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Has Something Been Lost in Our Worship?

In The Church on November 1, 2014 at 4:44 am

Liturgy 1When I was a university student, I came across a graphic which put the major denominations on a continuum from Roman Catholics and Anglicans on the one side, to the Evangelical denominations on the other. I’m not exactly sure of the exact wording, but my recollection is that the continuum compared the degree a denomination was open to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a church service (what Owen Meany would call “hocus pocus”). The mainline churches, like the Christian Reformed Church to which I have belonged since birth, was right in the middle.

At the time, I didn’t understand how exactly the church of my youth was at all open to the Holy Spirit in the physical elements of liturgy. It was nothing like the Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Roman Catholic worship services I had attended over the years. These services were full of mysterious objects and activities that I don’t understand or appreciate, but I definitely got the sense that the physical elements were infused with a mystery, and power.

I once went to a Greek Orthodox on a Sunday morning, but hadn’t bothered checking when the service began, so I got there about an hour and a half too early. Although the pews were completely empty, there was a lot of activity behind the heavily iconic screen in the middle of the sanctuary. The priests were chanting and praying and doing things with the Bible and candles and incense and I don’t know what else. What struck me was the lack of an audience. Adorned in their priestly vestments, they were going through all sorts of complex ritual and there was no one there to see it. Or was there? It’s interesting that as much as we talk about God being the centre of worship in our protestant churches, our rituals suggest otherwise. In the churches I’m familiar with, the worship starts when the congregants show up and not before.

Besides meaningful interactions with God and preparing themselves for their role in the service, I think the Greek Orthodox priests were also engaged in activities that prepared the physical space for worship. It makes some sense that you can’t just have people walk into a place and start worshiping the Almighty, Triune, Creator God. I was thinking about the space of worship in the church of my youth. Back then it was called a sanctuary. I know that the worship space in many churches today is called an auditorium.   Labels make a lot of difference. A sanctuary is a sacred or holy place. An auditorium is a place where you hear things. Notice how the first suggests the presence of the holy and the spiritual in the physical space, where the second places an emphasis on human activity; humans making noises and hearing them.

I’m glad my new church doesn’t call the space we gather for corporate worship as “the auditorium.” But what about the sense of holiness for the space in which we worship?  I wonder if we have gone too far in the last 500 years.

 

Reflections in the Cathedral

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on August 21, 2013 at 8:44 pm

114I have not posted this summer because my wife and spent several glorious weeks in Europe.  Our trip covered three Sundays and we attended services in the cathedrals of  three different cities–Salzburg, Vienna and Prague.  Worshiping in these cathedrals was one of the highlights of a wonderful  trip.

Holidays are a great opportunity to visit other churches.  Each congregation values different things.  If approached with an attitude of humility, it’s very good to worship with Christians of different stripes because it helps to broaden our understanding about ourselves, the Church and the God we worship.

All three of these services were very different from the very large Protestant church I attend every other Sunday of the year, and the experience provided some significant insights that I will share over the next few posts. 

One of this most fundamental lessons that one can take away from a very different worship experience is a challenge to the idea of what is “normal”  in worship.  The essential purpose of all Church services whether in a gym or cathedral is the worship of God–as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   It’s very easy to fall into the idea that the way my church/denomination worships is “normal,” and alternative approaches are abnormal and inferior.   Honest encounters with difference can help dispel these harmful notions.  

Before a Protestant participates in a Roman Catholic mass, it is important to appropriately frame the historical relationship between these two branches of the Body of Christ.  It is not productive to adopt the simplistic narrative that says the Roman church was corrupt and encumbered by extra-Biblical doctrines and rituals of which the church needed purging.  Rebellion against corruption and some theological imbalances were a part of the early Reformation,  but it quickly became something else.   The Reformation shifted authority from the Church and tradition to the individual.  Before 1517, the Bible was read in Latin and interpreted by the church through the filter of a long tradition.  The Reformation resulted in Bibles written in the vernacular so people could read and interpret it for themselves.  Individuals could also access God more directly without the mediation of a priest.  These changes were perhaps necessary in that they recognized that faith had both an individual as well as a collective component.  But with reforms such as these, the Reformation also ushered in a significantly different way of thinking about the self and its relationship to authority.  These changes prompted other changes which have effected western civilization ever since. 

It’s why we have so many denominations in the church.  Liberal democracy couldn’t be conceived without it.   Moral relativism is it’s logical end–most of the most contentious issues in our culture today are a result of the individual asserting its autonomy. 

The Reformation may have initially asserted individuality, but this grew into the individualism which dominates our culture today.   We understand the self as autonomous, there is no greater authority.   “My rights, my choice” is the modern mantra. 

There’s no doubt that the church needed some reform in the 16th century because it was filled with the idolatries of the day.  But we fool ourselves if we think we are not equally susceptible to the idolatries of the world.  One of the main idolatries in our culture is Individualism and worship of this idol has permeated the western church. 

One of the ways this is seen is with the emphasis in Christian circles on “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”   Although this is an important dimension of the Christian life,  the Bible has much more to say about how we are to live in community than it says about a personal relationship with Jesus.   This imbalance can often be seen in the language we use around baptism of adults and even the professions of faith of those baptized as infants.  We can also see it in our tendency to sing more songs like, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” rather than, “I Sought the Lord and Afterward I Knew.”  We see it in our interpretation of principle of being “salt and light” in the world to be an individual, rather than a collective mandate (for example when we choose and education for our children).

We have the same problem that every church of every age and every place has–we are blind to our idolatries.  By humbly engaging meaningfully with Roman Catholics (or Protestants from non-Western societies) we can more easily see our own idolatries. 

 I hoped that worshiping in a cathedral  would give me a glimpse into a time when we weren’t so immersed in the worship of the self.