Thursday, November 4, 2010

I Don't Believe in Worship (2)

[Continued from this essay]

What then could ‘worship’ mean, if we sought to make the term meaningful again?

There are two ways to approach the question from the New Testament. On the one hand, there is the concept and language of ‘worship’, which originally suggests reverent orientation of the whole person towards God. This does involve speech and physical practices including ritual, which may be domestic and personal as well as communal and public (John 4:20, 12:20, Acts 8:27, 24:11); but although such language of ‘worship’ suggests something about the disposition of Christian life as a whole, it says relatively little about the specifics of proper Christian liturgy, except that it should be coherent with the rest of life.

On the other hand, distinctive practices are attested and urged for Christians. Christians eat at the table of the Lord, baptise, fast, pray, teach (Eucharist: 1 Cor 10:16-17, 11:17-34, Jude 12; Baptism: Rom 6:4, 1 Cor  1:13-17, 15:29, Acts 2:41 etc; Common Prayer: Acts 1:14, 6:4, 14:23, Col 4:2). This list could be expanded to include actions less clearly liturgical, such as practical concern for the poor (Gal 2:10, 1 Cor 16:1-2, James 1:27), which in the ancient Church was strongly linked to communal gatherings.

Many of these actions have ritual elements, such as prescribed forms of words, bodily performances and use of particular objects. Even if these are not referred to as ‘worship’, they can properly be understood as such in the later sense, if the connection is made between such distinctive liturgical practices and the wider demands made of the Christian community to serve God in our whole lives.

The two prominent and distinctive ways Christians have gathered together from the earliest times are the Eucharist (or Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper) and the daily ‘offices’, which in Anglicanism are expressed in the two-fold structure of Morning and Evening Prayer. The Eucharist was and is the most distinctively Christian communal action. 

The fact that much Protestant ‘worship’ is not Eucharistic is an unhappy historical accident; although the Reformers, and later leaders of renewal like the Wesleys, generally sought more frequent communion, they and their contemporaries had inherited a piety that dictated frequent attendance but infrequent participation. Rejecting the non-communicating Masses of Roman Catholicism, they were forced back onto using the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer—good and holy gatherings to be sure—for ends beyond their real purpose, and they became the main Sunday event.

While mainstream Anglicanism recovered the centrality of Eucharistic worship in the 20th century, it tended then to forget the importance of the daily prayer services, with their deeply biblical character, prayerful use of the Psalms, and sacred rhythms of rising and sleeping with God.

While Anglican liturgy will continue to change and develop, if it does not take these two forms of ‘Common Prayer’ as the touchstones for what we do together, the result will certainly not be Anglican, but neither will it be adequately Christian—and hardly ‘worship’ either.

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