Barry A. Orford encourages us to rediscover practices that promote stillness and dignity in our worship
A recently published article advised readers on ‘How to become a welcoming cathedral.’ It offered sensible suggestions for helping those who come to a cathedral or any other church feel welcome, but it did not ask the most important question: ‘What is it that we invite people to do when they come to a church service?’ The only adequate answer is that we invite them to join us in the worship of Almighty God. Any benefits which attend coming to church – a sense of fellowship, for example – are secondary to the fact that we come to church to worship God. If that is not our first task then we are failing in our mission.
Churches are not buildings like any other. They are there to recall us to our Christian duty to worship, and what we do in them is meant to assist us to draw near to God in adoration, penitence and praise. The question we must ask of any act of worship is whether it can help us to experience something of the awe which awareness of God’s presence should inspire in us. Why bother with services which do not do this?
A folly afflicting the Church of England in recent years is the notion that nobody visiting a church should ever feel in the smallest degree uncomfortable. The architects of past centuries knew better. They built churches meant to make those who entered them feel that they were on the threshold of a greater reality, a place where they might encounter ‘the intersection of the timeless with time.’ Yet buildings cannot do everything. The services taking place in them, and the way congregations regard those services, determine whether what is offered is truly an act of worship.
The need for seriousness
I sense too frequently that our churches are more concerned with selling a feel good experience than with leading people to the throne of God. I fear that we are in the grip of the Curse of the Casual, ensnared in something of the superficiality and levity which our media reserve for Christian faith. The absence of appropriate seriousness which attends so many services, the tiresome facetiousness which lards too many sermons, a determination to get things done quickly, and the lack of recollection shown by congregations suggest that we are forgetting that true worship, like Christian living, requires discipline. Worse still, we have abandoned basic observances which helped previous generations to approach God in worship.
Spirit of reverence
Ask yourself, does your church convey to people by word and practice (especially practice) that the time before a service should properly be spent in quiet preparation rather than in idle chatter? The old dictum, ‘speak to God before the service and to each other afterward’ made an important point. We do not best prepare to worship God by exchanging chit-chat until the beginning of the first hymn – and that includes clergy, choirs and servers.
Unconcern for quiet and stillness before worship is but one indication of our malaise. Here is another. H.G. Wells said that if he believed what Catholics believed he would never enter a church except on his knees. He would not find much encouragement today. The absence of kneelers in many churches, chairs set in close rows and the rubric ‘Sit or kneel’ proclaim that kneeling is no longer considered a valuable help to worship. Certainly it is not essential, but those before us found that there is something significant for the individual as well as for a congregation when joining in corporate kneeling for prayer. It literally embodies a spirit of reverence and makes a physical offering in which all share, unless prevented by disability. Screwtape thought it good temptation technique that ‘at the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget…that they are animals, and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.’
Anglican writers of the past were firm on the need for preparation before worship, and never more so than when coming to the Eucharist. When did you last hear (or deliver) a sermon which mentioned this, or even commended the pre-Eucharistic fast? The Exhortation in the Prayer Book reminded communicants of the solemnity of what they were doing, but such language is too forthright to find a place in contemporary service books. The consequence can be a painful and offensive lack of reverence in Eucharistic celebrations. As Bishop Michael Ramsey reminded us, ‘the awe in the individual’s approach to Holy Communion, which characterized both the Tractarians and the Evangelicals of old, stands in contrast to the ease with which our congregations come tripping to the altar week by week.’
Gravity and self-discipline
Much blame for this situation lies with those of us who are ordained. We have failed to teach the ways which can assist Christian life and worship. Perhaps we have feared giving offence or seeming severe. Older Anglican writers were not so timid about reminding us that worshipping God is the most important act we perform and requires appropriate dedication and self-discipline.
I will not conclude with a disclaimer about ‘not advocating a return to the past’ because I am strongly urging a rediscovery of devotional practices which can assist us in worship. In our anxiety to get people onto seats, we are too readily accommodating our services to the restless, rackety and trivializing ways of our surrounding society. Nor is it just elderly worshippers who desire reverence and dignity in church. Experience teaches that a rising generation of young Christians can find stillness and formality a welcome and inspiring novelty when they come to worship God. This discipline shows a loving response to God’s invitation to us.
The Revd Dr Barry A. Orford is a retired priest