I have real difficulty with superficiality in worship. For me prime examples of this are many of the ‘praise choruses’ of the ‘Mission Praise’ style-stuff when they’re used in adult worship, usually led by a praise band. To me they come across “Jesus, we love you. Yeah we really really really really love you”. They don’t, for me, inspire awe and wonder, nor an immersion into the depths of the Divine Life. They’re more the Birdy Song, but for churchgoers (1980’s reference – if you’re too young, go look it up on YouTube or something). Maybe not ALL of them, just 99.999%.
To be fair, it’s not simply the more nauseating praise choruses I struggle with. Much ‘worship’ in Church, of any tradition, can so easily turn into sycophancy, and sometimes become disturbingly segregationist. In my ‘home’ Anglo-Catholic tradition, there can be a tendency towards pomposity (I have been guilty of this myself prior to getting a good spiritual kicking that set me back on the path of liturgical righteousness). At its best this tradition allows for art and symbol to reveal something of the beauty of God. However, all too often I have seen such a beauty degenerate into tackiness, devotion replaced by attachment to ritual minutiae that mean little or nothing to the average worshipper and catwalking ministers parading vestments like they’re on ‘Britain’s next top clerical model’ . If there is a real danger in the Anglo-Catholic tradition that formed me, it is that it can lionise us clergy and reduce the laity to the role of the spectating audience.
Ultimately, I feel that so much worship, from whatever part of the spectrum, can become a kind of displacement activity, providing a convenient excuse to avoid the call to do the hard inner spiritual work of co-operating with Grace in what Jesus called metanoia – not the awful word ‘repentance’ it’s usually translated as, but more literally ‘change you mind’. Changing our minds about the things we think, do and say that obscure the Light of Christ within us.
Externalised ritual of whatever hue is not in itself the problem. I have, for instance, no issue with bowing to the altar that is the table representative of Christ’s presence in Communion or indeed many actions if done with mindfulness and clearly communicate inner meaning to others and to our own hearts and minds. Whilst my favourite worship forms are simple, with much silence, I have no problem crossing myself before a crucifix, bowing my head before an icon or statue, and the sacramental prayer action of Communion is a bedrock of my spiritual life across the years. What is it that makes it authentic for me? Simply this: mindful ritual is the antithesis of so much sycophantic and superficial worship that all too often effectively just says the likes of ‘you’re great, us not so much. We are worthless. We cringe before you’ (okay, that’s maybe an extreme description, but it makes a point).
True ‘worship’ is a respectful acknowledging of the Christ-light, the vulnerable, compassionate and generous grace of the Divine. Christ-nature is the default position of every ‘thing’ manifested throughout existence. Like Jesus, in our essential nature we are totally God and together everything in this physical universe is the whole of “The Word made flesh” – not simply one man from Nazerath two thousand years ago (ok, cue cries of heresy. . . .). Quakers call it ‘the Inner Light’ or ‘that which is of God within all’. Good liturgy will always point us beyond sycophancy and externalisation into the awareness of the Divine life and light that runs through all. Whilst external actions without thought can be meaningless, with attentiveness symbols such as crossing myself, bowing, the sharing of communion, and so forth, all become meditative moments of awareness. When I call Christ my Lord, I deeply bow to the Divine life that runs counter to all the other things that seek to be the centre of our existence – consumerism, self-centredness, power-mongering, violence. I bow to that Divine Life and in doing so awaken once again to its light within me. I see it focused in the man Jesus, and in the communion of life surrounding me – and then I recognise that it is my truest Self, once all the masks I have learned to wear through fear and ignorance have been stripped away from me.
Real worship isn’t a palliative – ‘take one Sunday Mass and come back and see me next week’. It’s a curative pointing towards a deep Truth. Giving worth to that which we call God is an opportunity to open our awareness to the deep communion of Divine life of which we are already a part – if only we have eyes open to see and ears to hear.
Ok – if you aren’t feeling too kindly towards me right now, that’s fine We can agree to disagree over what floats your liturgical boat. Just don’t ask me to sing the following nauseating offering:
Our God is an awesome God. He reigns from heaven above. With wisdom, power, and love, Our God is an awesome God.
Oh. My. God. Literally. Think I’m going to cry….