Sunday, May 23, 2010

Church must have ...?

I've been taking part in what one commenter dubbed a blogalogue over on Jim Gordon's excellent blog, and feel driven to do a little exploring among some of the distinctive features of my own brand of Christian practice - or maybe, more accurately, among my feelings about them.

Not having been brought up an Episcopalian, I was captivated at first by the experience of singing in the incense-tinged, lovely acoustic of the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae. At first there was no belief, just the music, the beauty, the silence in the spaces, the wisdom of the old Dean, George Douglas. Belief came unsought - and I have always considered that these first factors produced the open-ness of the soul that made belief possible. A sense of mystery, of otherness, of possibility - and for me, an experience quite unlike anything in my Presbyterian upbringing.

So from this period, I would perhaps have said that for me, the things I had to have in my church life were beautiful music, preferably Byrd or Tallis, preferably with me involved in the singing of it; the 1970 liturgy - or even the Prayer Book; incense at the Eucharist; preaching of the highest order (but in 10 minute doses), and silence - profound silence. No chat before or after the service, no children, but high seriousness of purpose and demeanour. And certainly never, ever, a happy-clappy worship song - and note the pejorative description.

Things change as we grow older, and in the intervening 36 years since my confirmation I've come to realise a thing or two. For example, I understand more about my attitude to music. I'm still completely spoiled by having really good organ music when I'm in church (it helps if you marry the really good organist), but we haven't had a regular choir in 20 years and I now know (a) that singing with a good group is a huge privilege but (b) that I can worship with music just as well from the body of the congregation. But if the organist is incompetent at leading the congregation - and some well-qualified organists are terrible - or if the congregational singing is of the baying/dragging/out-of-tune variety, I'd rather go to a said service.

I'd chuck out big chunks of Victorian stuff from the hymn book these days, having discovered the power to move of some modern songs - though some of them would move me right out of the door. So despite my hair-tingling recollection of the first time I sang Let all mortal flesh keep silence, my list of absolute must-haves in music has altered over the years. Similarly, I've learned to place more store by modern liturgical language, though I still love the psalms in their prayer-book version. And Compline as found in the prayer book is a joy - especially if you throw in plainsong - though one I rarely experience. So I guess I'd go for set liturgy as a must-have, but a variety of language, as long as it is beautiful and poetic. And the central must-have of all is the communion, that meeting-point of heaven and earth, beyond rational explanation.

So what's left? Incense and silence. Silence is easy. I love it. I need gaps for things to happen in - gaps in intercessions, between readings, in the middle of the Eucharistic prayers, before a service. Yes. Let's keep silence. And incense? We had glorious incense today, Pentecost, but it has become a rare treat for high days and holidays. I think that's fine too - but the mystery of the symbolism and the antiquity of the ritual seem to me to provide a bridge between past and present, earth and heaven, humanity and God. I wouldn't turn from ecumenism for the sake of incense, but it'd be a missing element, a regret for something lost.

So I suppose I arrive at a situation where I want to share conversation, fellowship, love with Christians from other traditions, but need my own traditions of worship on a regular basis, complete with the Eucharist. Presumably this is what keeps us in our various ruinous buildings, each in our own small corner, struggling to find clergy and cash. And yes, this is diversity rather than division, but maintained at a cost that might finish us all off. And that would be sad, no?


  1. I'm glad to share your view of worship and ritual, I think.

    What amuses me is the idea of liking the 1970 liturgy; or rather, to clarify, that I like 1982 now presumably similarly to how others like 1970 since it came out.[1]

    The church - a church - and its members - need(s) to embrace openness, which comes in at least two clear forms, openness to both other and to change.

    Looking beyond the superficial heats of praise-guitar, I've been in churches that offer a variety of services, both regular slots in the week but also where "6.30 will be a Taizé service this week" and everyone is absolutely fine with it, happy to experience something new from somewhere else.
    I've also been in churches where the use of the left-column Lord's Prayer, or a Creed taken from Phil.2:, causes notable semi-adverse comment ("can he do that?") after the show.
    One of these is healthier than the other.

    I hope to retain practice-what-I-preach, diversity, the above kinds of openness, as time goes on.

  2. This is a fine post Chris. faith is seldom more persuasive than when given gently in personal testimony. And yes I do see the non-sense of church duplication in order to maintain distinctives. maybe the ecumenical discussions should focus now on how we retain diversity of tradition without maintaing damging division at institutional levels of buildings, resources and ideas.
    By the way, the word verification is STUNC - suggesting perhaps that division is a bad smell, over and against the incense of shared and mutual respect, in fellowship, together. :))

  3. As you might have guessed, Chris, this rang the loudest of loud bells for me as our experiences have been so similar...To my shame I FORGOT TO ASK FOR INCENSE yesterday,tho...which maybe says something about where I am now!

  4. I can do without incense (rank heresy in some quarters, I know). But I like your implied distinction between belief and worship. Having been brought up in the RC church, I was (like those in the C of S) required to sign up to theological formularies. We have to keep the Creed, of course, but needn't go beyond that. I would want to defend a distinction between belief and faith. Belief issues in credal statements, faith issues in worship.

  5. Having come from a Church-loving Irish Methodist background, and then falling in love with and marrying a daughter of the rectory at Bearsden where we met, over forty years ago, my old habits of worship had to change....and I loved it!

    I loved the music, the concept of liturgy,the robed choir, the order and ritual of it all...and I don't think my parents would have complained.

    Now deeply involved with a choir which concentrates on singing Evensong in far-flung places, I see the delight in the eyes of the old-timers who thought they might never hear these words and notes again. It is a privilege to remind them of the wonderful words and maybe bring back long forgotten memories of yesteryear.

    Having said that, as members of St Mary's Cathedral in Glasgow, we are exposed to a wondefully-eclectic range of hymns, tunes, anthems, sermons, intercessions, as well as the occasional incense (probably the only thing to which my parents might have objected!).

    And the silence which can be achieved in such a large building!

    I really am able to get the best of both worlds!

  6. Thanks all for interesting conversation!