Worship that Changes Lives

Above, you will find that I have blogged the first half of a talk on Advent Worship. I was then asked if I could let the initial audience have a copy of all of what I had said to them, so I have tidied up the second more general half as well. I post it here without much enthusiasm, but it does say a couple of things especially about variety and choice that I think are genuinely important.

 Principles and Practice of Worship

Worship without purpose

I confess to a sense of uneasiness at the prospect of regarding worship as something that has a purpose — even as desirable a purpose as to change lives, to draw outsiders into the Church or to deepen in faith those already baptised and engaged. I do see that worship, if performed over a sufficient length of time, will have the cumulative effect of forming its practitioners in new ways of thinking and living. But I also want to be clear that, beyond itself, worship is entirely purposeless: above all else, it is simply an outpouring of love for the God who first loved us. I take it that worship will always retain some of that simple gazing into each other’s eyes that characterises and befits lovers.

Fr Peter Allan CR wrote about this some years ago in a paper given to cathedral precentors. He talked of the weakness common to almost all Cathedral liturgies, namely that

‘they are designed to please; to meet diverse needs of a diverse congregation – and what we like to hear (and expect to hear) is that “it was a lovely occasion”.  However, liturgy proper is simply the structured way in which the risen and ever-present Christ enables us to renew the grace-full encounter with him – and particularly those who have become members of his body through baptism and who are thereby drawn into the life of the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

With this caveat in place, and in acknowledgement of the undeniable fact that many will encounter the gospel through worship casually encountered, it is right to try to identify now some hallmarks of wisdom as we wonder what kind of thing this worship might be.

Worship and the Community

A starting point would be to say is that there is no such thing as worship in general. There is only the worship of a particular community, revealing its own aspirations, concerns, hierarchies and neuroses. Each community must therefore exercise honesty and self-knowledge as it establishes and becomes accustomed to the manner in which it worships: if you’re actually a Radio 2 community, it won’t do to try to worship in a Radio 3 or 4 way, however much you think it might impress those new people in the smart houses whom you’d quite like to attract.

Each community also recognises that it grows out of a particular part of the Christian tradition: none of us begins with a blank sheet. We are therefore faced with choices as to where we place ourselves on the theological, cultural and aesthetic continuums that inspire and inform every act of worship. And we must decide how lightly we are going to sit to all of that: refusal to act in certain otherwise laudable ways simply because they would have alarmed our liturgical and theological forebears is three-quarters of the way to idolatry, so, whatever Grandma might have thought, we might sometimes just have to take a deep breath and get on with something.

Worship and Choice

For better or worse, our generation finds itself living and working at a time when the relationship with tradition is made harder to navigate by the overwhelming quantity and easy communication of liturgical text and praxis that are readily available to us. We have, in just half a century, moved from a BCP liturgy in which everything could be found within the covers of one book (with little visible difference between Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day), into a URL or web-address liturgy, in which we have abandoned the very idea that anything as limiting and quickly obsolete as a book is remotely serviceable in communicating the tradition.

This is obviously a good thing insofar as it allows communities to be refreshed when their prayer and worship have grown stale by an overreliance on a severely limited number and pattern of texts. But it can quickly become malign if the worshipping community begins to be dominated by the need for novelty that characterises much of our ordinary life. (The next time you’re in a supermarket, count the different varieties of jam.) Churches and their pastors will need to be quite disciplined about their reaction to all this choice and unashamed in their desire to know some things by heart.

Liturgy and Formation

This is where we might repeat the observation that worship is always the worship of a particular community. Leading worship is therefore never a merely musical or rhetorical or choreographic act: it is always pastoral, one expression of leading a community. Good shepherds know their sheep, and will have an open ear, week by week, listening out for signs that perhaps an injection of something new is needed, or accepting that what the community longs for is simply time to assimilate and inhabit the materials that have already been offered to them in perhaps a very short time. Just as dancing shoes are only any use to us when we don’t realise we have them on, so too our liturgical texts and habits only enable us to worship when they have become part of us. And while it is possible for sudden moments of startling clarity to be delivered in a brief encounter with an unfamiliar text (visual, verbal or musical), nonetheless, most formation is as it is in the gym: gradual, sometimes tedious, often unappealing but reliably cumulative.

Liturgy and Growth

We all see that there is an urgent need to grow the church. This is in part a need to draw people into a Christian vision of what it is to be human and to inhabit the earth. Humanity and our home are both in very serious trouble: we are increasingly sick (mental illness is a notable problem especially among young people) and profoundly anxious. There is also a more superficially trivial, but not unrelated need for the Established Church to care for the buildings that hallow our landscape and thus proclaim Christ — to say nothing of their function as places where so much community work is carried out. This work needs to be financed, as does the whole work of mission and ministry, all of which gives a sense of urgency to our financial condition, which in turn has repercussions on the worshipping life of a parish. As one hard-pressed lay minister once said to me, ‘If they don’t like my all-age worship they won’t come back. They’ll go and find one they do like, and we’ll have lost them for ever.’

Given these pressing realities, what are we to do? I do not suppose that any of us would be content to see worship become simply another form of money-making entertainment: and while we might be comfortable with the notion of people enjoying coming to church, we would probably be concerned if they experienced nothing other than enjoyment.

What we must avoid is enslavement to anxiety. We may interest ourselves in the liturgical provision and guidance that is abundantly available to us; we might even leave some room for the operation of the Holy Spirit who comes to us just as surely in silence as in wind and fire. But let us also trust the common life and work of our communities to play their part in drawing new disciples into the Body of Christ. People are unlikely to remain wedded to faith no matter how staggering our preaching or data projection might be, unless we are good to be with, and productively engaged in trying to make the world a better place.

Our Liturgy will need to be consistent with all of this, cut from the same cloth: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex agendi.  Participants in worship must feel and know that the extraordinary actions they are performing take them in some way to the very heart of goodness, beauty and truth, inviting them to an initial change of heart and to a subsequent programme of discipleship and formation. As Gabriel Hebert put it in his 1935 classic Liturgy and Society,

‘That the church should inspire a certain repulsion is intelligible enough. But she also exercises an attraction; … it is not least the sacred actions and words of Christian worship that make to very many a deep appeal, and inspire hope that amid the disintegration of modern life, this sacred symbolism [he is speaking particularly of the Eucharist] is an expression of reality, of the City whose builder and maker is God.’

Liturgy and Sacrifice

At the heart of the Gospel is the Lord’s contention that it is only by spending our lives in sacrifice, taking up our cross each day, that we can qualify for the ‘abundant life’ he comes to bring. Any coming to faith and growth in commitment will necessarily involve an acceptance of this central teaching, and a positive attraction to it. This may be initiated in a variety of ways, but its nourishment and fruition will involve regular participation in the worshipping life of the community. This worship will need to have its chief focus in an abandonment to the love of God, who draws us to God’s heart as deep calls to deep. It will also need to be culturally and aesthetically apt in order to draw people into its orbit. It will further need to nourish us all in our hunger, immersing us in the Scriptures and forming us in tradition, till Christ be formed in us.

Whatever else our worship is, then, it must be that gathering of the baptised with Word and Bread and Cup, in which God speaks to us of Exodus, healing and sacrifice; for without these, we can receive neither life nor love, and will have nothing to say when asked to give an account of the faith and hope we profess. And that, you’ll agree, would be a terribly awkward silence.

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