Looking in to the Warrumbungles from the southwest, 2011

The Progress of Worship (1)

For all of us, there is a progression in worship. It begins with what we inherit; the worship we first met as Christians. For some, that means music, lyrics, and prayers which were heard before we understood even a word! The progression begins as our own life experience interacts with the words and deeds of worship. It grows as our theological insights grow. We critique what we hear in worship. Gretta Vosper says if something could not be preached from the pulpit, because of its theological error, it ought not then be announced in the hymn after the sermon. She is correct. Denominational hymn books lead worship leaders to alternating despair and fury!

The issue goes further than some kind of intellectual integrity. My New Testament lecturer, Rev. Dr. John Akehurst, would occasionally remark after some discussion about a subject, “But you can tell a what a person really believes, by listening to their favourite hymns.” What we love to sing, is what we really believe. Worship is an outpouring of our being. We choose the hymns and prayers for Sunday based upon what we yearn and upon what we celebrate about life and faith.

Listen to the hymns that repel people. Is it because the music is difficult, or conversely, cliched? In fact, the music of favourite hymns or choruses often defines the world cliché! In other cases, the music of a favourite hymn may be fiendishly difficult to sing, compared to a new hymn with a simple but elegant melody which complements the words. What we often object to is the content of the lyrics, as much as the the new tune. The words offend us. We develop our theology out of what we are already doing in worship. If the words do not resonate with whom we are, and what we do, the hymn or prayer will perhaps be sung dutifully, but will be consigned to the “don't use that again” basket.

It is more complicated than this, of course. Some tunes are written deep into our identity. Recently, I took some words by Gretta Vosper which are set to a well know hymn tune. She has “detoxed” the traditional lyrics. I do not much like her words in this hymn. It is not her best trans-lation of a traditional hymn, but it was one of those weeks where I was more offended by the hymn book than usual! Desperate to escape the offence of the old words, I compromised with the new for the sake of something people could sing. The people loved the hymn for the old familiar music. There is a battle going on here; music of our selves and our pasts, linked with competing words and insights of a new theological age. Which will win?

I suspect the music and words work in concert with each other. The old familiar music authorises the words; we are more inclined to sing them and less inclined to critique them because of the music, which is part of us. But the words also affect the way we hear and respond to the music. On this occasion, one of the most enthusiastic responses to the hymn came from the person who was most able and most likely to criticise it on theological grounds. Why? The words let her sing the tune. Like me, she would normally avoid the hymn, despite us both knowing the music since we were children.

All this has two implications.

From a pastoral perspective, what we use as the content of the liturgy speaks as loudly, if not more loudly, than the sermon! Some people never listen to sermons, anyway. Sermons are not their way of learning, or being uplifted. They learn by praying or singing or doing. These things lift their spirit.

From a personal perspective, what we are learning or trying to develop in our intellectual understanding;that is, our own personal theologising and growth, will be profoundly aided or resisted by the nature of our worship. The experience I can sing will not only uplift me. It will help me formally articulate that experience, make more sense of it, and enable it to become life-giving and empowering.

To give an example of this latter point: the woman who is newly arriving at feminist insights will not only be offended by this translation of Martin Luther's “Mighty Fortress.”

And take they our life,
Goods, fame, child and wife,
Let these all be gone,
They yet have nothing won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth.

As long as she sings it in the congregation, with voices around her celebrating their heritage with gusto, she will struggle to maintain, let alone develop, the critique of her subordinance. This hymn reduces her to property. It also “sings loudly”, seeking to drown out alternative understandings of being human.

What are we doing to ourselves when we continue to sing and pray in words that are at variance with what we have begun to know in our intellect? At the deepest level possible, we are telling ourselves that what we have begun to see in our minds, is wrong. We are contradicting ourselves, and drowning out intimations of truth with a toxic mantra. To make progress, we need to express our new insights through our worship, not deny them.


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