Saturday, September 21, 2013

Our worship is "put on" for God

One Sunday morning during my time at All Saints’ Wickham Terrace in Brisbane, a group of students from the local theological college came to High Mass as part of their experience of different worship traditions. It was a very traditional liturgy (“streamlined and adapted Cranmer”) a la the English Missal. The choir sang the propers, motets and setting from the gallery. The congregagtion sang their hymns and said their prayers with zeal. It was an old fashioned “eastward” celebration with clergy and people facing the altar together. It was mystical and transcendent, but surging with life, love and colour, even as the noise of the traffic going down Ann Street - with the occasional sirens of police, fire and ambulance vehicles - reminded us that the Sacrifice of Praise was being offered in the heart of a modern Australian city. I have to admit that some of the students found it “quaint” and were amused. But others were moved. A young woman among them actually used the “A” word. She told a couple of us over morning tea that it was “awesome” to find Anglo-Catholics who “put all this on for God.” She likened us to the Greek and Russian churches on the south side of the Brisbane River where God was the object of worship, and in which worship had “no ulterior motive.”

I was indeed able to help her see that for us worship is an end in itself and not a means to an end; that the liturgy is - as the Orthodox say - “the earthly heaven” in which by the power of the Holy Spirit and through sacramental signs we are swept up into the eternal movement of Jesus’ love for the Father.

It is to express this that worship is beautiful, liturgical, mystical and homely all at once. It is ordered without being stuffy. It is overwelmingly exuberant in joyful praise, while also - like the Psalter - it contains a deep note of lamentation signifying that our woundedness and pain as aspects of the suffering of creation - which will one day itself share the glorious liberty of the children of God - are part of the offering being made to the Father.

I have been thinking about these things over the last couple of days as the result of two blog posts by Frederica Mathewes-Green. She writes from the Orthodox tradition. Here are the posts:

A pastor in the UK wrote me asking, “What is worship for?” He said that his denomination was encouraging pastors to make worship more “user-friendly” in order to attract new members, and that this initially seemed to him a reasonable evangelistic strategy. A scripture cited in support of this approach was Acts 15:19, “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” But as he read this scripture in context, it looked to him like it was written of people who were already Christian believers, and would not be required to accept Jewish practices. It didn’t address the case of people entirely outside the faith. He wrote to ask, “Who are church services for? Believers or unbelievers?” CONTINUE READING  

Yesterday I wrote on “What is Worship For?”, but I forgot to answer the question. I said that it is not the time for evangelism, and shouldn’t be designed with non-believers in mind. But what is it for?  Worship is for God; we could expand that and say worship is for believers to offer to God. But even once we’re clear that worship is the work of the believing community, there’s a possible confusion. We might think the purpose of worship is to give believers a good worship experience. CONTINUE READING

In fact, from an evangelical Anglican perspective, the late Peter Toon had similarly written in 2004 that American and English Christians have a range of wrong ideas about the “purpose” of worship.

One idea, he said, is that we worship “in order ‘to create community’, a ‘community of faith’ and a ‘community of celebration.’ Here the coming together to sing, pray and listen is seen as combating alienation, individualism and an inadequate view of self-worth.  In the presence of God, it is believed that there is affirmation and healing for all.”

Another idea is that we worship “in order to ‘to prepare for mission’ - to be a mission-shaped church, to be a people who obey the command of Jesus to go into the world to preach the Gospel to all the creation.”

A third idea is that we worship “‘to becoming a caring people’ -  to be transformed through the songs, prayers and ritual into a people who care for those in need and learn to love their neighbor as they love themselves.”

A fourth idea is that we worship “‘to teach & learn the Faith’ – in the context of word and song to offer and to receive instruction in the Christian life, in faith and morals.”

A fifth idea is that we worship “‘to bring the world to God and God to the world.’”

Toon agrees that all these are things are characteristic - and MUST be characteristic - of Christian communities. But he also says that WORSHIP ITSELF exists for no human, practical purpose, even an exalted and noble human purpose. Worship has only the one purpose of seeking to please the Triune God in his holiness and glory.

Peter Toon draws attention to the description of the the Divine Liturgy at Byzantium experienced by the Russian emissaries immediately before the Orthodox Church was invited into Russia.

“What impressed them as onlookers about the Liturgy was precisely ITS UTTER LACK OF AN ULTERIOR PURPOSE, the fact that it was celebrated for GOD and not for spectators, that it sole intent was to be before God and for God, pleasing and acceptable to God . . .”

Today I had the great joy of going to a High Mass at St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge, which has been a favourite church of mine since my first visit in 1989. The parish was once pastored by the legendary Fr Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton. (I took the photo above on my iPhone at the offertory today!) The occasion was the festival Mass for the parish’s Fraternity of Our Lady de Salve Regina. The Mass setting was the Missa Solemnis Op55 of Max Filke (1855-1911) and included the singing of Rossini’s O Salutaris and Salve Regina. The preacher was Armenian Orthodox priest, Fr Garegin Hambardzymyan, currently resident at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, while he completes his doctorate at Shefield University.

I was so moved by today’s Mass, which was, quite clearly, “awesome” and “put on for God.” The liturgy itself was nearly identical to that which we had at All Saints’ Brisbane, and the music, though perfect in every way did not take over as if it were mere “performance.” The sermon was stunning, and all about Our Lady’s response to God’s grace. At one point, Fr Garegin even quoted the paragraph of Fr George Florovsky published permanently in the sidebar of this blog:

“The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second.”

I’m sure that’s right.

So, whatever our cultural background, and whether we are traditionalists or moderns, or even “fresh expressionists”, let’s make sure that whatever inventive ways we create to reach people with the Gospel message, and however we operate pastorally to support and grow our parish communities, our worship itself is, in fact, worship, and that it is primarily “put on for God.” 


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