Mark Michael makes the case for public worship and its part in the life of faith
I have expressed concern that the normalization of so-called hybrid worship in our churches may accelerate trends toward “worship switching” among contemporary Christians, with online “content” viewing treated as a sufficient substitute for public gathering and sacramental communion. Some churches seem poised to encourage these trends by framing worship as primarily passive: a time for consuming spiritual knowledge through listening to sermons, which might just as well be accessed on demand from the comfort of one’s easy chair.
In one sense, there’s little new here. People in all ages have found churchgoing tedious. And latter-day consumerist temptations only cater to the ancient greed, laziness, and self-centeredness rooted malignly in every human heart.
In another sense, Anglicans in particular will do well to avoid certain errors we have long resisted; errors associated with old-fashioned Protestant worries about liturgical ceremony, and the “tennis game” of responsive prayer. While Puritans and Presbyterians, for instance, maintained robust forms of communal discipline, they also tended toward an overreliance on intellect as a means to spiritual progress. Anglican writers responded with carefully crafted discussions of the duty of public worship, set within a defence of liturgical forms and ceremonial practices. Their arguments remain fresh and pointed for the pastoral challenges of the current moment.
I propose to gather some of the fragments of these wonderful old apologies — from Richard Hooker’s landmark Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593-97) to Herbert Thorndike and Symon Patrick a century on –answering the challenges of the ancestors of today’s Baptists and Congregationalists. Poor Patrick was given the exhausting task of “regularizing” the church in Ireland after the Restoration. Worn out by the polemics of Scots Presbyterians recently transplanted to Ulster, he gladly accepted translation to Ely two years later. His closely argued ‘Discourse Concerning Prayer’ (1686) may be the most comprehensive treatise of the genre, but many Prayer Book commentaries of later generations follow suit, including those by John Keble and the pioneers of the Parish Communion Movement.
Classical Anglican authors often begin by insisting that the primary purpose of Sunday services is to praise God, not to procure a store of religious goods for ourselves. We come to church to give, not to receive; to perform a duty that is itself a high privilege. Echoing Thomas Aquinas, Hooker argues that “the public duties of religion” are the highest form of human action, most expressive of our “dignity,” since human beings sit atop the created order — even individually, and all the more in “societies, that most excellent which we call the Church.” It follows that “there can be in this world no work performed equal to the exercise of true religion, the proper operation of the Church of God” (Laws, V.vi.1).
Hooker’s claim that society — the gathering together of human beings in groups — enhances human dignity finds its origin in God’s own delight in the assembling of his people into a unity of praise and obedience. God himself, these authors argue, is more worthily worshiped when many join together to sing his praises in concert. In the words of Thorndike, in his ‘Of Religious Assemblies and the Public Service of God’ (1642): “as the strength of men’s bodies, joined to one purpose, removeth that which, one by one, they could not do; so united devotions prevail with God to such effect as severally they cannot bring to pass” (1.1). On this count, the assembling of God’s people fulfills his promises made through the prophets (Isa. 2:2-4, Micah 4:1, Zeph. 3:9), to gather the Gentiles in the last days to share in Israel’s life of worship. As Thorndike reflects, the Gentiles
…should flow like the waters of a deluge to learn the will of God which the Church teacheth; they should crowd in like a multitude, with one shoulder, to serve God with that language which he had sanctified. Who can read this, and not think what God recommendeth to Christians? One current to the Church, to learn his will there; one shoulder, striving who shall crowd in first; one lip, one language that soundeth nothing but his praises. (‘Religious Assemblies’ 1.2)
Patrick similarly cites a maxim of Tertullian’s: “We come by troops to make our prayers to God, that being banded, as it were, together, we may with a strong hand sue to him for his favour. This violence is grateful unto God” (‘Discourse’ xii.2).
These authors also emphasize that witness, the public declaration of God’s goodness to us and our commitment to him, is an essential part of public worship, according to the scriptural warrant of Tobit 12:6-7:
Bless God, praise him, magnify him, bless him for the things he hath done unto you, in the sight of all that live. It is good to praise God and exalt his name, and honourably to show forth the works of God. Therefore, be not slack to praise him; it is good to keep close the secrets of a king; but it is honourable to reveal the works of God.
Patrick differentiates between our duties to worship, honour, glorify, and serve God. The Christian who reads his Bible and prays at home can, indeed, truly worship God. But honouring and glorifying God cannot be done “unless others see by outward signs and tokens the inward regard we have to him” (‘Discourse’ xi.1).
On this count, public acts of worship uniquely demonstrate God’s universal reign and benevolence, and function as something of an apologetic for the Christian faith to an unbelieving world. As Patrick writes: “Great numbers meeting together to do their homage to him” present a “most natural sign” that we take God to be “the Sovereign of the world, the Lord of all, above all, [and] good unto all” (xii.2). These acts of worship “maintain a sense of God in the world and preserve the notion of him” (xii.1).
By contrast, merely private, “close and retired” devotion gives the impression that our faith is a hobby, a private pursuit for like-minded enthusiasts. Without public acts of worship that proclaim God’s mighty acts and invite all to embrace the gospel, those outside the Church may conclude that God is only a fleeting fancy or opinion of some individuals (‘Discourse’ xii.1).
It’s a question worth asking today when some leaders in our church seem set on besting the public-health mandarins in their zeal for social distancing. What witness does staying safe at home really offer to our non-believing neighbours? Is it really, especially at this point in the pandemic, the most loving thing to do?
In a posthumously published Epiphany sermon (1884), John Keble echoes Patrick’s themes with a story from parish life at Hursley. He writes movingly of the aged in his congregation who “had become so deaf that they could not hear a single word,” but who have still “come religiously into the congregation, and have done their best to join in the service.” If worship were really about consuming content, he suggests, they would have been better off reading the same prayers and lessons at home. But in that case …there would have been no public worship: their light would not have shone before men: they would not have been giving the same glory to God, nor bearing the same witness to him in sight of their fellow men. Thus, a great part of their duty to him would have been left undone.
These authors also emphasize the emotional support that public worship provides for the life of faith. The “hearts of plain simple members,” Thorndike observes, rely on more spiritually mature believers for encouragement and confirmation. Without the “guidance” of the larger congregation, they would struggle to make progress (‘Religious Assemblies’ vi.5). But all human beings will find their “spiritual fervour quickened” more surely in the company of a larger assembly than “when we are retired by ourselves,” writes Patrick. For the “holy zeal of those who join with us in the same petitions” provides “a great help and spur.”
Similarly, the seriousness, the gravity, and the earnestness of [the one] who ministers the service of God there; which together with the authority of his office, the sacredness and majesticness sometimes of the place, set apart entirely for such services, is apt to raise in us more ardent devotion, than we can easily raise in ourselves alone (‘Discourse’ xii.3).
Above all, perhaps, public worship offers a foretaste of heaven, “the other world,” as Thorndike says,
when men’s desires are all satisfied, and all the subject of prayers possessed — the Angels, the elders about the throne of God, and all the … Jews and Gentiles which encompass it (Rev. 7:9), cease not to join in the praises of God, when the Church is become perfectly one. (‘Religious Assemblies’ vi.5)
Within this multitude, even now, may be found every language, race, and nation together praising Christ the Lamb. Here, in this holy worship, we find our human dignity, enacted in the person of the Son, who is strong to save. Placing us within the perfect communion of his body the Church, he spans all social distance and removes every screen that would separate.
Come, let us worship and bow down! Let us see and hear “the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders,” numbering myriads and thousands and singing with one voice:
Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing! (Rev. 5:12)
Fr Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. This article is reproduced by kind permission of Living Church.