On worship, liturgy & evensong

Introduction

As promised earlier, here’s a collection of thoughts in relation to christian worship. There are a few sources for this, which I will endeavour to incorporate into this post. It began last week with a sermon at church, a copy of which is here. As is the practice in my church, the housegroup the next week looks at the same subject, but in a much more informal environment. So I will be including some of the discussion we had there into this post, as well as some discussions I had with a few Anglicans regarding evensong (which I kept incorrectly referring to as “evening song”) and my experience of attending one as part of a flashmob outside St Paul’s cathedral, at the OccupyLSX camp.

Unless otherwise stated, assume all opinions are my own. I have attempted to be as fair and representative as possible, though I doubt I have been successful in all of this. This is, for the most part, an exploration of my own thoughts and feelings on subject matter, guided by the discussions mentioned above. Any mistakes that remain are purely my fault. Please feel free to join the discussion via comments or by any response, which I will be happy to either include as a guest post, or link to if hosted elsewhere.

This has ended up quite long, though I have chosen not to break it into several posts. Instead, I have simply included headed sections to ease your navigation and break it up a little bit, if one part interests you more than any other. My hope is that you will find each section interesting enough to motivate you to read the rest.

What is worship?

Before we can look at expressions of christian worship in particular, we need to consider the general notion of worship.

One of things mentioned in the sermon is the proposition that everyone is “programmed” for worship. It might be articulated as “designed” or as an “inherent tendency.” I don’t want to worry about the semantics here; I do enough of that most of the time anyway. So when I talk about “worship” I do not always have in mind any kind of religious ceremony. Instead, I mean the prioritising of ‘something’ in your life so that the majority of your spare time & energy is devoted to the pursuit of this goal.

One thing I asked the housegroup was “What’s the first thing you do when you get home; and what does that say about you?” My idea behind this is that while we can try and bring little acts of worship into our working day, your real priorities are betrayed by what you do as soon as you get a free choice. I’m sure a case could be made to say that I worship work, given that in any given day I spend more time there than I do anywhere else. In between work and home I have my commuting which I tend to fill with reading (or occasionally a Sudoku puzzle or sleeping, depending on what sort of day I’ve had). But when I get home it’s “me time” and I have a completely free choice as to what I do. In the past, I’ve ended up watching far too much tv. I would come in, take my shoes off and put the tv on, where it would then stay on for a couple of hours until I go to bed.

I realised that this was getting in the way of my own personal time with God, whether it be reading the bible, doing any wider study and from prayer. So I took to a slightly unusual habit. When I left my house in the morning, I would put the tv remote control underneath my bible. That way, when I got home, in order to turn the tv on, I’d have to pick my bible up. This is simply a methodology I developed to deal with a self-discipline issue I had; I’m not saying everyone has that same issue, though it did seem to be common amongst those in my housegroup that the tv could be a major draw. For those that were married and/or had children, the first thing they would do would often be to talk to their families.

One way to identify what it is that you worship is to ask yourself how you view other people. If it’s money you worship, then you may see people as debtors, creditors, potential sources of future income or competitors. If it’s sex you worship, you can view people as potential partners or rivals. If it’s sports you worship, you will want to find out who else supports your team and who supports your rivals, or has no interest in your given sport(s).

Christian expressions of worship

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he answered “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22: 37, NRSV). Christian worship is the expression of this love. An analogy I like to use (the flaw in which will be obvious, but I hope you can see past it) is of illness. If a person has the kind of love that Jesus describes, then worship will be the symptom of that love. My own view is that there are strong parallels between this and the relation between faith and works, which is described in James. If you have faith, works inevitably follow. If you have love, worship will inevitably follow.

A point made in the sermon was that the start of worship has to be a correct understanding of God. Now this is always a lifelong process, I think. There has to be a distinction between worshipping God and worshipping our idea of God. Now I get told by various atheists quite often that I worship a magical sky fairy or a figment of my imagination. However, such views are rarely based on any level of sensible thinking, and a theology no more advanced than that rejected at Sunday school. I don’t profess to have a perfect understanding of God, but I would claim to have an understanding slightly better than such puerile jibes suggest. Personally, I am highly suspicious of anyone who would claim to have such an understanding, since one thing I am convinced of is that God is beyond human comprehension. There is a saying often applied to quantum mechanics which I think is applicable here: “If you think you’ve understood it, you haven’t.”

It is for this reason that I support the idea that all christians should be amateur theologians. This doesn’t mean we all have to talk in obscure multisyllabic words that no-one can comprehend; quite the opposite really. When I say this I mean that all christians should regularly study their bibles, challenge themselves and check what they believe against the available evidence.

So, having made our most honest attempt to understand God, and constantly revising that view as we learn and understand more, what next? Well, it’s pretty much up to you. How do you react to receiving grace and forgiveness?

On the notes provided to me for housegroup, there is a statement that, “Worship isn’t just singing songs on church it is also about our lifestyle and surrender to God. Every Godly action that comes from a surrendered heart to God is true, authentic worship.” At one point in a previous week I ended up observing a conversation I have had many times on the question of ‘is it really worship when you don’t really feel like it?’ When most christians talk about love, this is not a reference to a woolly emotion; it is a far more fundamental desire of the heart. Emotions are like the waves that kicked up by the wind that froth on the surface and are easily visible, but true love is the ocean current that is underneath, providing a far greater force, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

There’s a very famous phrase Jesus uses when talking to some of his followers in the garden of Gethsemane where he says “the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.” (Matt 26:41, Mark 14:38) As a side note, it’s interesting to note the Greek in Matthew & Mark for this phrase is identical, but in the KJV they have minor differences in the translation. Anyway, I think helps to illustrate what I have not been clear in expressing; that it is possible to worship when, on the surface, we are just too weak, either physically or emotionally, to express what our inmost being desires.

A reservation

I tried to articulate on facebook and twitter some reservations though I don’t think I worded it particularly well. When it comes to worship, a lot of very high churches make this synonymous with something known as liturgy. This is form of chanting where all the words are dictated in advance and where this is no free expression to worship from the heart. In talking to many Anglicans, they are completely perplexed by the idea of worshipping freely. I know this is disputed by some clergy friends, but their view is not backed up by the evidence I have from talking to members of the congregation. One friend I was talking too recently had been so ingrained with the idea of liturgies that he found it incomprehensible that someone could pray from the heart, making up the words as they naturally came to you. This left me wondering whether or not they were worshipping at all, or merely taking part in ritualistic religion; but it is not for me to judge.

If worship is a natural thing for a person to do, then the expression of that worship should also be natural. This may be taken to the extreme end, and Paul wrote to the church in Corinth pleading for orderly worship, as it seems the place was quite chaotic. But there is a difference between orderly worship and worship which is put in a straightjacket.

The expressions that worship take will probably be highly influenced by the society which we inhabit, along with its social norms. In the English society I inhabit, it is really very natural to sing. The X Factor is one of the most popular programmes on tv, and is mostly about singing. At a football or rugby match, the crowd will engage in singing en masse, so singing in churches shouldn’t really seem that unusual. But chanting doesn’t fit naturally into our society. The closest I could find was poetry-reading, but even then, it will only ever be one person. You don’t find poetry readings where hundreds of people adopt a monotone voice and speak in unison.

It is because of these shamanistic overtones and the dissuasion from free thinking that make me extremely uncomfortable with liturgy. Please note, this is not an objection to the words themselves; it is merely the form I have qualms about. Most that I have read are extremely truthful.

There is a second side to my reservations. I have long opposed the idea of regarding christianity as a religion. The best articulation of this comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote on the 30th of April 1944:

“…theology rests on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind…if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that this is already more or less the case…what does that mean for ‘Christianity’? …. how can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?”

Once we acknowledge that our society is increasingly secular, there are 2 choices christians can make. One is to become more religious, focussing on God as something disassociated from the world, or to become more secular by engaging with the relevant issues of the day that concern ordinary people. The former simply alienates the church from society, making it less and less relevant; the latter puts the church back in the public eye and allows the church to be relevant, giving it a voice with which it can then educate people about the gospel.

So anything which makes the church seem more religious or mystical, or other such objections to modernisation I view as an obstruction to the great commission.

A report from Flashmob Evensong

With those reservation noted, I was uncertain about a fairly impromptu evensong outside St Paul’s cathedral. The thinking behind it was that because, at the time, the building was shut but that this shouldn’t prevent the scheduled services from taking place.

I thought I’d have to make a decision by 6pm in order to get down to St Paul’s cathedral on time. I was talking to a couple of people of twitter about this, and one chap said he would equally uncomfortable and one chap from my church was also possibly going to go along late. The other thing that swung it was empathy for the organiser, who blogs and tweets under the name The Artsy Honker. Having organised many events where people have not turned up having said they would/might, I know how much of a kick in the teeth it is to spend time and effort organising something that turns into a damp squib. Since I hate the feeling myself, I decided to do what I could to avoid inflicting that on someone else.

The meeting place was given as “outside M&S” though when I looked on a store finder for M&S, the closest it had was London Bridge, another mile away, so I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go. St Paul’s is a pretty large building and takes a fair few minutes to walk around. I tweeted a couple of folks who were around and between us, we just about managed to meet up. I was stood immediately outside the door, and to identify myself said that I would hold a stick of celery in my hand such is my eccentric wont.

Still being decidedly uncomfortable, I tried to stay as near to the back as possible. Someone was going round giving out hymn sheets. Having grown up in a baptist church with a mixture of ancient hymns and 80s Graham Kendrick, I was able to know 3 of the 4 hymns that were to be sung. Standing in slightly the wrong place, The Artsy Honker thought I was part of the choir, and asked what I sung. I bit my tongue and resisted saying “loud and out of tune” and opted for “bass or baritone.” To be honest, my range varies depending on the song, as there are some ‘in-between’ notes that I just can’t hit. So when the hymns came along, I gave it my gusto, although trying to sing above the noise of the London traffic and general hubbub was certainly a challenge. When it came to the liturgy, I maintained a dignified silence and chose to listen and to offer my own prayers silently. It was interesting that at one point, there was a recitation of the Apostles Creed, which I have written about recently.

The reaction we got was quite encouraging. A few people approached once the singing had started and asked what was going on. So those of us at the back did our best to give a brief explanation. People came and went every few minutes, though I would estimate the core was about 25 or so people, though at times there may have been double that in attendance. I think I was the only person wearing a tie, and I’m sure I was outnumbered by those wearing dog-collars.

There were a couple of readings with one notably coming from the Apocrypha, which prompted one person to say something “[I dread to think what my dad would think if he knew we were reading from this.]” Given the very short notice, the guy who was asked to speak didn’t have time for a full length sermon, but just gave a 5 minute talk. The chap himself, I discovered, was the bishop of Buckingham. He was the opposite of your stereotypical milky tea & cucumber sandwich style vicar, although his beard was of the kind only found in high churches or some university departments.

Afterwards, a few of us went of the pub. To be precise the person who suggested it (whom I shall not name) may have wasted as much as a millisecond between the service ending and making the suggestion. We hung around for a little while first (mainly because I had to go and visit a cashpoint) but it was good to meet, if ever so briefly, a few of the folks I had only spoken to on twitter. I caught a couple of extra people there too.

One of the subjects that was discussed at the pub was the issue of “high” and “low” church. What I hadn’t realised was the extent of the difference in how various people view and define “high” and “low.” Growing up, there was something jokingly dubbed a happy-clappy scale.

An approximate scale of happy-clappyness would have a papal mass at 0 (high church), while a day at Revelation church (where you get greeted by drum n’ bass DJ in a giant old warehouse with no seats and a sound system to rival the Brixton Academy) would be 10 (low church). The church I grew up in was about a 4, although it had been a lot more charismatic when my parents joined; it just got old and conservative later on. My current church I would say is about a 7. There is the occasional dancing the aisle, the guitarists are sometimes allowed to finger-tap and there is the odd bit of clapping every now and then.

I would have put the evensong at 1 on this same scale. Yet one of the Anglicans I was talking to seemed to have a similar notion but the scaling was completely different. To them, there was a wide of liturgical-based worship, with those that use incense in a completely different class from those that don’t.

Such talk is all a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’m not suggesting that any one form is inherently superior to another; that’s not what I mean when I say have reservations. I’m sure plenty of people will have issues with some of the forms of worship that go in the more charismatic churches.

Closing word

This went on for a lot longer than intended, and there are thousands of posts more that could be said about worship. I hope if you’ve read this far you’ve found it interesting and at thought-provoking. I know my views on liturgy are not shared by all, but I hope you haven’t found it offensive, that was not my intention. Please do comment, and let me know of any response posts so I can post a link to them.

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4 responses to “On worship, liturgy & evensong

  1. There was a quote I was after but it meant transcribing from a video which took a while. It comes from Tom Wright and I think is quite apposite. "Take Jack here and Jill there. Jack has come from a traditional anglo-catholic family where he knows exactly how to swing incense and precisely what each bit of the liturgy means. Then he meets somebody in college who talks about praying as though you can actually chat to God in your own words. He just didn’t know you could do that. It completely blows him away; he’s so excited that he goes away and joins in with people doing it. It’s just amazing.Meanwhile Jill who has come from a charismatic church and has been raising her arms in the air and singing happy choruses since she was “this” high, is really completely freaked out by that stuff. And then one day drifts in and sits at the back for a traditional Anglican liturgy: a eucharist or something. She just senses the space and the power and the proportions and the deeper meaning of that. And I used to watch Jack and Jill (metaphorically) and I would say 'I hope they at least wave at each other as they go by.'”

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