By Kathryn Sparks, Adjunct Faculty of Liturgical Dance, Wesley Theological Seminary.
July 20, 2017—Praying through bodily movement is an ancient form of communication with God and is practiced by people of every faith expression in the world. Indeed, prayer offered through bodily movement or embodied prayer nurtures deep listening and locates relationship with God in the physical realm, the realm of the present moment. It can take the form of one or more postures, gestures, or movement of the entire body to rhythm, music or scripture. Embodied prayer is God breathing in us.
When embodied prayer is encountered in the context of corporate worship, it can also be called liturgical movement or liturgical dance. Liturgical movement is easily found within our worship life. We stand, sit or kneel. We are baptized and receive communion. We might experience the laying on of hands in special services for healing. Pedestrian movement is everywhere in worship, with sitting as perhaps most dominant in American mainline churches.
What if we were to shake it up a bit and add texture to our worship by way of other liturgical movement? This could take the form of congregational movement (corporate embodied prayer) or a group of dancers who present an interpretation of scripture or music in a way never done before. All these forms of embodied prayer bridge the visible and invisible world of the Spirit and are ways to literally move the harmony which Christ’s presence makes in us. What follows is an example of corporate embodied prayer, offered by the congregation of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, and a highlight of the creative process for liturgical dance in worship at Montreat Conference Center.
Offering ourselves to God in worship as a community can take on an additional layer of meaning when we involve our entire body in our prayer and praise. This Sunday and for several more upcoming Sundays we will practice ‘Take, O Take Me’ following the exchange of peace as a way to deepen our connection with God – through our physicality.
This brief statement made its way into our bulletin at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC in January of this year. Liturgical dance and movement have become normative in our worship life as a congregation, with groups forming for the past three winters to delve deeply into a passage of scripture, move that scripture using the tools of creative dance and eventually present it as an offering in worship. Prior to leading these pop up groups, there were several years when I danced solo in worship and, later, was joined by two trained dancers in the congregation.
The now ten-year history of liturgical dance at New York Avenue, along with education about its meaning and purpose, set the stage one year ago for the introduction of regular embodied prayer in worship. When I met with the pastors last summer, they enthusiastically supported liturgical movement for the entire congregation to do as an expression of our devotion to God. So, during the 2016-2017 school year, we practiced Seek Ye First, Take, O Take Me and Breathe on Me, Breath of God, spending 6-8 weeks on each one. All of these songs are chant-like, easily remembered. We introduced each one during the children’s sermon and used that time to teach and involve the entire congregation; then the prayer was led from the chancel on following Sundays. Take, O Take Me as I Am was composed by John Bell and can be found in the new Presbyterian hymnbook, Glory to God. Try the movements yourself:
Take, O take me as I am;
Arms gesture out from body, waist height, with palms turned up.
summon out what I shall be;
Arms scoop on “summon” – reach out and then come toward body. On “what I shall be” arms turn with elbows pointing out to sides and stack one on top of the other (space between arms), like making a staircase in mid-air. On “shall be” elbows drop and palms face each other.
set your seal upon my heart
Hands come to heart.
and live in me.
Hands float out from heart with a breath and then come back to heart.
What do you notice as you move to these words? Do they become a more vivid prayer? I am interested in questions of body-spirit integration, especially in the contexts of prayer and worship, and I believe that movement can deepen prayer.
The process of designing liturgical movement and/or dance for worship is strengthened by the full support of the pastor(s), choir director and entire worship team or committee. I am blessed to be part of a team of faculty and students who meet each week to plan worship for chapel services at Wesley Theological Seminary. And, for one week in June for the last three summers, I have had the opportunity to be part of the worship planning team at Montreat Conference Center. Liturgical Dance (encompassing all forms of bodily prayer) is at home in these places and spaces and has become integral to worship.
As I write, I am newly returned from Montreat, where Debra Weir, Genevieve Apelian and I created dance for a Sunday service that centered on Matthew 10:16, 32-39. The job of the liturgical dancer is not so different from the job of the preacher. The responsible liturgical dancer does an in-depth reading of the scripture, prays over it and even checks commentaries. S/he consults with the pastor (if possible), music director and artists who may be involved. At its best, the process is an affirmation of the creative life that flows through us all, pointing us to the One we adore. The Wesley and Montreat worship teams reflect a creative process that is alive and nourishing for each participant.
Our body is a unique gift available to us for deepening connection with God. When it is called forth in the form of embodied prayer as liturgical movement or dance in worship, and in the creative process leading to worship, it truly is a powerful reminder that God came to us as one of us and continues to meet us where we are. Thanks be to God!
 Gagne, Ronald, Kane, Thomas and VerEecke, Robert, Introducing Dance in Christian Worship, revised edition (Portland, OR: Pastoral Press, 1999), 95.
 Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 698. Choreography by Kathryn Sparks, 2008.
Photo is by Jeehye Kim
Kathryn Sparks is a Minister of Dance based in Washington, DC. She has danced and taught extensively in churches for the last twenty years, serving as a resource for congregations interested in exploring faith through embodied prayer, creative movement and dance. Kathryn is an ordained elder and deacon in the PC (USA) and is a member of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church where she directs Gathered In, a ministry of dance. She also works as a massage therapist on the clinical team at Body Dynamics, Inc. For additional resources on embodied prayer and liturgical dance, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[web link for the Luce Center at Wesley Seminary www.luceartsandreligion.org]