Learning about worship by not doing it

With the loosening of COVID-19 regulations in the UK, Wendy and I have been able to go back to church for the first time in over four months. I have not ‘stayed away from church’ this long since my period of skepticism in my early teens. For about forty-five years, I have attended church most weeks and have received the Holy Communion, if not weekly, then very frequently. I have missed it badly these past months: a big gap in who I am.

Clergy have worked hard, and creatively, to provide online services which have helped their congregations stay in touch with the Word of God and with the sacrament of Holy Communion, usually through ‘spiritual communion’ but in some cases by experimenting with so-called ‘virtual communion’. I have written on the subject here – in summary, I am skeptical and concerned about the distinctions it blurs.

But now I can take communion again, which is wonderful. I don’t take the priest’s role in the services, because of the uncertainties over Wendy and I needing to maintain some element of shielding still. But we have been attending the Communion service, and that is by far the main thing.

Worshipping, after such long time, has caused me to experience and reflect again on the nature of what it means ‘to worship’.

Worship is more than about words. The Church of England bases its worship on its service books: the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship. It has expended a lot of controversy and time over getting the words ‘right’. Of course, this is important — I believe the words I utter to God shape my understanding of God. They affect my belief and to some extent my relationship with God. But the words are only part of what happens when I join in worship. Indeed, some of the most important moments in worship occur in silence – when I’m not either listening to, or saying words.

Worship is more than about music. This is particularly the case at the moment in the UK, when singing is not permitted for fear of spread of infection. The music used in the liturgy at my church at the moment is beautiful: we have an outstanding director of music who makes the organ sing and we have a choir who are able to sing a motet in an adjoining space, and it echoes around the church itself ethereally. But we cannot sing as a congregation. But somehow, the lack of music, though anomalous for Christian worship, does not – in the end – matter. Music is wonderful when we can offer it to God — music is one of the most wonderful expressions of what it means to be human, but we can worship without it.

Worship is more than about thinking. Thinking is important in worship. Listening attentively to the Bible readings and hearing a good sermon gives us ‘food for thought’ which goes beyond the service, into the coming week. We keep coming back to it in our reflections and our prayers. It enriches our spiritual development and it deepens our understanding of this mystery we call ‘life’. It challenges our wills. But it is only a small part of the experience of what it means to worship the Lord. Worship is valid, even when there is no sermon — although a sermon should enhance our worship. I missed the sermons when I was away from worship, but I was able to read and ponder, nevertheless.

Worship is more than about aesthetics. The worship at All Saints is beautiful: the music, the words, the architecture, the ceremonial. All of these affect me greatly. They touch my heart. They enrich me as a human being. But, again, that is not of the essence. In the current circumstances, certain changes have to be made – cameras have to be moved around, switched on and off. Facemasks make people look strange and distant. The choir are limited in how, and how much they can sing. Alternating pews are taped up with yellow striped tape. Nothing is perfect: the reality of Covid always bites, limits and compromises. Our limitations are very much on display.

Worship is more than about personalities. It’s wonderful to meet friends I have missed, share expressions of affection, love and having missed one another. Friendship in God (or, as Christians call it, fellowship) is important. Being part of a community of faith means we are open to one another in a special way – where our vulnerabilities are acknowledged, sins admitted, love and forgiveness shown, hope shared, help given. But when we come before God, this is reconfigured – it finds its true rationale and direction. Still less is worship about the personalities of those who are more prominent (‘up front’). This isn’t about Fr A the priest, or a famous organist, or a well-known worship band leader, or a renowned preacher. In the presence of God, who else happens to be there is almost irrelevant.

Worship is more than emotions. We are emotional creatures and therefore if we are ’emotion-less’ then our engagement is called into question. Worship evokes emotional, as well as other responses. But there is an enormous variation in different people’s emotional vocabulary. Some are effusive and sentimental. Others are quite the reverse, but whose emotions are often more powerful for being sublimated. If worship ‘leaves us cold’, emotionally, then clearly something is wrong. But we would be wrong to associate hairs standing up at the back of our necks as the same as worship. Many things can do this for us: opera, film, literature.

Psalm 122 says:

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.

This image of the Israelites coming together from the whole land, converging on the place of worship gives something of the importance of gathering. It was the gathering and the embodiment which I had missed. The most fundamental thing, for me, about worship is the commitment of my whole self – body, mind and spirit. The other part is the coming together, with other people – the redeemed bodies, minds, spirits – that make up the People of God. Notwithstanding the wonderful, creative ways we have taken to engage with one another during the lockdown, and for me, during shielding, it has been this gathering, this ‘going up to the house of the Lord’ that I have missed so badly. The pure physicality of taking my place in the liturgy of worship, finding my place, being alongside others, joining in, being one part of a whole – this is what has been missing and what, I believe, is the essence of worship. This ‘finding of our place’ before God and doing what is most rational in that place (worshipping God) is what is the essence. This is what St Paul means, I think, in his words in Romans 12:1:

“present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God, which is your spiritual (Greek: logike) worship.”

It’s not the words. It’s not the music. It’s not the thinking. It’s not the aesthetics. It’s not the personalities. It’s not the emotions.

It’s about taking this body of mine at a particular time and to a particular place, and “finding its place” by joining alongside others before the face of Almighty God – as God’s people, together in his presence, that I’ve missed. And this is the essence of corporate worship; of what we call ‘liturgy’ – the action and duty of the people of God.

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