The Progress of Worship (2)
There is movement in good worship.
We approach God.
We worship God.
We confess our sins.
We listen to God.
We go out.
We live in the world.
Then we return to the place of worship and withdraw from the world for a while, as the cycle begins again.
This is a good movement. It is a part of a healthy weekly, even daily, cycle. It has a logic of action and reflection, of working and recharging.
It also reflects our understanding of God.
In the traditional understanding of worship, God is approached with care. God is worshipped; God is worthy of our time and attention. No one looks upon the face of God and survives; God holds our life in his hand. This is serious business we are about in the church. God is God.
Once in the right position, the right frame of mind, after the confession of our sins, we listen to God. What is it that God wants? We hear the word of God in the reading of scripture, and in the exposition of preaching. (This may follow other aspects of the worship which were instructional themselves. Many prayers of praise become a vehicle for the preacher long before the formal exposition of the scriptures.)
After hearing the word of God, we respond. We respond with our offerings. We respond in our commitment to acting on the preached word. We respond in our requests of God for others and ourselves, appropriately refined by our re-hearing the word. Then we go out to live the word as the body of Christ in the world, re-energised and re-focussed.
It does not need progressive Christian sensibilities to see how closely this movement of worship is modelled on the royal court. It is how the courtiers enter and act in the presence of the potentate. Although we may not be experts in the ancient middle eastern history where our faith began, we need only watch some TV dramatisation of the life of Henry the Eighth, or similar, to see how much we have projected our treatment of human royalty upon the Divine.
We approach the King with care. He holds our life in his hand. He is like God. Bow down to him; he is worthy of our time and attention. This is serious business we are about in the royal court.
Once in the right position, after the assuring him of our loyalty and love, and apologising for our abject failures, we listen to him. What is his mood today? What does the King want? Already we have been “sniffing the air of the court” as we have bowed and scraped, but what is he saying now? What is his word? We compliment him upon his Wisdom.
After hearing and seeing the actions of the King we respond with our gifts and offerings. We promise our continued loyalty. Now that we understand his mood, we assess what we can ask for wisely, and what we dare not ask.
Then we leave the court, empowered by his blessing and assistance, clear on what he requires of us, and get on with life until we must come back.
How much this is a parody of worship, and how much it actually reflects the way we feel about the Divine, is a measure of how much our worship has progressed! Clearly some people fear God and do their worship in fear and trembling. Others have had some experience of grace, which means their praise has progressed beyond duty and become more adoration. It becomes an act of love rather than obeisance.
In that case worship becomes an act of love, freedom and regeneration. It loses much of its fear, or even its calculated cynicism which seeks favours from God. Think of the power-politicians who seek to manipulate the king through the intrigues of the court, and wonder how much we bargain and argue with the divine, seeking to manipulate a preferred outcome in our lives. Is this movement not at the root of much prosperity theology?
At its best, Sunday worship is a wonderful thing. It refocuses us on the things we believe to be most important. It re-minds us of what we have committed ourselves to living out. It gives us time away from the rush of life, time to refocus and reconsider. It may give us a time and place to re-enter the deeper realities of existence. It re-arms us against the things we consider peripheral, or unhelpful, or even evil, but with which we live in close contact all the week.
Worship is a profound acting out of life. It takes what we know, what we hope, what we fear, what we yearn for and ritually knits us together into a unity. We act out oneness even though we are fractured and contradictory in our being. Worship is profoundly important. In worship, we are "messing with our heads," as the saying goes, and should mess carefully!
People are well aware that worship has projected the less than enlightened politics and egoism of the royal court onto the Divine. They continue to worship because despite its somewhat inglorious pedigree, worship can be a powerful ritual for good. It helps us integrate life. it heals the wounds and tears in our being, and knits together the fractures.
Part of that integration also includes theological reflection. True worship “takes what we know” in the sense that it seeks to integrate our intellectual knowledge and reflection with our emotional and spiritual selves. If worship does not do this, it has a fundamental, bisecting fault line. It has a compartmentalised, dis-integrated flaw. Worship may seek to take us into a deeper reality beyond our ability to neatly articulate. It may seek to allow us to apprehend or begin to perceive something, beyond what we can comprehend or fully understand. This is not the same as compartmentalising. It is not the same as contradicting one reality with the other, and making no attempt to heal the breach. Worship is a flawed methodology if we use it to deal with problems raised by our intellect: Vosper suggests the Liturgical Movement was a kind of distraction, even an excuse, which allowed the church to avoid dealing with the implications of its theological discoveries. (With or Without God pp 107)
When we seek to integrate our theology with our worship, there are some sharp, tearing questions.
Leif the Lucky Bridge is the bridge between continents. It is in the Reykjanes peninsula, southwest Iceland, across the Alfagja rift valley, the boundary of the Eurasian and North American continental tectonic plates. (Attribution and full size image.)
- If there is a being, far above all other beings, so far beyond existence that we might hesitate to use the word being, but still a person in some essential sense, the style of worship I outlined above makes sense. How could you not adore and love deeply some person who is so wonderful, so wise, so loving as to “hold the whole world in his hand?” Worship and discipleship are the only adequate responses to such a reality. Prayers for help are logical, and sensible.
But what happens to this worship if we are deeply influenced by the insights of the enlightenment? I have sketched these out in Beginning the Big Shift and After the Big Shift.
- Does it make sense to ask for help from a non-interventionist God?
- Does it make sense to pray in the voice of love to a God who is more correctly an It than a Person? I am asking why we would pray to a person who our theology says does not exist? If we can no longer think helpfully, or meaningfully, of the Divine as a person, why would we pray to the Divine as a person. What is prayer in that context?
- Indeed, why does God need us or want us to worship him/her? If God really needs our worship then surely God is less than God. God should not need us.
Projecting back from us for a moment, let us consider our own growth as persons. We find as we mature and achieve some growth in wisdom and humility, that we do not need or want worship. Do we not find that worship reflects an immature understanding of us as a person, and an immature relationship? Even an unhealthy relationship?
One might answer by suggesting that worship properly understood reflects the grace-infused Sunday I mentioned above, where worship has progressed from fear driven flattery to adoring love. Worship is not the flattery of the court. Worship is the language between lovers. My prayers at the beginning of Sunday church should not be prayers of praise so much as are love poetry. This is a good answer, except that when I read the words of the hymns, and listen to the words of the prayers, that is not what I hear. I hear the phraseology and cadences of the court. There are still times where the the object of my love, who truly loves me, is clearly going to blot me out if I do not toe the line.
- You will notice that we have not even begun to explore the celebration of the state sponsored murder of Jesus of Nazareth which we reprise constantly.
The point of all this is not so much to argue for any particular theology of worship, as to stimulate some questioning. How much does our worship reflect and reinforce our theology, and how much does it contradict our theology? Theology is our view of the world, it is how we understand things. Are we seeking to worship in a way which is congruent with that, or are we in contradiction? Habitually engaging in worship which contradicts our theology is taking a path to breakdown. The breakdown may be an abandonment of our theology, or it may be an abandonment of our church, or a spiral into depression or worse.
Secondly, the purpose of this page is to provide an insights into why worship is often so profoundly distressing, or so deeply repugnant. In fact, many progressive Christians are probably well aware of the deep contradiction which splits their worship life. This page seeks to provide validation. We should feel torn apart. If we are not noticing the disparity between the traditional Sunday practice of worship and the theology with which we are learning to think, we have not thought very much at all!
I have been using the metaphor of the fault line, the place of stress and fracture in our thinking. It takes little reflection to wonder if the metaphor of the rift might not be appropriate, for often on Sunday mornings two plates of our existence are being torn apart. Intellect and liturgy seem to be continents journeying in different directions.