At the heart of every church tradition is one priority which shapes the identity of the community. This central aspect is the source of its energy and vision, and becomes the first of all other priorities. This aspect determines much, if not all, of its distinctive traits and eventually becomes the touchstone for every other facet of church life. For some churches the primary focus is mission and evangelism. For others, discipleship including learning and experiential growth as well as practical service. And some churches focus primarily on building relationships. For still others it is works of compassion. It’s not that these churches neglect other activities, it’s just that they look at other activities through the lens of their primary commitment. Many churches probably made evangelism their heart, some relationships (a growing trend), some discipleship, and a few works of compassion.
But the Anglican tradition has its heart in a different place. The heart of an Anglican parish is not its mission. It is not it discipleship. It is not relationship building. And it is not works of compassion. These things are vitally important, they should always be present, but they are not the central focus of an Anglican parish. The heart of an Anglican parish is found instead in its worship, most visible in its Sunday worship service.
Mission, discipleship, relationship, and service should flow from worship. Mission begins by acknowledging and praising the God whom we worship, receiving from the Christ that we proclaim, and receiving the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Discipleship is founded on the posture of worship in which the forgiven people of God acknowledge our dependence on him, and then recite his wonderful saving deeds, being sent forth into the world as worshippers of the One True God. When people come before their God with repentance and faith, and are reconciled to God through Christ, relationships may then be formed between people which mirror this reconciling action of God. And works of compassion are the result of the transformation that worship affects in us as we are struck by the great compassion of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Some non-traditional churches would say that worship is the heart of their church, and I’m sure that is often the case, even though their worship practices look and feel different than ours. But in many cases, worship is defined as singing lots of praise songs. And often these songs, ironically, focus on the worshiper himself (!). “Here I am to worship” etc etc. The focus is actually less on God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and his marvelous deeds, great power and love, and the works of salvation history. Instead the focus is on how the worshipper feels while he is worshipping. And this seems, to me, patently true when the top worship songs today are songs that say things like “hungry I come to you…” “Once again I look upon the cross…” “Open the eyes of my heart…” “Blessed be your name when I’m found in the desert place…”
I’m not suggesting that any of these songs are unhelpful at all. In fact, we sing them often at our parish. They are profoundly expressive of the worshipers experience of need and of seeking, and in proportion with other aspects of worship they are great. But they, by themselves, aren’t really “worship” properly understood. They are more about us than they are about God. Worship is about God. And when they are all you get, they shift the focus of a church, its heart, from worship to the experience of people, and of individuals (‘I’ not ‘we’) and push corporate, community worship of God off to the side. A church that ‘worships’ this way probably has a focus or heart closer to relationship building or works of compassion, in that the aim of their worship is more about people feeling better and less on God receiving the glory due his name.
In the Anglican ideal of public, Sunday worship this principle is most obvious. The care which Anglicans take to plan the service, prepare the heart, and to revere the action that takes place is reflective of a worship centered faith. The fact that traditional Anglican worship space is designed specifically (and funded generously) for the worship of God attests to the priority of corporate worship. And the esteem with which Anglican Christians hold the Book of Common Prayer testifies to this identity as a community of worship. There is no other aspect of church life which shapes every other area in so profound a way. And yet I find that many Anglicans are not aware of how this careful preparation is a means to focus us on God as the object of our worship.
Sunday corporate worship is the most visible aspect of worship. As important as individual spiritual life is for all Christians, for Anglicans it is still secondary to gathering to worship in Word and Sacrament, on the day of the Lord’s resurrection and in the continuing tradition of worship that connects us with those who have gone before. When Archbishop Cranmer designed simplified Morning and Evening Prayer services, he hoped that many people would be able to gather in the parish church for corporate worship, although he knew this would not likely be possible for most families. But corporate worship was seen as the primary and first place of piety and devotion, and individual and family worship next. That is, our prayer together as a community on Sundays is the source which flows into our private and family devotional lives. When “two or three” are gathered, there is Jesus in the midst. And it is from this experience of his presence that Anglicans receive the strength to go off alone and pray through the week. There is no more identity shaping moment than this.
So to begin to understand our worship, one must see that nothing is more renewing, nothing more humbling, and nothing more inspiring than public Sunday worship. If any moment, any program, any event is our appointed time, it is Sunday mornings. If any area of parish life affects all other areas, it is worship. If any area will draw our time and energy, the first area is worship. If any area defines us, it is worship. Small groups, food banks, Christian education classes, evangelism efforts, and fellowship gatherings all radiate from worship, and reflect worship.
In the final analysis, we are a worshiping community before we are anything else.
And I think this is an area in which evangelicals will most likely not change much in the coming decades. The reason I suspect this is because many churches work very hard to downplay tradition and order in forms. But creative inventiveness in today’s cultural milieu will continue to be a cycle of repetition because of the refusal to tap into and join up with historic and global communions of worship. In other words, non-traditional churches are simply cut off from the resources that churches need to re-orient our activities on Sunday back toward God and the simplicity of acknowledging his awesome glory. And when worship is defined as singing songs, and the songs we sing are about us, and worship itself is seen as secondary to mission, service, relationship, or discipleship, then the only way out is to pick up a Prayer Book and start reading old fashioned prayers, and a hymnbook to sing old fashioned hymns. Until those resources are restored, the tape is looped and keeps playing the same song.
That said, I don’t really think we Anglicans get this right often either. Yes, we recite the prayers, we invoke the Trinity often, we sing the hymns, and most of us today use contemporary forms as well. But we spend a lot of time distracted from worship, as if we should be ashamed that it is so important to us. We often believe the erroneous idea that worship is an “inward” while mission is an “outward” focus. Etc etc. So while our forms draw us to worship as the heart of the parish, our vision for church life is borrowed from contemporary culture and that draws us away from the true heart of every church, as seen in the opening acclamation:
Celebrant: Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
People: And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen.