Spontaneity and order

Decently and in order

So, says St Paul, should everything in public worship be done (1 Corinthians 14.40). It is interesting that this is his final summarizing comment at the end of three chapters devoted to the question of spiritual gifts, including the exercise of ‘speaking in tongues’. At a time when the official service books of the Church of England allow an unprecedented degree of liberty both in the content of services and in the way they are actually conducted, it is salutary to recall this advice. For there has always been a specious attraction about spontaneity. It may seem to come more directly from the heart, and to represent a more accurate expression of our actual religious state, than do services following a set order. It is easy to identify spontaneous urges with the promptings of the Holy Spirit, but not so easy to ‘test the spirits to see whether they are from God’ (1 John 4.1). What happens when two people speak at the same time, supposedly under divine inspiration? St. Paul’s comment is that ‘God is a God not of disorder but of peace’ (1 Corinthians 14:33).


It is easy to overlook the fact that the Holy Spirit can inspire acts of worship in less immediate ways than impromptu utterances, for instance in the long history of the evolution of Christian worship, or in the more immediate but deliberate preparation of a sermon or prayers or the choice of hymns for a particular service. Jesus’ promise that ‘what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you’ (Matthew 10.19–20) is not intended to make preparation for preachers or leaders of worship unnecessary, but is specifically applied to situations where Christians are called on to witness to their faith in circumstances of opposition or persecution.

Too casual

Another aspect of decency and orderliness is the manner in which worship is offered. Too often today the overwhelming impression one gains from attending a service as a visitor in an unfamiliar church is that of casualness. Worshippers will come in casual dress, as though for a holiday excursion or a leisure activity, rather than for a solemn but festive occasion such as a graduation or an audience with the Queen, although these surely provide a closer analogy to the solemn worship of Almighty God. The custom of clergy, readers, choir members and servers wearing distinctive robes is also sometimes under attack as suggesting a barrier between the leaders and ordinary people. In other spheres of life, however, the wearing of a uniform identifies a person authorized to fulfil a particular role, and draws attention to the significance of that role rather than to the characteristics of the individual concerned. In an informal situation with evangelistic potential, distinctive robes could admittedly be a barrier, although every priest who wears the clerical collar could tell of occasions when an approach has been made to them by a complete stranger, simply because the uniform they wear identifies them as a person of God who may be able to offer the spiritual help the enquirer needs.

Focussing attention

There is in any case a world of difference between interaction with people in what we might call neutral situations and deliberate engagement in the public worship of God. Not long ago I read the newspaper obituary of a bishop who used to say that it was perfectly in order to pray while eating a sandwich, but not to eat a sandwich while praying. The distinction is important; the latter course would imply that the prayer was unimportant and did not require the person’s whole attention. It is true that every situation and activity ought to be permeated by prayer, which of necessity will be of the nature of ‘arrow prayers’, but there is little real likelihood of our attaining this level of spirituality except against the background of regular deliberate acts of prayer and worship, when these are the direct and primary object of our attention. Care and attention to detail are required if our formal acts of worship and prayer are to be meaningful, while little can more effectively undermine a spirit of worship than slovenliness or informality in the conduct of a service.

Communal act

Yet another aspect of decency and order is the need to recollect that public worship is an activity of the Christian community, and not just the self-expression of individuals. We are all at different stages of spiritual maturity, and private prayer is the proper sphere for the development of our personal and individual relationship with God, however true it is also that each of us receives a large part of our formation through our participation in liturgical worship. ‘Let all things be done for building up’ is St Paul’s advice (1 Corinthians 14.26). The criterion of inclusion of material in worship should be the building up of the Body of Christ by a balanced and orderly presentation that reflects the corporate experience of the Christian community.

Dr Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader in Theology in the University of Durham.