Friday, 26 July 2013

What is Worship?

Compline at Binsey Church, Oxford
I sat in an ancient church with no artificial lighting the other evening and said Compline, a Monastic form of prayer for the ending of the day, along with seven other people.  It was divine. I am about to go to the New Wine (Christian knees up) festival at The Royal Bath and West showground, along with 10,000 other people. A bit noisier though no less divine.

What is worship? It's an exercise in my own preferences isn't it? It's what people do in church on Sundays while the rest of their life goes on completely unaffected, isn't it? It's just people singing or being silent. It's really just being in the quiet of an evening outdoors, looking at a sunset...Simples. 
Worship on the bridge at
Whitchurch on Thames?

It's possible do all these things and more without reference to God, though. But you can also do them all with God at the centre - in an intentional 'long obedience in the same direction' (one of the best definitions of discipleship I've come across) and that makes all the difference.

Adrian Plass wrote 'I must confess that I have both enjoyed and suffered an enormous amount of worship of many different kinds during my travels over the last few years' (Why I follow Jesus, p. 23). 

I know what he means. Is there anything more depressing than hearing someone say: 'I don't get much out of the worship'. Isn't there something suspect about this approach? At the same time, worship that is genuinely dull, unthought through, unfocused and boring is inexcusable. How can this supreme activity for which humans were created be less than properly spiritually nourishing?

At some point or another all of the following statements about worship have been said to me (or read by me) in varying ways by Christian and non Christian. You may agree/disagree or 'none of the above'.

a. Proper worship has to be spontaneous.
b. Proper worship has to have structure.
c. Liturgy constrains the Spirit.
d. Repeating songs over and over is banal.
e. Anything written before 2010 is out of date.
f. Victorian hymns have more content.
g. Songs in which Jesus is described as 'lovely' are rubbish.
h. Only subjective words can express our devotion to God.
i. Candles are more honouring to the Almighty than drums.
Candle in Ffald y Brenin Chapel

j. Organ music is not biblical.
k. God is primarily found in silence.
l. God is found in the 'intimacy' of 45 minutes of singing with a band.
m. Worship should be fun.
n. The only acceptable worship is social action.
o. Robed choirs who process divert attention from God.
p. You need to call down the presence of God explicitly.
q. God is already fully there when we gather.
r. You should not address the Holy Spirit directly.
s. You can sing 'Holy Spirit, we welcome you'.
t. My garden is my church.
u. I'm worshipping when I walk the dog.
v. Liturgy should be relevant to people.
w. 'Demotic' liturgy (= of the people) is lamentable.
x. Worship leaders must be 'anointed'.
y. You can worship best when alone.
z. Worship is corporate.

So what makes worship 'worship'? Adrian Plass cites two negative experiences of worship and two positive. Interestingly they bear no correlation to whether the worship
was modern, ancient, wordy, simple, up to the minute, spontaneous or structured, for a few or for hundreds, let alone what kind of building each occurred in. 

In one negative experience, he went to a church where everything seemed slick and organised, especially the overhead projected lyrics and amazing band; but underneath there were seething divisions within the leadership and poor relationships. In another, spontaneity was an excuse for lousy preparation; the leader was flustered and chaotic, but was 'letting the Spirit lead', so that was 'OK'.

In two positive experiences, a Cathedral Easter celebration, Prayer Book style, was sublime; in another, a Pentecostal service in an impoverished downtown area was simple but real, despite the cheap guitar and squeaky violin.

Defining 'acceptable' worship may be very difficult, even (perhaps especially) for those who have to prepare and lead it, week in, week out. Save that it be 'in spirit and in truth' (John 4) some questions which may be signs we're heading in the right (or wrong) direction:

Does it have heart and soul?
Is it welcoming?
Is it theologically deep? 
Is it real?
Does it connect with the rest of life?
Does it help me think 'Christianly' about what's going on in the world?
Does it warm my heart?
Does it challenge my preconceptions?
Is it welcoming to others?
Is there space for waiting on God?
Are we bringing our whole selves to it?
Are we smiling?
Are we laughing?
And, simply, is it God focussed?

You will no doubt have other indicators. At some point we have to take the focus away from our own preferences and onto what God might require (i.e. our whole lives). The vision of St John's 'Revelation' is of endless worship across all cultures with the Lamb at the centre. 

No Power Points that break down; no arguments about hymn books; no choruses in G that no one can sing or hymn number boards that no one can reach; no dirges written by miserable Victorians; no liturgical commission, preservation societies or someone up front with a massive mic saying 'I don't want the focus to be on me...'

Revolutionary thoughts indeed.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Number crunching the kingdom

Being a church leader can seriously mess with your numerical ability. For example, I used to think 30 (in church) was small. Now I would be delighted to preach to such an enormous number. Or 10 can be 'higher' than 20: I used to think a church of 20 adults must be in decline, until I read Fresh Expressions literature, where 10 adults who were formerly nothing to do with church, now gathering in a coffee bar to explore faith together, is perceived as a definite 'gain' on the 20 who've been weekly Sunday attenders for donkeys years yet have seen no one under the age of 50 join them for a decade. It all depends on the context.

There's safety in numbers. And anxiety in their absence. It's hard with a designated building (called 'church') to get away from the fact that it should be full of people. But it's context again. If I wander into the church midweek and discover one person praying there, I am delighted.
But one person at the main Sunday service and I would be mortified. Ten people at a midweek meeting might represent a third of the congregation of a small church, but a large church of 300 would consider 10 mid weekers a failure. 

And it doesn't help that well meaning (sometimes senior) people often give the impression that your job is to keep everything going as before, asking every time they see you 'How are numbers?' I am so tempted next time to respond 'oh, half the church have left since I came but the 12 remaining are really on fire for the Lord' (which is basically what happened when Jesus started talking about being the bread of life in John 6:66).

We live with the spectre of cutbacks and rural church closure. I have heard church closure lamented as the definitive end of Christian witness in an area. And I'm sure it is a crisis. But a crisis is not an ending. It might be the beginning of something else.

A peculiar form of mental maths goes on at the beginning of Sunday worship: which priest hasn't done some astonishing numeric leaps as they look out upon a church of largely empty pews, and calculate what a large number of people there would be if everyone who has come, ever, was actually there right now? And on being asked later 'how many did you have?' begins the answer 'well, if so-and-so, so-and-so and so-and so hadn't been on holiday/busy at work/having a lie in/recovering from the night before/preparing a meal for 27 cousins, there would have been......'

It's like that childhood game you played when you couldn't finish your plateful of food, only in reverse. Instead of pushing all the food up one end of the plate to make it look nearly empty, we spread out along the pews to make it look full. I think we need to have picnics instead - 20 people in a 'clump' on the grass, singing and praying will always be 'bigger' than 20 sitting in straight lines in a large building.

A quick trawl on biblical 'counting': David being reprimanded for taking a census of his fighting men to see how many he had (I especially think of this when asked to do my 'Mission Return'); Gideon who was told to slim back his men and keep only the keen ones and Jesus, who told of the shepherd with no numerical sense whatever abandoning the 99 sheep to search for the one. Perhaps the only evidence that more=good is the exhortation to pray for more labourers for the harvest.

Being about more than numbers, 'church growth' is hard to chart. Think of those anxious breast feeding mums whose babies don't put on steady weight along the percentile devised to measure bottle fed babies. Sometimes you appear to be doing all the right things (you 'cultivate an environment that releases the missional imagination of the people of God')* but still it's one step forward, two steps back. Because it's about people, their growth and their sanctification. Shared life, accountability, honesty about problems, holism and taking the long view.

I am trying to get out of the numbers mindset. I'm trying to resist the pressure to go for an indiscriminate 'more'. I pray for encouraging signs. Next time someone asks if the church is growing, I'll say we're working on the soil and leaving growth to the Holy Spirit.

*The Missional Leader, Romanuk and Roxburgh, p. 21

Monday, 8 July 2013

Either/Or Spirituality

My first significant encounter with Anglicanism came with an enormous dose of the Charismatic. Renewal had touched the Established Church via John Wimber of the Vineyard, USA, and was coming to a church/conference near you. I was immediately struck by the singing, which was intense and personal. To say I was bowled over would be an understatement. Power, intimacy and abandonment were not qualities I had honestly encountered in (non Conformist) church life up till then. 

Simultaneously discovering singing in tongues AND sung Eucharistic liturgy presented no particular problems at the time - I was unaware that later on in my life they would sadly come to be seen, or at least practised, as 'either/or' options. The tendency for some 'charismatic' worship, though, to settle for nothing more than endless repeated choruses eventually drove me to explore the depths of liturgical worship, and the C of E selection and training process would lead me along paths of settled prayer, silence, solitude and stillness. To the sacramental.

Sacramental theology had completely passed me by till the DDO* got hold of me. I read Baptists and Catholics. John E. Colwell's phrase 'no unmediated immediacy' stuck in my mind (after I'd spent a fairly long time working out its meaning). 
There was no means by which grace could be mediated to humanity save through outward, physical 'stuff'? It seemed like a good idea at first, offering protection from spiritual self delusion, but not everyone was agreed on what 'stuff' could mediate God's salvation. The Catholics said there were seven sacraments, the Anglicans two** - the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. I reluctantly concluded John E Colwell had never been in a renewal meeting lying on the floor while the Holy Spirit ministered inner healing directly to his soul. But each to his own (or was it?)

Sacraments, spiritual direction, silence, solitude, annual retreat  - all these became, not optional, but vital for spiritual/ministerial life. I was drawn to Ignatian reflection and two years on from ordination made a silent retreat at the Jesuit retreat house, Loyola Hall.

There was no singing in tongues - surprise, surprise - but God was powerfully there in the steady, measured silence (though I was never fully convinced the Catholic hierarchy would have embraced the fact that half the retreatants were gleefully taking Holy Communion with less than a fully Roman view on what that really meant. So far, so divided).

Ffald y Brenin, Retreat Centre and House of Prayer.
Chael with domed roof (left).
But either/or spirituality is ultimately unsatisfying. Last year I read of a miraculous healing that a clergy acquaintance received at Ffald Y Brenin in Wales. She too had been seeking God through Ignatian reflection and almost stumbled across the retreat house whilst on holiday in Pembrokeshire. She posted a photo of herself standing in front of the remains of her now defunct wheelchair.

I sensed a pull. Set prayers were said four times a day in the tiny stone chapel. Miraculous healing AND a Celtic style rhythm of prayer? Streams of sometimes divided spirituality, united?

The earth is never far away, even in chapel.
I went. And discovered our Celtic Christian ancestors were right - God is not an either/or God. Yes, we said Morning Prayer (of sorts!) and Midday Prayer, and Evening Prayer...and there were plenty of long silences, waiting on God in worship. But there was also spontaneous, glorious singing in tongues, prophetic words and inner healing. One evening I went into the chapel at 5.30pm for Evening Prayer (30 mins) but nobody got beyond the first song...God's presence was so palpable, inhabiting the music, interrupting, and then bringing silence, like waves...I emerged three hours later to discover I had missed supper.

There perhaps remains an innate tension between the breaking in of the Spirit and set liturgy. But St Paul was right - order in worship is as important as the exercising of gifts. The Corinthian Church lacked order. Individually empowered members of the body were falling over each other to give a word, prophecy, sing/speak in tongues. If I'm honest I don't generally see that problem in English rural church worship. 

Pembrokeshire coast
The Spirit is like the wind, blowing where He wills, or like waves crashing on the shore one by one, with expectant stillness in between. He also grows in us the fruit of self discipline, though. It's not either/or.

And all through the worship the clear chapel windows let the hillside stream in and the Welsh wind said God is in the 'natural' and the 'supernatural'. It's not either/or. He's the God of creation and re-creation. And what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
*DDO - Diocesan Director of Ordinands: medium-to-strongly scary person who prepares you for selection to the C of E training process.

**It seems to me that once you start counting sacraments, it's difficult to know where to stop. Either Christ is the only sacrament ('mysterion') or everything is 'sacramental'. Do we have to itemise them?  In fear of Episcopal discipline, however, I am, of course, perfectly happy with two sacraments. Love two.