A few years ago the Church of England did some excellent research on how best to respond to couples who want to marry in church. As I say it`s very good stuff but over time I`ve had a sense that something is missing. I`ve finally noticed that inadvertently what we`ve majored on is the wedding planning; the customer service and all the rest. And although that`s really helpful the one thing I now realise that`s conspicuous by its absence is making it clear that the wedding ceremony is actually an act of Worship…….
Realising this has helped me understand why some conversations that I have with couples sometimes seem at cross-purposes. I can see now why they get a bit sniffy if I insist on a certain order for things or question the content and so on. Don`t misunderstand me I`ll do all I can to help a couple personalise their big day but I`m increasingly aware that what they- and indeed their family and friends -appear to want is actually a `ritual` rather than an act of worship.
I other words, they want to use certain words, signs, symbols and actions to mark this most significant day but without necessarily, I sense, the realisation that there is something more going on. You see, a wedding just like any other act of worship is an offering, an engagement, a moment of transformation which leads to a life to be lived in the praise, reverence and service of God; the one who has created, addressed and called us to be his own. But I`m not convinced that this is where may couples find themselves and I`m a bit dismayed that our very worthy `Weddings Project` isn`t pushing this as hard as it should.
Now, I don`t say any of this to be critical because in the end the onus is actually on the likes of me to make these connections and to educate and guide couples into things they might not have appreciated or learnt yet. But all of this has set me thinking about the importance of Worship in general and how what do Sunday by Sunday is prone to similar misunderstandings.
The first thing to say of course, is that obviously I`m expressing a certain occupational concern about all of this but it does seem to me as a Christian, let alone as a priest that getting a clearer handle on what worship is about is of fundamental importance. And this fundamental importance rests firstly, on primary the calling of the Church to as someone put it: `to lead creation in the worship of the creator`. This is what we`re here for. That`s what those bells ringing are about- come and join in the praises of God. And secondly, what`s true of us collectively is true of us as individuals. In the Scottish Catechism the question is put “Why was I created?” The reply is: “I was created in order to Worship God and enjoy him for ever”. And so I found myself drawing up a sort of list of some of the assumptions we seem to live with about worship- and it`s troubling to realise how many of them are, shall we say a bit wide of the mark.
So for example, last week I invited you to think about the contrast between regarding worship as something which helps us `recover` from the previous week as opposed to something which is a kind of springboard for a life lived with God in the week that lies ahead. The problem with regarding worship as a matter of recovery is to fall into the trap of thinking that worship is some kind of therapy. That`s what`s going on when you hear people say something like: `I go when I feel the need` or `to get myself together`. We know there`s an element of truth in this but clearly this is where the worship of God has turned into the Worship of US.
So worship as therapy means that we then come to overload this `hour` (and it mustn`t be any longer) with my expectations. So the measure of a good service becomes whether `I got something out of it`. And this is such a far cry from the notion of worshipping God for his own sake- just because he is God; and the offering of our life to him……… Of course, I have to remind myself at this point that nothing I say this morning absolves those of us who lead worship from giving our very best attention to its preparation and conduct. And if we fall down on the job then constructive criticism is fully justified but it is interesting how sharp and even unkind our critical faculties can be when it comes to worship.
I`m reading a memoir by the Comedian Frank Skinner at the moment. He`s an acquired taste but he`s a devout Catholic. At one point in the book he moans about people complaining about worship and he wrote, “Ask not what the Mass can give to you- ask what you can give to the Mass”. His point is that we easily mistake worship for a spectator sport or an aesthetic experience and so we judge the quality of its performance accordingly. Oh, it`s good, we would have to say, if worship contains plenty to capture our attention especially if there is colour and music, beautiful language and dare I say it even incense! It`s good if there are things to stimulate all of the senses but we need to remember these things are not the object of our praise and wonder but the vehicle through which we express our devotion to God.
I mean, pardon me for perhaps stating the obvious but it`s easy to forget that worship is about participation, engagement and perhaps more importantly transformation. This is why I`ve often been tempted to say to anyone who complains about change in worship that “I`ll keep absolutely everything the same if you can promise me YOU are changing; becoming more Christ-like”. You see again, worship is not about admiring God from a distance but about putting ourselves in a space where the truth about God and who he is in relation to us is acknowledged, celebrated and then responded to as we go out in the power of his Spirit to work for his Kingdom.
But this is where we have to acknowledge how we find ourselves shaped much more by our surrounding culture than what we might call the Biblical imagination. The cry goes up from some that we don`t change enough. We hear people say that we need to be more relevant and accessible. `All this old fashioned stuff does little for our credibility with a younger generation`, they say. `We seem aloof, elitist and irrelevant`, they say. `Our old buildings, strange songs and men in frocks have simply got to go`…. You know the story. I mean. there is such a lot that is so well meaning in these comments but they miss the mark in several ways.
Firstly, they neglect the importance, indeed the reality of wonder and mystery in faith and worship. In other words it is not elitist to say that there is something about worship that is by definition challenging and inaccessible. And it seems to me a little foolhardy to suppose that we can grasp everything that`s going on.
Secondly, we`re too influenced by that mood around us that wants everything now and on a plate. We`ve bought into the notion thinks that anything that requires thought, reflection and patience must by definition be elitist. But the Christian life involves formation. Entering into worship needs to be learnt and my sense is that we`re far too coy about making this clear.
I read a book recently called `Reaching out without dumbing down`. I think the title says it all. You see, most troubling of all I think is the failure of nerve which has caused so many churches to ask the wrong question about worship. What I mean is that instead of asking, `What is the best way to worship God?` we ask, `How can we be more attractive?` And for attractive read `entertaining` and so on. And so we end up with all manner of well-meaning but populist activities masquerading as worship, where as I say, the only arbiter is, whether it will appeal.
But this is nonsense; we`re not in the business of measuring ourselves against the affirmation of the world. Our task is to be true to who we are as God`s people. The problem to coin a phrase, is that we seem to have lost the plot; we`ve lost confidence in God. Because our task is not to settle down with the citizens of the world but worship and live in ways which honour him and make him known. The Holy Spirit will do the rest`. But this failure of nerve has opened the door to what we might call the `tyranny of the spontaneous`. I`m talking about acts of worship which we label as `informal` but are all too often just an excuse to indulge our own hobby horses. And all of this has been allowed to happen by an intriguing sleight of hand.
What you do is you hijack the word `liturgy` and you imply that it means `old-fashioned` and then you call your latest thing `Spirit led`. Now, this happens because we are ignorant of our history and we forget that we have always had shape and order to the creation of this space we call worship. The presence of a liturgy, a pattern or framework for worship is not a straightjacket. It rescues us from our own foibles and stretches us. It insists that worship contain certain things so that our souls are fed on the word of God, the bread of life and a sense of communion with a church wider than our own little group.
“Ah, but” they reply, “This liturgical worship is devoid of feeling; it`s vain repetition”. But this is where they show themselves to be children of this age rather than the Kingdom. Because we live, as someone called it, in the `age of sensation`. Far too many people judge things by how it makes them feel and probably since the nineteen sixties feelings have been the way in which something was declared authentic or not. Well this is naive nonsense but sadly, it still colours and infects people`s understanding of worship.
In the play Equus– one of the characters says: “If you don`t worship you will shrink. It`s as simple as that”. That`s a powerful statement….. but that`s what we`re dealing with; powerful stuff, So it grieves me that worship can be so lightly passed off; thought of as optional, secondary or a matter of taste. Because this is to down play and disparage, as I said earlier, our essential calling and what we`re made for.
I`m increasingly of the view that we need to persist in learning how to worship but for the moment I have ringing in my ears an off the cuff remark of the tutor who lectured me in worship at my theological college. She simply said: `The problem is that we`ve forgotten God`. And who is going to tell me she was mistaken?
When we have at the forefront of our minds and deeply in our hearts something of the truth of God and who he is to us then becoming `lost in wonder, love and praise` is just what you do. When you have glimpsed something of the God revealed in Jesus Christ you cannot help joining in with the writer of Psalm 122 who said, “I was glad when they said to me let us go to the house of the Lord”, because you know you`re coming to an event, an encounter, the thing you were made for. All that happens here is not about us and it all boils down to what kind of God we really believe in.…. or maybe whether we really believe in him at all.