As some of you will be aware I am a curate at Anglican church that recently underwent a huge change. At the start of this change two different churches in two different parishes became two churches in one parish. Then sometime after that through force of circumstance, the church belonging to the larger/charismatic/evangelical/conservative congregation had to be closed and we all had to squeeze into the building belonging to the smaller, Anglo-Catholic congregation. Initially we were able to maintain the integrity of the different worship styles by running separate services. Last week marked the first service in which we drew two congregations into one in one of our services. This was the sermon I preached. It’s much longer than my usual blog posts so perhaps this is only for those with particular interest. There are three parts: what does ‘high’ and ‘low’ mean when we talk about worshipping God? My own journey with these styles of worship and finally, a short reflection on the readings that were set for the day.
Today is a significant occasion. We are bringing together members of two different congregations and seeking to blend into one worship service, the elements of worship that matter most to those congregations. I am very aware that our journey to this point has not always been comfortable. I could have chosen to simply preach from the passages and not to refer to this significant threshold.
But I do feel very passionate about this service and I do love all you very much and I want to see you growing in faith and worshipping in harmony. So I am going to speak about what we are trying to do here and why. I am going to tell you a little about my own personal journey of faith and yes, I will also open up both the passages we have heard read to us.
So what are we trying to do here? Bring together a more high style of Anglo-catholic worship with a more low style of traditional Anglican. Isn’t that impossible?
Let’s stay with the two words ‘high’ and ‘low’ to help us. They are everyday words no one struggles to understand them in an ordinary context but what do they mean when we apply them to worship? Well putting it simply (and I did warn you this would be greatly simplified) it could be said that a church that worships in a high style has a high view of God. Out of all his characteristics the one they celebrate the most is that he is above and beyond us, that he is glorious, unsearchable and in some respects, unknowable. Knowing that God is great and awesome means we should come before him with solemnity, awe, seriousness. We should worship in an orderly way rather than in a casual fashion.
And all of those things I’ve just said about God ARE true. It is one aspect of his character that he is beyond our understanding, lives in unapproachable light and holiness. God is HIGH above us. There is a theological term for this: transcendence or God’s ‘far-away-ness’.
A church that worships in a low style could be said to celebrates most of all out of all God’s characteristics, his nearness: that God has stooped low to be with us. A ‘low’ view of God is not one that thinks badly of God, rather it is one that celebrates that God is close to us, knows us intimately, can be known by us, is our ever-present refuge and strength, our Abba Father.
And all of this is also true of God. There is also a theological term for this: immanence, his ‘near-by-ness’
So high worship celebrates and remembers one aspect of God’s character, his far-away-ness, his awesomeness and low worship celebrates this nearness, his desire to be known by us. (These are very broad generalisations I know – my college lecturers will be raising their eyebrows or sighing!)
Now before you choose between these two emphases and say ‘well, I prefer one and not the other’ let me tell you cannot do that. You may have grown up in one tradition or the other (as did I) so you might feel more comfortable with one style rather than another but both aspects of God’s character are true and if we are really going to grow in our knowledge of God we need to believe them both and hold them in tension.
God is far away and unknowable.
God is near by and knowable.
Both statements are true.
And what I’ve just said about these two views of God goes a very long way to explain all the ‘little’ differences.
High worship uses liturgy – because if God is so Almighty and worthy of honour then perhaps we should only use specially chosen and crafted words to address him. Vestments – because as we come before him we come in a role as ministers, formally as priests not as individuals. Beauty and creative art work (including ornate church buildings) because the worship of God should reflect the glory and creativity of God. ‘Bells and Smells and kneeling’ – because worship can engage all our senses and we bring ourselves as bodies not just souls.
Low worship: often means praying in our own words – because God is close by and we can talk to him normally. Not wearing vestments because sees us all equally. Not attaching a particular value to a place or a ritual in case those objects or places become more important that the spiritual realities they reflect.
So much for simple (very, very simple) definitions. What about my own faith journey?
I grew up in a Brethren Assembly. As worship styles go, it’s about as low as you can go. No ministers, no robes, no symbolic objects, no liturgy. Extemporary prayer gave the freedom to talk to God naturally and freely although in reality the same things were said every week.
I loved it! I thrived on the strong emphasis on Bible knowledge. I understood God to be my close and personal Saviour. My faith was planted and nurtured and sustained.
Fast forward 40 years and look at me now!
My evangelical fore-fathers would be shocked.
How did I get here? Well, on one level, you know the answer to that question: I trained for the Anglican ministry but on another level, I have come to a place or point in my life where I am more comfortable worshipping God with more formality than before. I love liturgy. Not because I can’t pray to God in my own words because I can (and do so frequently) but because liturgy allows everyone to join in and means we can say something meaningful together. I love symbol and ritual and yes, even vestments but it’s not been the ministerial training that brought about this change. Instead I would point to an inward journey: a journey that has taken me through doubt, uncertainty, loss, grief and bereavement.
Let’s just say the realities (I prefer to call them ‘normalities’) of life have somewhat squeezed out of me all those happy certainties of my youth and this has changed the way I worship.
So do I stand before you as some ‘weaker’ kind of Christian (as if everyone who embraces a higher style of worship has a weaker faith? Sadly, this is an evangelical view) No! My faith is just as ‘strong’ but I have learnt to loosen my grip on the idea that it’s possible to know all there is to know about God and understand Him. I have had to learn to embrace and accept that God IS beyond and above us and often above our understanding but I still worship Him, trust Him and believe in Him.
I have come to love liturgy because there have been times in my life when written prayers have sustained me, they have kept me connected to God when I felt I could find no words of my own to pray. I have also drawn comfort from the shared experiences of God they express.
I’ve come to love ritual because it helps reinforce habits that are good for me so when I pray I light a candle. It helps me focus, it reminds me that while I’m sitting there in the light of that candle even though I may be thinking/writing/reading or praying, I am doing it all consciously wanting to be put myself in the light of Christ. Jesus condemned showy, empty ritual, he did not condemn ritual in itself.
I’ve even come to like vestments (‘love’ might be too strong a word!) I value they way they are meant to take me out of the picture as I seek to help you worship.
It’s been a long journey and not an overnight change but most of you have been Anglicans from the beginning so your starting point has not been as low as mine! And of course some people might take a similar journey in life only in the reverse direction.
So I’ve given you some simple theology and I’ve told you my own story but I haven’t yet opened the Bible and you would be right to be disappointed if I didn’t do that.
These two views of God’s character that I’ve explained – are they in the Bible? Or aren’t they just outcomes of church history? I’m not denying church history has a huge part to play but these two views of God’s character are in the Bible.
Our two readings for today could hardly be better illustrations and yet they are the set readings for today – I promise you I have not fixed this!
In the Malachi reading (Malachi 3:1-5) the prophet is talking about God’s messenger coming but the picture is one of blazing fire, as purifying judge. The emphasis is definitely on the otherness of God, his far-away-ness, his transcendence. ‘Who can stand before him? Who can endure the day of his coming? This is a God who commands and expects respect, awe, fear – a holy fear. There is nothing casual about this passage.
The reading from Luke (Luke 2:21-34) is completely and utterly different. God’s messenger has come: Jesus, God with us, Immanuel and he is a BABY!! He is carried into the temple in Mary’s arms.
What could be less threatening than a tiny baby? We don’t fall back in fear and trembling at a baby, we come close and we use a very different, familiar kind of language. This is a picture of God ‘close by’.
And it isn’t that the Old Testament got it ‘wrong’ and the New Testament got it ‘right’. Both of these aspects of God’s character can be evidenced in both Old and New Testaments.
God ‘became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14). God, in Jesus has been seen and known and has laid down his life and yet God will still come as judge, as that blazing fire to refine, as strong soap to cleanse (judgement is almost always a more positive concept in the Bible than we tend to think, God putting things right is the emphasis).
In both passages the writer was saying ‘Be ready God is coming and be warned: he might not be quite what you are expecting’. The Jewish people expected a saviour on their side against their enemies, not one coming to sort them out. Simeon was almost certainly not expecting to see God come as a baby. But God opened his eyes to see God in a way he had not seen him before.
So which view of God are you least comfortable with? A high view or a low view? Can you pray that God will open your eyes and heart to see him and understand him in a deeper and new way?
There are, of course dangers in both styles of worship. To remain always with a very high style of worship means you might never grasp the fact that God wants to be personally known to you as Father: this becomes ritual without relationship. A higher style of worship might also seem inaccessible to those not used to church (but recent rising attendance at our Cathedrals somewhat contradicts this suggestion).
To remain always in a very low style of worship is to risk believing that you have got God sussed, he is your ‘best mate’. If you think you have God’s dimensions mapped, then it’s likely that your view of God is too small. This is relationship without respect. A lower style of worship might not convey a sense of awe and respect.
As we seek to worship together, it is my prayer and my hope that we will be able to express both personal, deep and real relationship with God and with one another, with an appropriate and meaningful respect for both God and one another.
(This was the end of the sermon but I’d like to add that I’m not discussing here the merits of modern versus traditional styles of worship. I don’t much mind whether you like to worship God in place resembling a warehouse with a rock band, stage lights and amazing visual effects or whether you prefer hymns, organ music and set forms of service (though, thankfully, these can be blended: we don’t have to choose between the two extremes). I’m just making the point that any worship experience needs to acknowledge both aspects of God’s character: his immanence and his transcendence. Without these it becomes unbalanced. In fact I am deeply heartened than many modern, youth driven worship scenes are recognising the importance of such things as visual symbols, physical actions, silence, and ritual. They are re-discovering ways of spirituality that have been respected and taught for centuries. May God bless them in that.)