Wednesday 14 August 2013

What are Church Services For?

First I want to draw attention to how artificial our church services are in a way.

We gather together for an hour a week, generally, in order to worship God, carry out our liturgies, and celebrate the eucharist. And then we go out back to our lives.

But we all recognise that God's call, and particularly Christ's call in the Gospels, is a call about our whole lives. We are meant to be first transformed by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, and then also grow in  holiness throughout our lives, not just on a Sunday.

In fact God makes it very clear that the details of our worship are irrelevant, almost worse than useless if we don't have love and faith and sincerity in our hearts generally.  

 And sometimes what we do in church every week can seem detached from how we live our lives, especially when we spend so much of our time surrounded by people who aren't Christian and don't necessarily know or understand anything about our faith.

Now, to be honest, this s already quite a common topic for Christians.  I'm sure we've all sat through at least one sermon about not just being Sunday Christians, or Christians for one hour each week.  But I'm just going to share some thoughts about it that I've found useful.
 Today in many churches, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, URC the basic service can be divided into two main sections: The Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Sacrament.  

Basically the first is based around offering prayers, reading the Bible, and discussing it in a Sermon, which is taken from the traditional Jewish Synagogue service (which was based around the Torah).

The Second is based around Eucharist, re-creating the last Supper as Jesus commanded "Do this as often as you eat and drink it in remembrance of me".

In more Protestant churches there has generally been an emphasis on the first part, preaching the Word, in more Catholic and Orthodox churches over the centuries there has been a growing emphasis on the 2nd part:  The Eucharist.

What is clear is that this basic form comes from the earliest days of the Church.  The quote below is from Justin Martyr, one of the earliest of the Church fathers, writing only 70 years or so after the writing of last of the New Testament books, and giving a description that must be familiar to any Christian today.

The two main differences is that this describes a relatively simple structure compared to some liturgies today, and that it obviously dates from a time when there was no set liturgy or text for the service. This came later, when instead of relying on the president to make up the prayers set texts were given both to give the ‘best’ prayers, to ensure that correct doctrine (Ortho-doxy in Greek) was taught and just to save the presiding person from always having to come up with something.
Fundamentally, though, this is the same structure we all use today and reflects the essential features of Christian worship and community. 

Historically what happened to the liturgy/service was a steady trend of making the central communion service more and more elaborate and mystical, with embellishments and more prayers and sections, until the time of the Reformation, when in reformation churches steps were taken to simplify it.

In some churches such as among the Quakers this led to totally abandoning formal, structured worship or liturgy, and in evangelical churches it led to a dramatically reduced form of liturgy.
In the Catholic church it led to one stable form of the Mass being adopted that endured for 500 years from the 1580's before it was simplifed slightly (and translated out of Latin) following the 2nd Vatican Council In 1960's.

What is astonishing to me though is how similar the liturgies and services still are, not just in general structure but right down to individual bits of vocabulary.  Below are selections from the current Anglican common worship, and a translation of the Latin Mass set in 1580, itself derived directly from forms of the Medieval Catholic Mass. 
 Services in Western Christianity (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran etc) contain a very similar basic structure dating back to the medieval Catholic service containing many or all of the elements I list below, and at least many of these should be familiar to any Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and many other western Christians. 

Eastern Orthodox churches are slightly different and date back even earlier, but contain most of these same features in a slightly less instantly recognisable form.
 Some more protestant services have a considerably more simple structure, especially if they don't necessarily involve communion.

A common evangelical approach is known affectionately as the Sandwich:  'Worship'-Prayers/testimony-Sermon done.

 Some evangelicals at least claim that they don't like liturgy, they say it's boring and fake and meaningless, but what they generally mean is they prefer a minimalistic liturgy. But the evangelical churches I've been to are definitely using a liturgy of a type even if they don't know it. Whether it's a better or worse liturgy is a very good question. And it can be just as boring and repetitive as any full Catholic-orthodox traditional liturgy.

But the evangelicals do have a good point, I don't think there is any point to church services or liturgy if we are just mumbling through the words every week, or just sitting there feeling bored, however complex or simple our liturgy may be. There is very little to be gained whatever form we use if it is not helping us grow in holiness throughout the week and the year and over our whole lives.

(Slight disclaimer: ‘catholic’ Christians such as myself who believe in the Real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist believe there is a real spiritual, blessed benefit to taking that Eucharist more or less regardless of what else we get from the service. I think what I say here is still strongly relevant in addition to that value though).

Some bits of the liturgy just don't seem to make much sense as we commonly perform them. My favourite example is the confession, which sounds a bit like this:  
 Now certainly in churches I have visited this is read out by the priest and then there is a two second delay before he pronounces God’s forgiveness for our sins. Now I don’t know about you but I need more time than that to confess my sins for the week.  In fact I’ve usually only got to about Monday lunchtime. 
And that’s not the only thing.  If we really, truly confessed our sins, in full realisation of what that meant, of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, the Love of God, and the darkness of sin then we would only ever need to confess them once and never again.  And again, I don’t know about you but I find myself coming back week after week and confessing more or less the same sins.
So what is the point of this?  Is it just bad, lazy religion?   

I think the answer is no. I do really value the liturgy and structure to our services, I really think that there is a lot that is really beautiful and valuable in these bits of liturgy that have come down to us and have been treasured by centuries of Christians.
So I want to try to think of how we can think about our liturgies and services to make them useful to our whole lives:
And my idea is basically this: Our services and liturgies offer us a model in concentrated form of what we should be trying to think about and follow for the rest of our week.  They don't do the job on their own, though they are particularly valuable as you are doing them.  But their main value is in acting as a model of spiritual discipline and the things we should be thinking about all the way through the week. In order to help us reflect on those ideas and grow in holiness.

By repeating these elements: 
 By repeating these elements on a weekly basis we establish them as a rhythm for our lives and through that they hopefully sink into our soul. 

As St Paul said, we should grow in prayer (and worship) until we “pray without ceasing”, until it submerges into us and becomes just an unconscious part of our character all the time.

 To give what I think is a similar example: take the way we approach Christmas, Easter, Pentecost or or the other Christian festivals, and indeed the cycle of the whole Church year.

 Our secular lives are also a series of repeated cycles day after day and year after year, and our religious lives follow that.  At those times we particularly remember that part of the Christian story and why it is important for us but we also have in our minds the rest of the Christian story, and we also remember those times the rest of the year.

We don’t just think about Christmas at Christmas and Easter at Easter, but try to hold the whole truth of God’s plan in our minds & hearts as a holistic whole throughout the year. But still we celebrate the festivals every single year as a big cycle that repeats itself but that hopefully grows deeper into our hearts with every year that comes around.

The thing is then that I don't think this process is going to occur automatically unless we're very lucky.  We can, I believe, help the process along by giving more attention to what we are saying and doing in services, whether while we're doing it or the rest of the time, and actively think how we can draw lessons from it, what it is trying to teach us, and how we can apply that to the rest of our lives. 

Hopefully then by doing it this will help us both to appreciate our liturgies and services more, and help us the rest of the time by providing an easily memorable basis for the rest of our spiritual lives.

So now I’m going to throw this a bit more open, and repeat some various parts of the liturgy (taken from the Anglican version, so please excuse me for that) and I want you to think about it is for, what important spiritual principles, stuff, do you think it represents and it is trying to do. Why is that important, and how we can we integrate that into our general lives, and where does it come from in the Bible, in the message of Jesus.

Again, I think this can be in two main ways.  The first is then to try and take the message of these bits of liturgy out into our ordinary lives outside church, to repeat them to ourselves and to use them as a guide in our everyday, and the 2nd is to bring that outside experience into Church, into our performance and worship of the liturgy as we are saying it in order to fill it with meaning and examples from that everyday life .

The wonderful thing about all these elements of liturgy is that they are, for want of a better word, catchy. One way we can possibly try to grow into these elements is just to repeat them to ourselves outside church, whether on the bus or before we go to bed or night, or briefly while sitting at our desk, and listen to how they sound, think about each word we're saying, each phrase, what they mean for us.

Another idea would be to just to empty one's mind and repeat them over and over again in the same ordinary circumstances, and try to just allow them to sink into the mind and the soul, and hopefully gain greater meaning by that.
 Another idea if you would like to know more about what you are saying in church, and hence hopefully to understand it better would be to wiki these parts.  They all have wikipedia articles giving at least a short explanation about their origins, their history, their biblical basis and their purpose, which might help you feel more like you know exactly what you are saying and why, and hence get more out of it.
Another idea is that in church while you are repeating these, or other words from other churches, you can actively bring to mind at that moment the wider significances that you think are relevant, and try to think at that moment how they fit into your wider world.

I think the Peace is wonderful.  It makes me get out of my seat, think about my community and its role in my worship of God. But the Peace of God is such a deeper concept than a handshake or hug.  It is the Biblical image of the Lion lying down with the Lamb and all the nations of the earth coming together to worship the Lord in Peace.

The image below is from the Syrian city of Homs, where a civil war is still raging.  And it and some other parts of the world are currently so far from that Peace.  It might help you really appreciate what we are committing to work towards achieving in the Peace to hold an image like the above in your mind while you say those words, to really think about how much God’s peace is needed, and what we need to overcome in the real world for that to become a reality.
Another element of the services that I would suggest trying to explore in this way are the Hymns.  I love Hymns, I really do.  A lot of the contain some really wonderful theological stuff and expressions and they are great because they do such a great job of capturing the emotions that go with those words, not just the words.

If someone asked me what the meaning of ‘Grace’ is. I would be very tempted to point them to the famous song below in order to give a better, more succinct explanation of the meaning and importance of this blessing to me and my life, more than any merely descriptive theological text could manage. And they are half way to liturgy, which is already stylised poetic speech. 
What Hymns or Worship Songs that you know do you find really speak to you from their content and not just their tune?

Maybe consider reading through them as prose, rather than as song, outside church, and really think about their meaning and what their message is. When I’ve done this I’ve been stunned by how moving some of the words and messages of these songs are, that are actually shrouded partially by the beauty of their music when we sing them.

Not that there’s anything  wrong with the singing, of course not.  But considering and understanding their content can then hopefully really enrich the way we sing them as true worship and as something we really mean, rather than just a  joyful noise.

Just to give one example of a carol, in this case, that I have seen in a new light ever since reading and meditating on the words.  A well loved and beautiful christmas song, but in the words alone a fiery and eloquent cry for what we often these days weakly refer to as ‘social justice’ that can’t help but reach deep into the heart.

(I have to confess at this point that I’ve always cringed slightly at the term ‘social justice’. It sounds like a limp, jargonised, euphemistic phrase for what should a burning and passionate concern for us all. I wish I could wave a magic wand and replace every single use of the term ‘social justice’ with that fiery passage from Amos ‘But let righteousness flow like a river and justice like a never-ending stream’ and I think that would on its own make the world a slightly better place.) 


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