Hugh Baker reflects on the purpose of worship
‘Enjoy the service,’ said the personable young man in Cape Town, as he handed me a computer-produced family service sheet. His friendly greeting momentarily took me aback. Where had I heard these words before? Why, in English pubs! Go into the Red Lion or the Nag’s Head for a meal nowadays, and you’ll receive not so much a request as the command ‘Enjoy your meals!’ By the third hymn, I’m waiting for the personable young man (or someone) to come and ask me, ‘Is everything all right with your service?’ Thankfully, I’m left to take part in it without interruption.
Have a nice day
If you’ve experienced the friendliness and service standards to be found in American eateries, you’ll not mind this bit of their ‘have a nice day’ culture invading our shores. Is a church, however, the same sort of animal as a restaurant? A restaurant has customers, whom the proprietors hope will come back, having enjoyed their meal. A church is a very different proposition. Its Sunday liturgy is the expression of a number of things: where the church has come from, where it is now, where it wants to go to.
My family service took place in southern Africa’s fastest growing suburb. New people are arriving all the time, and the church is anxious to make them feel wanted and welcomed. Many English parishes (where once the problem was that worshippers knew each other only too well, and a cloak of anonymity over Sunday worship helped to keep them, if not on speaking terms, at least on praying ones) now make strenuous efforts to greet you at the door. Talking to people who have joined us in recent years, some from non-churchgoing backgrounds, the initial welcome they received as they nervously crossed the threshold for the first time was crucial.
So far, so practically adjusted to the nomadic Way We Live Now. Even so, my friendly greeter still left me somehow disturbed. Why?
The deep springs of Enjoyment go back a long way. Seated in the Greek roots of our culture lie hedonism and epicureanism, the way of looking at life first proposed by Aristippus (435–356BC) and later refined by Epicurus (341–270BC). What remains of their writings is fragmentary, yet strangely contemporary in its content. Epicurus, of whose work three letters remain, could write comfortably for the National Secular Society. Arguing against Plato’s map of the supernatural, he claimed that truth was bounded by sensation: if you couldn’t sense it, you couldn’t believe in it.
Death, therefore, being the end of sensation, was the end of everything. Peace of mind and a contemplation of our state after death were, to him, mutual exclusives. It was, at best, a man-centred way of perceiving life and ethics, ignoring the gods and their demands. Looking at their gods and their fickle, vindictive natures, one can understand their desire to live without them.
These roots of anthropocentric ethics, though, find their way not only (and predictably) into the writings of hoary old atheists like David Hume and Jeremy Bentham, but also into the thought of Christendom as expressed, for example, in the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill. Aristippus was the first of this school to use what became known as the felicific calculus, the calculation of happiness. For him, transient, intense pleasure weighed less than moderate, lasting ones.
The good life, for him, was ataraxia – ‘freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind’. How many human aspirations are enveloped here! The oriental religionist, the non-religious materialist, the browser through holiday brochures and the aromatherapy addict can all find justification in enjoyment. So, of course, can the mother contemplating abortion, the married man looking at adultery, the alcoholic, the drug addict – it must be all right, I enjoy it!
In a society which, following Epicurus, tries to live only by what we immediately know, enjoyment will mould our expectations of church life.
How different, how nakedly demanding, are the scriptures! I found myself wandering through the middle of Psalm 119 recently, and there one is repeatedly confronted by an outlook on life which holds no place for self-indulgence. To give a flavour of the passage:
verse 52: I remember your ancient laws, O Lord, and I find comfort in them.
verse 67: Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.
verse 71: It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.
There is no hint of the worship of enjoyment here. Our present state is to be dictated to by the requirements of God’s agenda. Our place is to learn to obey, and if to do so requires suffering, then so be it. It has to be said that if he chooses to bless us with what is enjoyable, then we should choose to ‘forget not all his benefits’ (Psalm 103.2). There is a self-imposed misery summed up by the nineteenth-century Punch cartoon which showed a little girl sitting in abject misery on an iron-hard pew, over the caption ‘Her Third Sermon’; even so, we have now reached the conclusion that all sermons should be short and comfortable. Worship should occupy no more than an hour, and be unchallenging. Penitential exercises like the keeping of Lent can be left to a few (probably neurotic) keenies.
Whatever he sends us, if we endure faithful to his call on our life, we will grow the fruit of the Spirit, whose second characteristic is joy. Like Our Lord on the road to Emmaus, it comes unseen, unbidden, to those who walk with him, even when such walking takes us through tears and sadness. It cannot be aimed at or possessed; but to the obedient it is given, and (as Nehemiah 8.10 promises) becomes their strength.
Like every Christian generation before us, we have to choose between the easy way of pandering to our own selfish needs or the painful way of being changed into God’s image. I read recently that it is estimated that 2.7 million people have opted out of the rat race and deliberately chosen a simpler, less expensive way of life. I would like to think that the majority of them were Christians, opting for a godly life style; but as long as all we’re meant to do with our service is enjoy it, I have my doubts.
Hugh Baker used to be vicar of five churches in south Staffordshire; they’ve taken one off him, so now he has four to enjoy.