Nigel Anthony considers just how difficult it can be to enter into worship and how much easier it is to watch others doing it, and why we must resist this temptation
I was once a Bible teacher. The single most important and recurring theme was reminding, exhorting, persuading, cajoling and warning my students to stop reading books about the Bible and start reading the biblical books themselves. All of that literature is ancient: most of it is pretty boring, nearly all of it is heavy going. The only bits that are genuinely exciting you will have read several times already. Wouldn’t it make more sense, argued the student, to read the serious, detailed and helpful work of scholars who can come up with a wealth of ideas and explanations the rest of us will never attain to.
Yes of course you must read the commentaries and study the scholarly literature, but all that is secondary. Important but secondary. What matters is to read the biblical books, slowly, carefully, directly. Believe me it is hard work. Far easier is to watch someone else do the work – in other words to read the scholarly literature, and let someone cleverer do the work for you.
If you think reading the Bible is difficult, have you considered just how difficult worship is? And can you perceive the same problem, the same temptation, and the same sort of excuses as my students used to give? What is more, worship is even more difficult than ever it used to be. When it was the norm to go to church on Sunday, we all just did it, we did not have to justify it or explain it or enjoy it.
We may sneer at the notion of entertainment worship – but actually it is more fun. Informal services, when the minister up front talks tells you what it is happening, gets the children involved, and (when the calendar suggests it) tries something different, with light or sound or drama, and even humour – this draws people in. At its best, we all leave church having had a good time, shared real fellowship, learned a bit more about our faith, and been uplifted for the week ahead.
But have we worshipped? Don’t blame yourself, if you recognize this desire to be entertained, to be taught, to… Notice the passive mode of these verbs – it seems more satisfying to have these good things done for us. The temptation is
overwhelming, the excuses excellent, the justification self-evident. It is a contemporary phenomenon we are all caught up in – we have substituted the difficult, demanding, and often not particularly satisfying work of worship, for the enjoyment and ease of being spoken to about worship.
And if you still have not grasped what is indeed a difficult notion: think of an example of informal or ‘liquid’ worship (and I mean a good example: with a skilled minister, under 40, extrovert, intelligent, charismatic). Did you worship, or did someone else do it for you?
If you are still uncertain, think of the best examples, when there was a whole team of ministers and leaders, young, energetic, good looking, and with all the apparatus of modern lighting, projection, music … It was wonderful, but was it worship?
And what is worship?
So what are we called to do? To worship God. Mere mortals, finite, sinful, stupid, weak – we axe called to worship God, to be drawn into an activity and relationship that takes us beyond anything of which we are inherently capable of. We are called to transcend our very nature and come into the presence of the divine.
The Mass (most clearly, but also in a rather more gradual and slower process, the Sunday Offices of Mattins and Evensong) is a ritual, and this means that it requires initiation, repetition and a sense of performance. There is a gradual deepening of its sense. A right attitude towards it, therefore, is absolutely necessary and must be learned. Ritual can perhaps be described as a kind of serious play.
For example, I am willing to go along with the ritual – all the set movements and words repeated in a certain way -because I trust that when I ‘play this way’ something profound and unexpected can break through.
The ritual is a form, and the form delivers a content – not an intellectual content to be grasped with the mind, nor even an emotional content to be grasped by one’s feelings, but an actual event, nothing less than the very event of our salvation.
If I refuse to join in the game’; that is, if I refuse the ritual and its rules and forms, then I am left only as I came in. If I sit back, and say to myself, ‘Okay, entertain me; instruct me and enthuse me; give me a reason why I should have given up an hour for this; make me feel good,’ then I cannot enter into the ritual. It’s just me; it’s only us. What can happen is only the sum of the parts, and in an ordinary Church of England building with an ordinary priest, the sum of the parts will never amount to much.
What ritual does to us
But the ritual takes us out of ourselves and beyond ourselves. It lets God act and gives us a way of acting in response. We do not have to invent the response, coming up with it here and now: how pitiful and inadequate that would be! Instead, the ritual gives us the response that measures up to the mystery of what the ritual has also delivered; namely, God’s own saving action.
It is one of the fascinating problems when teaching about the ritual of the service. All one can do is skate over the surface: one cannot explain the liturgy: every explanation is by its very nature from the outside, and yet every piece must be experienced from the inside if it is to be part of the sacred ritual.
The very forms themselves – the bread, the wine, the movements of the priest, ministers and people, even to a lesser extent the candles and the vestments and the dressing of the altar, all these become completely imbued with significance, with divine life itself.
Our worship is about love and it is an encounter. It is an encounter with God, but not God as vaguely conceived. It is an encounter with God through Jesus Christ. In the precise forms and words he gave us, making real among us, the precise form and pattern of his suffering and death ‘under Pontius Pilate’ and his resurrection from the dead, and his glorious ascension into heaven.
It is a great mystery. If you find it immensely demanding, it is!