The Evangelical Meaning of High Church Worship, Part 2

After the priest et al. process in, a bunch of stuff goes on up front. You may notice that this happens every once in a while. People change clothes, wave incense around, bow to one another, and so forth. Not quite so casual as life with a modern worship band. Nonetheless, each of those garments carries with it a symbolic meaning tied to the worship of God and/or to the Gospel. All that bowing is a sign of respect and siblingly affection — a very evangelical ideal, indeed. And all the care is due to the idea that every act that takes place up there in the chancel is not just utilitarian but, in fact, worship. Whether it looks effeminate to you or not.

Getting everybody wet At many High Church services, such as at my local Anglo-Catholic congregation or at the Tridentine Rite Latin Mass I went to in Ottawa, the priest marches solemnly down the aisle while the choir sings, all the while sprinkle the congregants with water. If some gets in your eye, fear not — ’tis but water, blessed by a priest.

This sprinkling with a tool called the aspergillum symbolically represents the cleansing of the congregation. Only God can make us holy. The water is a reminder that we all need to be cleansed. Repentance and the pursuit of holiness are key to the evangelical ethic — and in a good High Church service, you will have at least one opportunity to repent as well as to get sprinkled with water.

All that incense You will find incense at traditional Roman Catholic services, Eastern Orthodox services, and high Anglican services. Incense is about as old as the organised worship of YHWH gets. They had it in the tabernacle, they had it in the Temple, and we have it in many churches. It is a living link with our spiritual forebears, the Jewish people. It is also a symbol, a physical and sensory representation of the prayers that everyone in the church is to be lifting up to God as the service goes on. Prayer is the heart of the evangelical’s life of worship.

After various hymns and prayers, whose Gospel-meaning ought to be clear if one pays attention, the Gospel is processed out. It is held aloft in a shiny, pretty book. This is not just because the Mediaeval and Byzantine Churches had more money than they knew what to do with so they started gilding everything in sight and it became tradition. It is because the words of the Gospel are words of life. In them are found the riches of the glory of God, the pathway to salvation. These words do not fall to the ground. Or, to use a different ancient image, they do not return to God empty.

Out of honour to the living, saving Christ whom the Gospel proclaims, we stand when they process out this book — often accompanied by incense. Some people make a wee sign of the cross on their forehead, their lips, and their heart. This is meant to be a reminder to them that the words of God’s living Word in the Holy Gospel are ever to be in their minds, on their lips, and in their heart.

The Creed We continue to stand, a sign of respect and, if you stand long enough as the Orthodox do, a way of worshipping God with your tired, achy body. Then we recite the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Some people of Low Church backgrounds say silly things about the Creed, like, ‘The Orthodox believe in the Creed more than in the Bible!’ The Creed is a distillation of the teachings of the Bible, a combination of the ancient Rule of Faith with the ancient baptismal code tweaked to combat ancient heresies. It is a proclamation of the Gospel. So mean it when you say it; it is more than mere recitation.

Facing East Those of you with an inbuilt compass or who pay attention to the orientation of architecture when entering buildings will have noticed that many old churches are aligned so that the congregation faces East. East is the traditional direction of Christian prayer, adapted from the Jewish practice of facing Jerusalem, because East symbolises the resurrection and the second coming of Christ who is the Sun of Righteousness. Mindful of the one and hopeful for the second, we face East in solidarity with the ongoings of our historical faith.

‘Facing East’ also means ‘away from the congregation’ — ie. when the minister prays the prayer of consecration of the elements of bread and wine, he or she faces away from the gathered faithful. I prefer, when I’m in a church that ‘faces East’ in this way (not all High Churches do), to think of the orientation not as ‘away from the congregation’ but ‘with the congregation.’ We and the minister are praying to and worshipping the same God, and his or her actions are representing us all. Therefore, we are praying together with the minister when we face East liturgically.

Elevating the Elements The minister will, at certain points of the liturgy, lift the bread and lift the cup. In many High Churches, bells will ring. The bells are to alert you that this elevation is going on. The bread is Christ’s body, the wine his blood. We lift them up in thanksgiving for Christ’s saving death, and the giving of himself for our salvation. Whether or not you believe that when Christ says, ‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink,’ he means that bread and wine, if you are used to acting symbolically, you can see the evangelical value in lifting these consecrated elements for the people to see. Lifting them high is lifting high the cross — it is proclaiming the love of Christ.

Kneeling again In most Anglican churches, high or low, you will go forward to the Holy Table and kneel at the communion rail. A clergyperson or lay assistant will bring you a piece of cardboar — I mean, bread, and a sip of wine. I know of at least one evangelical uncomfortable with kneeling at this point.

We kneel because Christ is coming to us, giving us his grace, and we are, once again, in the presence of holiness. We kneel because it is an act of humility before the Christ who is ruler of the cosmos. We kneel because we revere the living Christ who is everywhere present and promises to be with us in a special way in this eucharistic act of remembrance. We kneel because, in kneeling, we join with millions of western Christians who have knelt in worship of Christ at any time and proclaimed, ‘My Master and my God!’

When better to kneel than at the most special of Christian worship acts?

These are all the things I can think of right now. The symbolic nature of the actions and events and images and clothing and prayers of High Church worship are infused with the Gospel and are a way of doing with our body and senses what we ought to be doing with our heart.

I know that not everyone you’ll find at such services and liturgies will have these meanings in mind, that many of them will be more concerned with the liturgy as a performance than as worship of the Triune God in His splendour, that many may not truly know Christ, that many may live in fear of an angry God whom they believe will smite them if they don’t worship this way, that many will be proud and arrogant about the way they worship, dismissive of others. However, not everyone will be.

And I’m fairly certain many of us who worship in Low Church fashion are guilty of all the same things, from Stott’s query, ‘What are they Alleluia-ing about?’, to those who do not know Christ, to those who do not know the Gospel of freedom, to the proud and arrogant, to those there for a good show.

I’m not expecting or even hoping or wanting people to join High Church parishes as a result of this. I’m just hoping that things that seem strange can become less so and that those are brothers and sisters in Christ can realise this fact even more so.

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5 thoughts on “The Evangelical Meaning of High Church Worship, Part 2

    • I do not hold to the perpetual virginity, but I have nothing against those who do — although I am opposed to those who say I must. I guess I was raised evangelical enough to not veer towards beliefs that offer nothing and have a weak foundation to begin with!

  1. Have you read Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology? I would recommend it as a good book to introduce staunch low-church evangelicals to the ins and outs of high church practices and how they can serve as a corrective to common problems in low churches.

    • Ryan,

      I started but never finished Chan’s book. It was in the midst of my mad MA in Classics, and I had to cull my reading list a bit. I hope to read it someday, though!

      • However, I have read Robert E Webber’s book ‘Worship Old & New’, wherein he emphasises the idea that we symbolically recapitulate Christ’s death and resurrection in the Eucharistic service.

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