Friday, October 05, 2007

What Is Worship?

Well, I’ve survived the first week of term. Just about…!

This first half-term, all the first years have to visit at least seven different churches, from various traditions and including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and a black majority Wesleyan. Part of the idea is to expose ourselves to different traditions, and reflect on them; and part of the idea, I suspect, is to be made uncomfortable by certain things, and to reflect on why we felt uncomfortable. Then, each week, we’ll attend a seminar, posing different questions. This week, the question was: what is worship?

Last Sunday night I went along to Trent Vineyard. As I have known many people who worship in Vineyard churches, and have worshipped in an Anglican church that has a close relationship with the Vineyard, I thought I would feel more or less at home. But as it turned out, I found it a very uncomfortable experience.

There were several things I felt uncomfortable with, which I won’t go into here. But one thing I felt uncomfortable with was the absence of a cross, or crucifix, and an altar as a focal point – or, indeed, anywhere at all in the purpose-built auditorium. (The focal point was the worship band, spread out across a stage at the front.)

Now, the absence of a fixed cross and altar would not have bothered me if we had been gathered in a café (though in such a space I would expect a portable cross and a surface appropriated as a make-shift altar), but in a space purpose-built for Christian worship, it just didn’t feel right. Why not? That comes down to how I would answer that question, what is worship?

What is worship? By which I mean to ask, what lies at the heart of formal, corporate worship? (And yes, I believe that worship goes wider than formal, corporate worship; but that is the question, in this context.) Here’s my answer:

The heart of formal, corporate worship is the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not only the point where we remember Jesus’ body broken 2,000 years ago; but the point where the Holy Spirit re-members Jesus’ broken body today. We are the Body of Christ, dispersed both by our geographical circumstances and by those things that come between us and each other and God, which we call sin. The movement of formal, corporate worship, the sequence of its elements, brings us to the point where the broken body is re-membered, in order to be sent out into the world again. It is a journey to the Eucharist; and then out from the Eucharist; with the Eurcharist being the focus, the heart, the pivotal moment. The symbols of Christ’s body and blood, on the altar, at the foot of the cross.

And because this is my answer to the question, what is worship? to be in a place of formal, corporate worship devoid of cross and altar felt profoundly disturbing.

What about you? How would you answer the question?
Would you need a cross and altar?
Or, are you equally comfortable with their presence or absence?
Or, do you find such physical symbols a distraction away from the spiritual truths they were designed to point to?

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  1. Very interesting one that - I wouldn't have thought about the altar at all, but certainly would have expected a cross.

    Maybe the altar is an Anglican thing.

  2. This is the problem when tradition in the broadest possible sense (perhaps I could say what is truly "catholic") is left behind and what is a protest becomes the new tradition. Maybe it is what is wrong with me, but I'm with you.
    If there's no alter, no cross, no Eucharist then to be honest, I'm not interested. Just as well I have spent the weekend with the monks!!


  3. Brian - I think the altar would be a 'thing' for any Catholic (e.g. Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) or Orthodox (e.g. Russian, Greek) church. Less so for Protestant churches (though it is certainly a 'thing' for the Brethren). And on that, I think Chris hits the nail on the head...

    Chris - great to hear from you. I was thinking of you just on Friday, as I walked home from college. It was a beautiful afternoon, at the end of a busy week, and I was thinking of how you gather your neighbours at that time, and open the wine for the grown-ups, and throw something together for all the kids to eat, while they play together...and how great it would be to do that here...

  4. Yes, you're probably right. I was meaning an Anglican thing in the context of you being an Anglican, whereas I'm from a hotch-potch of non-conformist traditions!

  5. I was thinking about your comment about the focal point being the worship band this morning. It's a trap that can be easy to fall into, and I believe on Matt Redman's heart when writing Heart of Worship.

    It's also something that can happen across a range of traditions. Churches with strong choral traditions can sometimes become too focused on the choir. The chapel at my college seemed to be run by the director of music rather than the Chaplain.

  6. Amanda made the observation that the altar was was particularly significant in the OT, and that under the new covenant the cross has in a sense become the altar, as it is the place of sacrifice.

  7. I really struggled with your posting this time!

    The reason is simply that to me, crosses, altars, (etc) and other parts of our sanctuary furnishings are helpful because they point to realities beyond themselves. The realities are no less significant if they are brought to me through song lyrics as through visual symbols - or prayer or fellowship.

    In the (ultra Reformed) church in which I was raised, the pulpit was central. When the pulpit was moved as the church changed, some of our most dearly loved preachers refused to come! I remember thinking as a teenager that such an emphasis on the externalities was not going to be a barrier to worship or fellowship.

    Now I go to a baptist church in Scotland which is visually rather plain, I worship with my parents in the CofE when with them, and when in Birmingham with close friends go to the Vineyard with them. In each of these places the, pulpit, the altar and the band are visually central - (each value the Bible, the sacrament and praise as being the prime means of grace) - but in each place there is a desire to make Christ himself central. As such I find each of these places in which I am blessed more than disturbed.

    My main thought is this: The absence of one channel of blessing surely does not negate the effectiveness of all the others?!

    -Surely if God in Christ approaches us through praise one week and in eucharist the next the 1st priority of response is humble worship, rather than allowing 2nd priority matters to lessen our felowship?

    I'm willing to be shot down in flames if you think I'm losing the plot, but as I say - I really struggled with your posting today - which is an unusual thing!

  8. Anonymous2:44 pm

    My reformed protestant anglican upbringing would look for a Bible and the Lord's Table not an altar - a place of meeting, fellowship, communing, commissioning, preparation, prayer.
    (aliteration unintentional!).

    I've since worshipped in settings where symbols, in particular the Cross, were very important, and for me that they do have a place.

    But I've got used to worshipping in non-traditional places and not sure now I'd always notice they were missing. Though on my visits to civic crematorium chapels, I've been intrigued to see how they deal with the different symbolic requirements of many faiths.

    I have too found it uncomfortable when the worship band (or leader) becomes the focus. And for me the position is important - the worship leader shouldn't be stage centre. But the reading and preaching of the Word should.

    (I remember years ago my Dad once getting cross at the use of a pulpit for conducting the choir rather than its proper use for the exposition of the Word. Like That Hideous Man I took a more pragmatic view back then, but I think thirty plus years later I've just said something similar.)

  9. As to the question: "What is worship", Prof I. Howard Marshall caused a stir a few years ago with an article that argued that in NT terms the primary purpose of belivers meeting together was not "worship" but for mutual equipping and edification - which then enabled them to serve in the world... which IS worship!

    I read recently of a pastor who had concluded a service with the words, "We will now move into an extended time of worship, which begins as we go out through the church doors" !!!

    Marshall's original article is an interesting read, available online at:

  10. Thanks for the recent comments. Its been interesting to see what thoughts my original post has provoked. And provoking thought, rather than prescribing thought, was my intention. So no-one is going to be shot down in flames!

    I like the idea that worship is what we do through the week, and it is for that very reason that I see our being re-membered for that purpose as the central and pivotal point of our formal times of communal worship. The Holy Spirit does something through the bread and wine which is more than symbolic - it is mystical.

    My point is not to say that one or other tradition is right or wrong, but to ask, what is important to me, and why? That is, I think, part of the reason why in our first term at college we have been set this task. That it is important to be self-aware, and open to learning from others. That we need to know not only what we do, but why we do what we do. Yes, I felt uncomfortable that Sunday night; and it was important that I reflected on why that was so. And yes, there was a cumulative effect of other things that I felt uncomfortable with that meant that I didn't feel able to hear from God, and that says something of my own limits rather than God's, and may suggest I need to learn to meet God in other ways, through other channels of grace. But I don't think that invalidates the questions I posed, or even my right to pose them. And I think the comments in response have made for a worthwhile discussion. So thank you for taking the time to respond!

  11. Thanks for the reponse to the responses!

    You said, that the eucharist is "more than symbolic it is mystical."

    What concerns me about that statement is that is seems to be made in contrast to the other means of grace - as if they weren't! Aren't we the body of Christ gathering to praise, 'mystical', isn't corporate prayer deeply 'mystical' isn't real fellowship, reading scripture and Spirit-led preaching mystical too?

    If you would argue that they are not, then please help me understand what you mean by 'mystical'.