Reformation Anglican Worship by Jensen (Review)


Prefatory note: This is an updated version of my earlier review of Reformation Anglican Worship. The original post engendered a fruitful and clarifying conversation between the Rev. Dr. Jensen and myself, in which I profited much. In particular, he highlighted a couple of areas in that first version where he felt my reading was not altogether fair. I appreciate him taking the time to do so, and have made changes in response to those areas. For while I am by no means opposed to charitable disagreement I want to make sure that disagreement is sustained by a fair reading. In what follows I hope to offer just that.

“What Cramner wanted to see in a Reformed Church of England—which he would institute over the next half-decade, with the king’s help—was nothing less than a revolution in worship” (12).

Thus Michael P. Jensen begins his line of argumentation in Reformation Anglican Worship, volume 4 in the Reformation Anglicanism Essential Library series edited by Ashley Null. Like volume 1 (of which you can read my review here), Jensen is working to develop a vision for Anglican worship along classical reformed and evangelical sensibilities.


What’s in the Book

“In evangelical terms,” writes Jensen, “worship was not the people offering something to God so that he would bless them but a means of preaching the gospel itself” (12). This is the heart of Jensen’s thesis which will drive the freight of the rest of the book: “Reformation Anglican” worship is primarily concerned with the reception of the preaching of the gospel.

Chapter one develops a biblical theology of “the heart of Christian worship” in which Jensen notes the ways in which it is possible to: 

  1. worship false gods, (26-27); 
  2. worship the true god in false ways (27-29); and 
  3. Worship the true God with true forms, but have that worship corrupted by wicked hearts (29-31). 

Using the work of David Peterson, Jensen identifies 3 concepts “yoked together under our English word worship” (35). Biblical worship, according to this framework, 

  • must do homage to God, 
  • must serve him (largely with behavior that conforms to his Image), and 
  • must revere him. 

In all of the biblical theology that follows this analysis (37-47), worship is construed in ways that privilege thought and behavior over and against embodied actions, physical rites, and the agency of the worshiper. It is about the edification of the people of God in a generally receptionist mode, primarily through the “expression” and “communication” (49) of right things about the triune God.

Chapter two examines worship during the English Reformation, or, in Jensen’s words, “the construction of a new form of worship” to replace the old medieval theology and its liturgical forms (55). To demonstrate the ways in which the English reformers held that “…the grace of God in Jesus Christ is the fundamental basis for an authentic Christian form of worship” is in this place Jensen’s chief aim. And so, chapter three proceeds by meditating on the role of Scripture and preaching in Anglican worship. For if, as Jensen argues, Christian worship is primarily concerned with the announcement of the gospel, the reading and preaching of Scripture lies at the heart of the worshiping act. A sermon by Hugh Latimer, the “liturgical architecture” of Thomas Cranmer, and the theological work of John Stott sustain this reflection.

In Praise of the Early Chapters

As with my review of the first volume in this series and with my review of J.I. Packer’s The Heritage of Anglican Theology so I now here want to mark the good of the reformed-evangelical tradition: Its emphasis on the primacy of the scriptures in the life of the Church, the care and concern it shows for evangelism and discipleship, and its application of Scripture in effecting joyful lives transformed by the Gospel of Jesus—all of these are good things, things desperately needed our culture today. Jensen, as with all of the writers in the Reformation Anglicanism Essential Library Series, warms the affections towards the Word of God and winsomely demonstrates why the reading and preaching of Scripture must not only take a central role in Anglican worship, but must also inform it.

Some Disagreements; Chiefly with the Latter Chapters

And yet, for all this, the book merits my criticism for the way in which the last three chapters handle (in order) the Sacraments, the Prayers, and Music. I will keep my critiques here to a minimum, keeping in mind the probability that Jensen and I might be speaking past one another, agreeing on far more than we disagree. 

That being said, I take issue with what I see as a subtle instrumentalization of worship in Jensen’s thinking. According to him, worship is primarily instrumental to, and a means to the greater ends of, personal salvation. And this instrumental approach to worship is most clearly seen in the last three chapters of this book. Now, let me pause to recognize that the word “instrumentalization” can imply a harsher meaning than I intend. I use it below as a short-hand for a tendency in Reformation Anglican Worship, again subtle, to treat parts of the worshipping act as disposable, like a husk, that can be cast away so long as the kernel is delivered; as if medium and message were ultimately two separate things. Worship sometimes seems to be the means serving the ultimate ends of personal salvation. Again, it seems this way. It is not so explicitly stated. It is subtle, but frequent enough that when one finishes the first half of the book, one senses that it may be something like a tacit assumption. An example may be appropriate. Early on, Jensen writes: 

“Different styles of worship amount to nothing at all, as Cranmer knew. In which case, let as many liturgical flowers bloom as can be planted. But a different theology of worship is indicative of a different view of how people come to know God –how they get saved and how they lived before him in other words” (17-18).

For Jensen, style—broadly construed—amounts to nothing at all. The looseness of the term is troubling. If by “style” we mean vestments, and numbers of candles, and the position of the celebrant, etc., perhaps Jensen and I do not disagree so much. But if by “style” we mean, all of the things other than the explicitly-stated theology of worship, then I think I might be right in protesting that under this expansive category of “style” much indeed matters –like the kind of music, whether the Psalms are sung or not, and whether an authorized prayer book is used.

At this point, Jensen may fairly say, “But Fr. Mark, of course I mean prayer book worship; of course I mean worship that includes the Psalter, of course, I don’t allow songs of a poor theological and musical quality, etc. Those things come under the theology-of-worship category.” Excellent, I do not disagree; I do think others would, however. Why? Because for the vast swath of western Christianity, all of those things are issues of style. The sentence itself instantiates a qualitative difference between “style” and “theology,” the boundaries of which I think are tenuous at best. But I think that’s the point. It’s like Theseus’ ship: how much of “style” can we dispose of without changing the theology of worship?

The third sentence further underscores what I mean by “instrumentalization”: there crops up from time to time in Jensen’s book a trajectory of worship that culminates, finds its fulfillment in personal salvation. At this point, one may fairly say, “Fr. Mark, you’ve got it wrong. What Dr. Jensen is doing here is suggesting that a theology of worship is born from a theology of salvation.” I understand that too. And again, that’s just the point. I am convinced that creationally, ontologically, and eschatologically worship should take priority; that our theology of worship should inform our understanding of salvation, not the other way around.[i]

Granted, Jensen does, in other places, reverse that order. And in those places, my heart just soars… and the notes I’ve scribbled in the margins of my reviewer’s copy can testify to it, examples of which are as follows: “Great work, I want more of this line of thinking” (p.41), “So Good!” (in the margins on p.73), “Excellent! Beautiful!” (scrawled large on p.85). Again, I do think Jensen and I share some deep common convictions.

Jensen begins his discussion of the Sacraments with a suspicious and critical genealogy of the word “sacrament” (107-108). Whereby suspicious here I mean precisely to be in doubt of their origins and role in the life of the church. “It is worth saying at the outset, however, that the term sacrament is not found in scripture, nor is anything like that definition” (108, and by “definition” he refers to the one offered in the 1604 Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer). He concludes that “much of what passes for sacramental theology reflects the church’s speculations through the ages,” as it has “such little scriptural support” (108). 

Now, I understand that a lot of this effort is aimed at repudiating the Romish doctrines of the perpetual sacrifice of the mass and meritorious salvation, as well as their various contemporary permutations (doctrines which, for what it’s worth, I also repudiate –medieval or modern). However, such a maneuver puts him in a difficult –and I think unnecessarily difficult– position to read the Scriptures and the tradition (by which I mean the Creeds, the fathers, and the Anglican heritage). Of course, neither “Trinity” nor “Incarnation” appears in scripture either. They are words Christians have used to describe things present in scripture. And I think we could say the same of both the term “sacrament” and the Prayer Book definition of it. It is a concept that helps us make sense of what we find in a plain reading of Scripture (e.g., Jn. 6.25-69; 1 Corinthians 11.23-27; or 19:7-9), which is evidenced in the first five centuries of the church and the series of Fathers in that period.

 One does not need to trouble the tradition (from Latin, meaning literally, “the handing-down”) of the liturgy or its development in the early church, in order to defend against its abuse. One can simply turn to the Articles of Religion (chiefly article XXVIII), or to the very text of the Order for Holy Communion (chiefly the prayers of institution), to see the ways in which liturgical boundaries have fallen for us in pleasant places —places I think Jensen himself wouldn’t disagree with.

His citations of Cyril of Alexandria (115), for example, or his use of some brilliant passages from Cranmer (116 and 130) suggest his comfort with a measure of both patristic and Anglican theological tradition. So that, again, I don’t think we are in too much of a disagreement. Jensen calls the sacraments “gospel signs” that “nourish believers in their faith and […] assure them of the work of God in their lives” (133, in a section correcting Zwinglian extremities). My only concern lies, however, in the ways, perhaps unintended, in which “gospel signs” are at risk of being instrumentalized if we uproot them from scripture and tradition; my concern is that they may, as they have for many in other traditions, be removed from the category of “theology-of-worship” and placed in the not-mattering category of “style.”

In sum, and I think this is being fair to the book, in the “Reformation Anglican Tradition” the Sacraments serve to underscore the preaching of the scriptures. They are a response of faith warmed by the reading and preaching of God’s Word. The Sacraments remind “the faithful that God is not simply distant and transcendent but also present and active among them” (133). If I may push though, in charity: what does “present” mean if not real? What does “active” mean if not inter-active?

While not as problematic for me as the chapter on Sacraments, the last two chapters (on prayer and music) also suffer from this passive concept of worship that allows no room for humans, God’s images, to actually do or offer anything of worth to God in the act of worship. 

Nevertheless, in the section on prayer, Jensen skillfully and concisely identifies the key problem of medieval liturgical piety: the privatization of the liturgy (since nobody understood it, they had to reach for private cults to the saints). He also does a great job identifying the best in how the reformers sought to respond to this problem: by giving the liturgy back to the people and giving it to them in their own language. The writing that runs from pages 135-140 is really good stuff, and makes me wish it was available as a short essay of its own.

And yet, the historical portions, and the commentary on the various genres of prayers found in the Prayer Book, are less helpful. And the conclusion that “the form in which prayers are said is of comparatively little importance” (155) leads one to confusion when we read Jensen suggest a few sentences later that the “rhythm” of our prayers “needs to be preserved” (156). If the micro-level form of the prayer does not matter, why should macro-level forms (i.e., order of liturgy, the genre of types of prayer included in a service, any formed prayer not extempore, etc.) matter? 

The chapter on music likewise struggles from some strange pre-commitments I do not think were either necessary or Anglican. These tend to establish a false dichotomy between music born of a “response of gratitude to the work of the almighty and most merciful God” on the one hand and (what at least feels like) the beauty of holiness on the other (158). Why must we choose between the two? What is it about form, beauty, and sacrifice that makes Jensen assume these things must run contrary to true Christian faith? He quotes a moving passage from Kenneth Long to the effect that “there is always an element of sacrifice in worship” (Long, 387-388; as quoted in Jensen, 167) only to state that “[t]his is, to put a finer point on it, simply paganism” (167). Why? Because, for Jensen, “a theology of true worship is not in the first instance about making sacrifices to God” (167). Again, I am not justifying the Roman pattern of merit-based worship, nor am I recapitulating the pagan concept of do ut des. But I do think a theology of true worship, at least in some kind of second place, is about making a sacrifice to God –at least one of praise (Ps. 107.21-22; Ps. 51.17; Heb 13.15). And while it is most certainly a response to God’s prior act, it also seems like it ought to occupy a place of high importance.

Jensen continues his line of argument, suggesting that the “singing of God’s praises with no congregation present” is out of line with New Testament worship (168); and that beauty is not “in itself, a channel of grace” (168); and that “fine music is not in and of itself sacramental” (168). And yet, he also shows concern where the music of the worship band, full of professionals, “has taken the place of the liturgy almost entirely” (170). I agree. I too think that this is tragic. But I think that this rises, at least in our immediate historical context, less from too great an emphasis being placed on sacrificially liturgical beauty, and far more from its neglect.

Bottom Line

You may note that I have been more critical here than usual in my work on Anglican Compass. It is my hope that all of what would read as critical would be heard as cautionary.  For The Reformation Anglicanism Essential Library and its authors are doing good work for the Lord. They are calling for a renewed affection for God, born of a renewed love of His Word in a global Christendom that is in dire need of it. Disagree as I may with Jensen regarding a lot of his theology of worship, I whole-heartedly long to see the Word of God esteemed the way Jensen does, and to occupy a central role in the worship of his people Thus, this book is commendable for the following reasons:

  1. It calls us to a high regard for the reading and preaching of Scripture.
  2. It gives, at times, very helpful historical data for understanding the context of many of these Anglican movements of worship.
  3. Dr. Jensen, as the whole Reformation Anglican project does, put us on a mission for the life of the world, equipped with a love to see others brought into his kingdom by the hearing of the Word.

I want to close by addressing 3 groups of potential readers of this review who will be left wondering, what do I do now?

  • For those who have read what I have written, who are hungry for a “higher view” of sacramental worship, I commend the small works edited by Fr. Ben Jefferies that deal with liturgical worship (namely, the ones on Holy Communion and Liturgical Worship)—perhaps complementing these with Dr. Jensen’s book.
  • For those who are, having read my review, suspicious of this “higher view” of the Sacraments that I adhere to, I commend the Essay in Christianity Today by Peter Leithart, a non-Anglican. Again, consider pairing it with your reading of the Reformation Anglican Series.
  • For those who are lacking in a passion for Scripture, or longing to find a church that prioritizes the Bible, I commend this book (and the others in the Reformation Anglican Series). It will convince you of the profound importance of the Word of God in the worshipping life of the church.

Published on

August 25, 2021


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