For the Love of the Liturgy

Some people just know what they want to be when they grow up. Michael McCain, T’16, has wanted to be a priest for as long as he can remember. He was one of those rare kids who loved going to church. He could sit still, soak in the sermon, and recite the prayers by heart.

When speaking with McCain about his life in The Episcopal Church, his soft tone is the kind that whispers an invitation to conversation. He loves being a parish priest. He loves getting to interact with people on a day-to-day basis within the context of the Church and then taking all the theory and theology that he learned in seminary and putting it into practice. He is slightly awestruck that he likes it so much, as his journey began so differently.  

Wanting to be a priest and becoming a priest were two different things, as McCain soon learned. He started his journey on an academic path in pursuit of a master of arts degree. Enrolling in the School of Theology’s M.A. program seemed a safe way to study his love of liturgy. “I wanted to bury myself in books, study, and perhaps advance to earn a doctorate.”  

Seminary life, however, has this mysterious way of steering people on a different course and it was not long before McCain realized books and theory were just arrows on a compass. “I have this tendency to recognize a passion about something, make all these great life plans, and then realize that I was completely wrong.” McCain reflects that while the prayer book and the theology behind it helped to form his academic life, it was actually the ritual of daily prayer—morning, noon, and night—that began to shape him spiritually. Not all of McCain’s classmates stayed the course. The possibility that once in seminary you could be called to something else was an illumination and invitation for him to look deeper into the liturgy of life as a priest, not just as an academic. McCain began to see the invisible clues of God’s persistent calling; and with a seminary full of bishops and priests turned academics, he took the guidance they offered and changed his studies to the Master of Divinity program.  

After graduation, he accepted a position as a curate at St. Marks in Little Rock, Arkansas. McCain began to appreciate his call to parish life and now he believes it is at the core of his ministry. “The laity is where the Church is operating; it’s the front lines. Clergy are here to assist in spiritually feeding them and be their pastor and their priest,” states McCain. At 28 years old, McCain has quickly transitioned from curate to assistant rector, which has added some volume to his soft tone. He has discovered that he enjoys teaching and applying the theory of theology to parishioners’ everyday life. It is a hands and feet kind of way to be the church in the world.

This past summer, McCain returned to Sewanee to serve as the director for the fifth annual SUMMA Student Theological Debate Camp. Forty-nine high school students spent 10 days on the Mountain learning the art of civil discourse and theological debate. The debates follow the Lincoln-Douglas format in which campers debate one-on-one. "Many arguments were well-crafted, and it was often difficult to choose a winner," explained McCain, who also served as one of the tournament judges. “A lot of times, the decision was made at the margin,” he said, noting that humor and creativity, along with strong use of Scriptural references, were often determining factors."

Lately McCain has focused on the spirituality of the Gospel of John and Ignatius. “Today’s society views God as being limited to certain things,” relays McCain. But he is quick to add that because of his study and experience, God is revealed in all things. This understanding can help shape Christians’ view of the world as sacramental. “There are moments in the liturgy where everything is clicking, and I get caught up in that moment,” shares McCain. “But there are many moments where you are participating in the in-bringing of the Kingdom and it is in these moments the world is transfigured for you.”

Even politics and race relations can be transfigured. McCain has found that the church is a vessel in which prayer, worship, and sharing the feast enables parishioners to live in community. This is one reason McCain believes the liturgy to be so vitally important to the life of a parish. “If it is well done, we can disagree with each other and still share in the Eucharist. We become the Body of Christ and see Christ in the other. Even if we have differences on worldly things, what matters is our commonality.”  

Speaking of feasts and preparing them well, you want to get invited to the Rev. Michael McCain’s house for supper as he is as passionate about food as he is about litugy. “I love to cook and the act of sharing a meal with family and friends is a kind of direct, first-person theology. You, your guests, and God are no longer mediated by text or thought or logic.”

McCain loves the liturgy of The Episcopal church and he loves being a parish priest. He is continuing in the tradition in which he was raised—praying, worshiping, and sharing in the Eucharistic feast. It is a tradition that is built to last, and Michael McCain invites you on board.