Thursday, February 9, 2012

Worship and evangelization

Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament
at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane,
following Solemn Evensong on Palm Sunday, 2004

This is a slightly adapted version of a talk I gave to a Parish Annual General Meeting twelve years ago. I share it with you because I think we still need to digest some of the points made (and, in any case, the quotes I use are well worth pondering!). I hasten to add that in my opinion everything here applies to the whole spectrum of church life, whether we have a tiny chapel (even borrowed space) or a huge cathedral!

Let us begin with some moving lines from Margaret George's excellent historical novel, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. It is 1547. The seven year old Mary had been taken at night from Stirling Castle to the safety of the priory on the island of Inchmahome. The following night, she woke up and noticed the monks gathering for their prayers.

"She crept into the side entrance of the church . . . and into the recess of a side altar and hid there in the shadows. The monks were already gathered; they must not see her! They were seated all along the stone benches on each side of the glittering high altar, flanked by two tall candles. Their cowled heads were bowed, and the mumble of rosaries being recited surrounded them like the buzz of bees around a hive.

"She did not dare to move, hunched there in her stone recess that was cold and covered in a light film of condensation. Time seemed suspended, not to be passing at all. But then gradually, she saw the five tall windows behind the high altar in the east begin to separate themselves from the night. At first they were barely noticeable, a smudge of opalescence in the dark; but slowly each hue in them began to glow and become more distinct, until at last there were garnet, red and marygold yellow and sapphire blue and twilight violet and sea green, slender long panels of jewels forming exquisite pictures in the dawn.

"The monks stirred, and there was a metalic clanking as the incense was lit in its censer. The rich, perfumed smoke rose in soft clouds around the altar, and then the chanting began: the Office of Matins.

"Te deum laudamus . . .

"The deep, measured cadences rolled upward with the incense. The sun sent a first tiny ray through a purple spear of glass in the window. The Virgin Mary, in her niche near the high altar, seemed to glow as the first light caressed her alabaster face.

"Mary nearly swooned with the beauty of it all, with the cold, with her excitement, with the forbiddenness of her own presence. She had been used to Mass at the Chapel Royal in Stirling castle, but it was a lacklustre, daytime thing; this was magic, a door to another world, a world that overwhelmed her and drew her so powerfully that she felt she could vanish straightway into it.

"The incandescent colours, the mystic smell, the deep, beckoning, otherworldly voices, and the glowing face of the Virgin swirled in her soul. Clutching at the wall, she felt herself to be in the grip of an ecstasy, and, closing her eyes, she let herself be carried away.

"So this is God, she thought, as she slid forward soundlessly, and gave herself up to him." (pp. 35-36)

Why are we here? I mean, what brings you and me to this church? What is the particular vocation of this parish?

So many times I have encouraged you to keep your hearts and minds open to God, to allow him to flood your lives with his love, to believe and practise the Catholic Faith, the Faith once delivered to the Saints. Often I have laid before you both the glories and tragedies of contemporary Anglican Catholicism. I have encouraged you to commit yourselves totally to the Forward in Faith movement and all it stands for - especially the Communion Statement. And I have never ceased to urge us as all a community to reach out beyond our own lives in practical ways, drawing others into a greater awareness and experience of God's love and care for all his children.


Today, I want to be a bit untrendy and suggest that in a very real sense our main vocation is to worship . . . to worship God in the beauty of holiness, in union with the Holy Assembly gathered before him in heaven, to offer the Holy Sacrifice of Jesus as our praise and thanksgiving, and as intercession for the Church and the world. Fulfilling this vocation helps to hallow the life of our busy city, restrain the powers of evil, and unleash numberless blessings upon many who themselves cannot or will not believe.

In other words, we are engaging in the priestly role given to us in our baptism.

Indeed, in the First Letter of St Peter, still regarded by many scholars as an early post-baptismal instruction, we find these words:

"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may show forth the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy." (1 Peter 1:9-10)

And earlier, in verse 5:

". . . like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."


Photographs of our church's interior indicate that until a particularly thorough paint job at the end of the 1920's the following Old Testament text appeared around the chancel arch in conspicuous Gothic lettering:

"This is none other but the House of God,
And this is the gate of heaven." (Genesis 28:17)

And if you have any doubt about the lasting effect of the intensity of worship even on the building in which we pray, kept open every day of the year, making it as the psychics would say, a "thin" place (like Walsingham, Lourdes, Lindisfarne, or any of the great shrines of the Christian tradition), you only have to look at this cross-section of remarks written in the visitors' book near the door, demonstrating the startling impact this place has on a very wide range of people:

"An oasis of peace in a concrete jungle."

"Thank you, God, for guiding me here today; thank you for bringing me home."

"This church gives me peace, love and hope."

"A beautiful place - I found it just at the right time."

"I came in here feeling lost, and after a few short minutes I have found my way."

"It is beyond words to have visited this church and felt the Presence."

"This place has a beauty and an atmosphere beyond words.
It's a place you can feel truly safe."

"Restores faith."

"A holy place."

"The Lord Christ is here; I worshipped."


"Filled with energy."

"A glimpse of heaven."

"Words cannot describe the feelings I have inside. Wonderful. Beautiful."

A great deal has been written in recent times about the need for the Church to become more relevant to the world in which we live. It is felt that we must become more like the culture surrounding us in order to influence people - especially young people - to accept the Gospel message and become worshippers.

Of course, you and I know there is a sense in which that is true. But there is also a sense in which the Church must stand against the culture - especially a decadent culture - if she is to be faithful to the Lord and truly loving to those around us.

A few months ago I was interested to read an interview with Dr Robert Wilken, Professor of History at the University of Virginia, on the lessons we can learn from the way in which the early Church impacted on the culture of the Mediterranean world. Dr Wilken challenges many of the cherished opinions of those "experts" who still seem to be trying to adapt the Church to the 1960's. He asks whether the methods of the early Church have something to teach us in our witness to a post-Christian age (Roman Redux in Christian History Vol. LVII, No.1) on account of his view that today's evangelistic challenge is not all that different to that which faced the early Church.


In his article, Wilken examines the role of apologetics, martyrdoms, and everyday evangelism. He then considers the tightly knit sense of loving community Christians shared, and the strong leadership of the bishop as priest and teacher, the one who presided over the life of the community, with bishops of different regions working with one another, organising themselves across the empire. Wilken points out that there are no real parallels to this among any other people in the ancient world.

Then, says Wilken, there were the Scriptures, which grounded the Christian gospel not in myth but in history. This was especially true with regard to the community's central belief in the resurrection. The ancient world had stories of gods coming back to life and miraculous happenings. But to talk about such things as if they happened in real history was unparalleled. This is what set Christ and the Church apart. It was a belief Christians were willing to die for. It was a belief Christians didn't soft peddle.


Wilken draws some fascinating lessons from the early Church for our evangelism today. He points out that "witnessing" or "apologetics" was basically an explanation of what Christians believe and do. Justin Martyr, for example, simply gave an account of Christian worship, and talked about baptism. We need to do the same. We need to familiarize people with the Christian story, and talk about the things that make Christianity distinctive, because many people today are unaware of the basics of the Christian Faith.

Wilken goes on to talk about the essence of evangelism and conversion:

"Apologetics then and now must speak what is true, but finally the appeal must be made to the heart, not the mind. We're really leading people to change their love. To love something different. Love is what draws and holds people."

This leads to the whole question of the tightly knit early Christian community of love:

"How did the early church build their community? It built a way of life. The church was not something that spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture. There were appointed times when the community came together. There was a distinctive calendar, and each year the community rehearsed key Christian beliefs at certain times. There was church-wide charity to the surrounding community. There was clarity, and church discipline regarding moral issues. All these things made up a wholesome community."


It is in speaking of the community's worship that Wilken is at his best:

"Did the church strive to be 'user-friendly'? Not at all - in fact, just the opposite. One thing that made early Christian community especially strong was its stress on ritual. That there was something unique about Christian liturgy, especially the Eucharist. It was different from anything pagans had experienced, architecturally, and in terms of the various ingredients of the worship. Worship was something that baptism gave one the right to enter into. Prayers and hymns were taken out of the Bible, a book foreign to pagans. And then there was a sermon, an unusual feature in itself, with historically grounded talk of a dying and rising God. Pagans entered a wholly different world than they were used to. Furthermore, it was difficult to join the early church. Besides the social and cultural hurdles: the process for becoming a member took two years."

Now, this runs counter to what many so-called experts tell us today. In fact, Wilken thinks that modern "user friendly" churches have a completely wrong strategy:

"A person who comes into a Christian church for the first time SHOULD feel out of place. He should feel this community engages in practices so important they take time to learn. The best thing we can do for "seekers" is to create an environment where newcomers feel they are missing something vital, that one has to be inculcated into this, and that it's a discipline. Few people grasp that today. But the early church grasped it very well."

All of that is very interesting. It certainly squares with the response of newcomers to our worship here, which, from the point of view of many modern "experts", ought not be attracting newcomers at all! Now, you know me. You know that I say "praise the Lord" for every person who is converted to Christ through "seeker friendly" services, "emergent" churches, evangelistic outreaches, "Gospel rock music" or any other means. I sincerely mean that. But we here have proven that the combination of a truly loving community drawn from all age groups and walks of life, authentic Gospel preaching and careful, beautiful "transcendent" and overwhelming worship that emphasises the joining together of heaven and earth in Jesus and the prayer of the ages has enormous drawing power, and still captures the hearts of at least some people as they embark on their journey of faith.

I say this because we commit a considerable proportion of our financial and other resources to making our worship the very best we can offer. If some criticize, they might reflect on the woman who poured the jar of ointment over the feet of Jesus, and what Judas said (what a waste! . . . we should have sold it and given the money to the poor), together with the response of Jesus who gladly accepted the outpoured love of the woman "who had been forgiven much."(Of course, you know throughout the Anglican world it is very often the case that those parishes of a lively catholic tradition that are lavish in their worship of God tend to be the ones that are most lavish in their support of the needy.)


It has often been observed that through the experience of beauty - especially beauty in worship - many come to love God who might not otherwise be drawn to him through philosophical speculation, through the moral law, or even through the Scriptures in a straightforward way. So I cannot help finishing these words with a couple of paragraphs taken from a sermon preached by the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, in York Minster in 1999 on the 450th anniversary of the first Book of Common Prayer:

"'Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;/ . . . Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand' are the words of that familiar hymn from the Liturgy of St. James. They are a challenge to the casual in difference with which so often we approach these holy and sacred mysteries.

"At the heart of Cranmer's endeavours . . . was the very nature of the worship itself. Yes, certainly it should be understood of the people - but above all it should at all times and in all places be directed Godwards - the giving to God his worth, 'to render thanks for the great benefits we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise.' Worship can never be entertainment and it can only be a distraction when it is that distraction from ourselves and our own self-centred desires and concerns towards the things of God.

"Accessibility, yes of course, but not at the expense of awsomeness - 'A man that looks on glasse,' writes George Herbert in that well-known poem/hymn, 'On it may stay his eye;/ Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,/ And then the heaven espie.' - Here we are given that glimpse of glory, the possibility of transformation and change, from glory unto glory. This is the real meaning and purpose of worship - till in heaven we take our place and with those angels and archangels and the whole company we also shall have place and part in the ceaseless praise of God."

This is a wonderful parish community in which each of us is privileged to have the support of our brothers and sisters in the Lord, as we worship in the beauty of holiness, as we seek the fulness of the Holy Spirit to help us conform our lives to the teaching of Scripture, as we moveforward in faith together, and as we grow with wave after wave of new people becoming part of our family. All this will continue if we depend only on God's grace.


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