Evan McWilliams on the importance of theocentric worship

The success of the actions of the Church in her institutional and worshipping life may be measured according to the degree to which they correspond to the reality of the Church’s being. Put another way, one may say the Church is right to act if that action truly presents the essence of what it means to be the Church. This axiom is particularly relevant today in discussions of worship and mission – areas where the Church of England finds itself sometimes deeply divided.

It has always been held that a central aim of worship is to give God His due: to give honour to the One who alone is worthy. In saying this, one is also saying that worship is about reality rather than perception. God is to be worshipped as He is, not as He is perceived to be. Such objectivity deserves further thought in a day when felt need tends to dominate the Church’s discourse.

Whatever our feelings, the deepest needs of the human heart are often those of which we are least aware. Worship dominated by our feelings about God – worship that is fundamentally Man-centred – can provide neither a right understanding of self, nor of God as the centre and source of all things and satisfier of our most powerful longings.

Previously I suggested that ad orientem celebration is not preferable because the Church is moving towards God; and neither is versus populum best because God is among His people (ND, Nov 2016). Both of these premises assume that it is the gathered community’s perception of God which is to be expressed in the posture of worship. Whatever posture is chosen, it must be predicated on the reality of God; and not primarily rooted in our human experience of Him.

Continuing this line of thought leads to a reconsideration of how worship has been viewed in recent years. For example, it has been argued that the liturgical action of the Church should reflect a wandering through the wilderness of life. Richard Giles remarks that “the people of God […] were called to the nomadic life. They must realise too that God himself is a nomad, accompanying his people on their wanderings”. [Re-pitching the Tent: Re-ordering the Church Building for Worship and Mission, Norwich: Canterbury Press (1996), 20.] A natural outworking of such an emphasis sees the worship of the Church involving physical movement within the church building: literal wandering mimicking spiritual wandering. It perceives stability as a static quality, and associates growth with constant change. Such worship, even if clothed in a suitably Judaic expression, stands fully in line with the trend of the nineteenth-century industrial revolution for which, said Henry Adams, the impelling force was the dynamo.

But the truth of the Christian spiritual life is not one of aimless wandering toward an unknown land of promise. Rather, it involves consciously following a God who leads His people, who has made Himself known, and who holds His people close no matter their feeling to the contrary (cf Deut 33.27). Such a way of life, whatever the difficulty of the path, is not merely a life-long desert perambulation; for God is, as Aquinas noted, the first cause of all things. He is not a wanderer, but His people’s eternal rest. His being is not unstable and mutable, but fixed and secure; He “sitteth above the water-flood, and the LORD remaineth a King for ever” (Ps 29.9). Worship that depicts God as uncertain, and the Christian life as one of confusion rather than constant returning to find rest in the unchanging God, simply does not reflect reality.

It is, of course, natural to view the Church through a nomadic lens if one succumbs to the belief that the Church is, like society, subject to a prevailing Zeitgeist. Setting aside philosophical debates about the validity of progress as a defining principle of civilisation, it is clear that the Church of the New Testament scriptures is related more to the stability of a royal court than to a tent pitched in the wilderness. What the Church desperately needs to recognise is that her members are, for all their faults, God’s royal people. The Church exists, as the apostle says, to “declare his virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2.9). While it is true that each member of the Church must undertake to attain to a fuller knowledge of God, it is a well-trodden path to the heavenly city and not an unfamiliar wilderness.

Though temporally in exile, the worshipping community is, in its being, an instance of God’s fixed heavenly court. In each local meeting of the Body of Christ, the future kingdom breaks into earthly space and time. This divine society, drawn out from all the corners of the earth and turning again in self-giving to it, is a foretaste of the heavenly society of the souls of the righteous made perfect in Jesus Christ. Thus, her eucharistic feast anticipates that great wedding banquet at which the Bridegroom is present, no longer mediated by bread and wine, but in His full self.

The ubiquity of the language of the journey, through the desert or otherwise, has blinded Christians to the weighty reality that is the courtly apocalypse of divine worship which takes place in their local parish church each week. Inadequately reflected scriptural emphases have left worshippers lost in a theological desert, rather than caught up in a manifestation of ultimate realities in the here and now. In pursuing perceived being and embracing felt need rather than truth in all its forms, the Church has given up its worthiness as a place where glory dwells and where mystery, that fundamental accompaniment of real reality, is made known.

The Church has long valued mystery – especially that of the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament – a fact her universal worship reflects. In the East, the command “Depart, catechumens!” remains in the liturgy, thereby setting apart the Sacrament for those who have been suitably prepared. Similarly, the Reformed tradition of “fencing” the Table has similar origins. The sacramental mystery has always been held in tension with knowledge – truth, seen through a glass darkly, but glorious nonetheless!

To acknowledge the full mystery of God, His transcendence as Lord of the universe, and His immanence as the One who wishes to be known and has made Himself known, is the primary aim of liturgical language, movement, and posture. When the Church’s worship focuses on the reality of God, it throws off the dominion of felt needs and eschews the excesses both of emotionalism and rationalism.

God-centred worship, in contrast to Man-centred worship, emphasises what humanity may truly know about God while at the same time hinting at the mystery that is further intimate communion with Him through union with Christ. It depicts most clearly the reality of the worship of the Church as a courtly revelation – an in-breaking of the eternal divine kingdom into this passing world. Directionality is not absent, movement is not impossible, yet this is always a movement further into the divine love. The end of Christian worship is falling further in love with the God who has come into the world and called a people to Himself.

Dr Evan McWilliams is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham.