Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Don't Believe in Worship (Part 1)

‘Worship’ has become almost a meaningless term in some places; and where it does mean something, it now often has little to do with those distinctive practices whereby the Christian community across history has expressed and renewed its relationship with the God of Jesus Christ.

The problem is most profound in newer Church settings where ‘worship’ is equated with ‘music’, and ‘worship leaders’ are conductors or accompanists, rather than preachers or priests. Yet even Christians who belong to Churches of clearly sacramental character, such as Anglicans, may well see their liturgical actions simply as aesthetic options chosen according to preference for a certain activity or style.

It is then unsurprising if we find ‘worship’ events becoming more akin to sales meetings, arena concerts or whatever other cultural forms are available for adaptation, rather than recognizable forms of Eucharistic celebration or daily prayer.

Even fairly recently the English word ‘worship’ referred to reverence and service (cf. ‘with my body I thee worship’). In present Western Christianity however, this meaning has been lost, and ‘worship’ tends to mean whatever people do in Church on Sundays. Similarly 'service' has lost the earlier meaning of 'divine service', and refers to a meeting rather than a disposition.

So ‘Worship services’ (two vapid words combined in a desperate effort to mean something!) might seem to be constructed just to suit our tastes or passing preferences, rather than as particular activities characteristic of the Christian community across its history.

The possibility that our liturgy might really be ‘worship’ has to do then with how well we integrate it into the whole of life, lived faithfully and authentically – in Church as well as out of it. For Christians that does involve some characteristic patterns and actions.

If instead we make aesthetic preferences or ‘worship needs’ (as one recent publication called them) the determinant of liturgical practice, this certainly contradicts any real ethos of Christian worship; for if ‘needs’ are understood as the pre-existing wants of the participant, rather than either as the imperative to exist or act in a certain relationship to God, or as continuing faithfully in practices founded on Jesus' example and teaching, we are wasting our time or worse.

Of course Christians do and should borrow some elements of newer cultural forms, critically and carefully; Percy is not pleading here for a particular aesthetic of traditional liturgy, but for recognition that liturgy is founded on core actions and patterns, on scripture and bread and wine and prayer.

We can and should adapt forms; but if the core actions of our liturgies are not made more profound and more prominent in the process, then the result is a failure. We therefore need to pay as much or more attention to the real core or substance of specifically Christian liturgy, rather than to the trappings in which it is presented. Here we might have to admit that both traditional and commercialized forms of Christian gathering often fail equally, if differently.

1 comment:

  1. These interesting observations recall to mind the question of whether, when we worship and when we serve, we do so as individuals or for our individual needs. Of course, there is always an element of 'my needs' in what we do, but a fundamental (for me anyway) of coming to a right attitude in worship is to leave as much of myself behind as I can. But it is oh so hard!