +Charleston called upon all of us, one by one, to claim our power as Christian witnesses to fight against the evil done to the natural world in the name of progress, or through the sins of greed. He exhorted us to speak out against the ruination of our lands and waters continually, even if and when we doubt our power or individual efficacy in effecting change in those policies that wound the earth. We are but stewards of this Creation, he reminded us.

After the sermon, the Rev. Pattie Handloss, the liturgist-planner for this service (along with the Rev. Stephen McAusland) welcomed us again. Then we renewed our Baptismal Covenant, confessed our sins and passed the Peace of Christ. Bishop Charleston combined the waters of many rivers (which had made the journey to our gathering place in Evian bottles carried across our country) in a large bowl, and then asperged us with flying droplets of water he threw from his aspergillum, a pine branch dipped in the bowl. And we all got wet, some of us very wet indeed. Bp. Charleston is not shy of his Christianity. Charleston spoke of our being like these droplets of water that when united form a mighty and unstoppable living stream, capable of miracle.

The familiar words of the Eucharist brought deep peace to us all. Then we sang dispersed. The remaining crumbs of our Lord's consecrated Body were thrown to the swimming birds (mostly happy geese) by the priests--and for one shining blessed moment, which will now live forever in our hearts and minds, the Creation and the Created were one.

It was all extremely Anglican, my dear friends.... And then we went back "by another way" rejoicing, back to our work as the Church in deliberation and in prayerful amity.


Copyright © 1997 Deborah Griffin Bly.
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