I was thinking of starting a campaign to get people to stop chatting in church for five minutes before the service starts. I was foolish enough to labour under the apprehension that people come to worship and learn, and for spiritual refreshment, whereas in fact the service is but a short rest from the exhausting rigours of socializing. I don’t even mind people being late: I would hate to think that church attendance was interfering with gossip.
In the Exodus from Egypt the Israelites were freed from slavery not to build an ideal society, not to campaign for FairTrade, not to care about the environment, but to worship freely in accordance with the divine command. We recall this every time we say or sing the Benedictus Dominus in Morning Prayer.
For me, worship should speak of mystery, majesty and glory. It’s not just about how much I love Jesus, or Jesus loves me. There must be a sense of ‘otherness’. However unfashionable it may be to say so, Christianity is a supernatural religion that commands us to look deep into ourselves, and way beyond ourselves, to the invisible and intangible. It is about spiritual things, forgiveness primarily, and self-forgiveness particularly, but such forgiveness is to my mind pretty useless unless we each begin to glimpse our own need for it.
We are right to build up church community—that is, the body of Christ—and pursue justice without which there will never be peace. But our first priority is worship, and worship exists to give us glimpse of the Divine. Liturgy matters. The biggest enemy is mediocrity. If worship is mediocre, then faith is mediocre. If worship is half-hearted, then God becomes a half-hearted creation of our own, not the cosmic Lord. Many modern hymns and choruses are about me (Here I am Lord); golden oldies are principally about God (Immortal invisible). We need both, but we don’t need self-indulgence. We need to lift our eyes out of self and above the humdrum. That is why I’m suspicious of calls for worship to be ‘relevant’. Worship is not about leaving us feeling cosy and comfortable. Energized, yes; smug, no. And maybe slightly unsettled.
To draw people into stillness is the challenge in a dreadfully noisy, cacophonous world that glories superficiality and immediacy. That quietness is terrifying for there lie the demons to be faced within and it is easier to run, chat and be busy. Yet not to go that route is mediocrity and quiet despair
I guess that’s what retreats are for. I hope, to quote you, that ‘the joy of joining others in his presence’ is what drives people to church. As I say, I hope.
It was a problem to me too. While training at Mirfield, this low-church ecumenical discovered a strong Anglo Catholic undercurrent (that happens at the Community). Our training days and weekends included worship, the precursor to which was always an understanding that once we’d entered the chapel/lecture theatre, there would be silence until the formal worship began. The space this provided became so important to me it was hard to describe. I always found it hard, then, to get back to the melais of my (now former) church, where families would be running round and there would be noise right up to the beginning. That was the style of the church – and it still is. I bit my lip because the church was, unlike so many, teaming with children and young families, and to start insisting on silence might have led – almost literally – to a throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. I still long for those preparatory silences though, with God’s Spirit working inside you in ways you may never know, but chiefly preparing you for the joy of joining others in his presence.