Hm … what WOULD my preferred worship service look like?

The Evangelical Meaning of High Church WorshipThe question arose in the comments to one of my posts (The difficulty of the ‘high-church’ evangelical) some weeks ago as to what my ‘perfect’ worship service would look like. This is an interesting question, and probably unanswerable. Half in jest, I am tempted to say, ‘1662’, but, then, maybe not…

Nonetheless, there are some elements that I would like to see for a regular Sunday morning service:

  • Regular communion. Preferably weekly or biweekly. I grew up with weekly, but in Toronto biweekly worked well with BCP 1959/62 Morning Prayer the other weeks.
  • Lots of Bible. Whether Communion or not, read out at least two, if not three or four, passages of Scripture. They don’t need to all be the text preached on. The Bible just needs to be proclaimed to us as a people and assimilated into our hearts. The regular reading aloud of the Word before the congregation helps that. It is an ancient component of Christian worship.
  • Psalms. Sung, preferably. A cappella if possible. I’m not joking. The Psalms were Israel’s hymn book/prayer book. These are the prayers and hymns of Jesus’ worship life. Make them those of your church as well.
  • Liturgy. For some, the perfect church service is obviously 1662 or the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom or the Roman Mass. For many, and for the sort of Protestants I have in mind, pure, undiluted liturgy may be too much. Worship is about giving glory to God. If you are distracted by the printed words or the incense or the procession with candles, you aren’t glorifying God. There is a place for out-and-out high liturgy, but I don’t think it’s necessary all the time, nor preferable.

    What I’m thinking of is something basic and structured, especially for the Communion. I think a regular service of Holy Communion is not only to include the words of institution from the Last Supper but is best done with a liturgy that ties in traditional liturgy running from ‘Lift up your hearts’ to the receiving of the elements — words that have been in use since the late 100s in Hippolytus.

    Responsive/antiphonal readings/prayers are also part of my preferred service — litanies, for example. And a set-piece confession can provide us with theologically precise words to express our sorrow and the lowly state of the human soul before Almighty God.

  • Confession — a time of silence to offer a private confession, whether accompanied by liturgy or not, is worthwhile. Obviously, we are to confess every time we sin in real life, but this sort of communal activity in public helps teach us and remind us what to do in private. It is a healthy part of public worship not only to revel in God’s glory together but to look into the depths of our murky hearts as well.
  • Old and new. The Christian faith has produced hundreds — nay, thousands — of hymns over the centuries. Churches ignore the treasure house of hymns to their peril. If your church is going to be using contemporary worship, I recommend adding at least two hymns into the mix each Sunday. Alongside the latest hits from Stuart Townend or Matt Redman, sing also the old hits from Prudentius, Charles Wesley, or J M Neale.

    As regards the new, while I prefer classic hymns, I do not disparage all new music. I simply urge discretion — why sing something simply because it’s new and popular? Is it poetically, theologically, and/or musically worth singing? While people approach the Lord’s Table for Communion is a good time to sing new songs, I have found.

  • Sermon. Sermons are good. In a service such as this, where we are worshipping God, praying, confessing sin, receiving Eucharist, reading Scripture, and so forth, I don’t think the sermon needs to be big and long and even the central or most important aspect. I think people should be encouraged to get into the meat of Scripture in smaller Bible studies during the week, not in long, lecture-style sermons on Sunday. Preach from one or more of the given texts, clock in at 20-25 min (which is long for Anglicans!).
  • Other trappings? I like candles. I admit it up front. Sometimes I like incense, too. The presence of beauty in the worship space is important to me. If I were to blend traditional and low-evangelical worship styles, I’d go for candles at least. Robes preferably, maybe even copes and chasubles on occasion. The latter two, I think, should only appear on super-special feasts, though. 🙂

That is to say: My ideal worship service is liturgically structured with words and truths grounded in Scripture and tradition but with a flexibility of certain pieces of content — new songs and hymns are to be used with wisdom, similarly new litanies for the prayers of the people.

One final element is the occasional liturgical sermon. Every once in a while, have a sermon that helps explain why and what is going on in the worship service. Or preach a sermon that investigates the biblical basis for some of the popular words and phrases in the prayers and songs. Or investigate the theological foundations for the sacraments. Run a series on the Creed(s). This sort of preaching will help keep the liturgy from becoming a dead beast performed by rote.

The question should always be about the end goal of worship, of the showing to God His worth, the praising of Him, the offering Him thanksgiving, and the beseeching Him of our prayers. As the BCP puts it:

…we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.

Do our worship and liturgical practices encourage this? That is the great question.

The BCP as School of Prayer

Last year was a much-celebrated anniversary, the 400th birthday of the King James Version of the Bible. This year, another text of great importance for Anglophone Christianity and the English language has been celebrating a milestone with almost no clamour or fanfare at all — the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, that version of the Prayer Book most widely used of all, common to all non-British, non-Irish Anglican Churches, and substantially still the Prayer Book of the Church of England and even of the Anglican Church of Canada today.

But why celebrate the BCP? The importance of the KJV is self-evident; in a Christianity populated by a plurality of Anglophone Protestantisms, to have had a single translation common to us all for so long was outstanding. Its contributions to language are also of note, either through its introduction of certain phrases, or at least its popularization of them.

One could make the language argument for 1662 as well — PD James’ novel Children of Men takes its title from one of the Coverdale Psalter’s most common periphrases for human beings; Stevenson has the phrase ‘all sorts and conditions of  men’ lurking in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But we shall skip along to the spiritual significance of 1662 and personal prayer.

We begin our investigation with the gestation years of 1662 — the bright days of Cranmer and Edward VI, the dark days of Mary I, the once-more illumined years of Elizabeth I, then the confused days of Civil War, and the dark days of Cromwell’s harsh, naked, Christmas-free Puritanism.

1662 Book of Common Prayer

In these years, the Church of England was seeking her identity — not yet clearly and unequivocally today’s episcopal church championing Cranmer, Jewel, Hooker, and Andrewes at every turn, but a Church with those such as Baxter, Bradshaw, Perkins, Owen, Milton also trying to see their vision of Reformed Christianity triumph. One of the live debates in these years was the necessity of a general confession before receiving communion.

My friend Tim recently told me that William Bradshaw argued that it was unnecessary because the justified sinner hates sin that the moment he or she is aware of it, repentance ensues. There is, therefore, no need for a general confession; the faithful will have already confessed all of their sins. Furthermore, are we not made righteous by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness upon us when we come to faith? Is this not a reality of justification by faith?

Sometimes I think on this. What does make us worthy? As we even say in 1662, ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou O Lord, whose property is always to have mercy, grant us so to eat the flesh …’ Does the general confession make us worthy to receive?

It is an interesting question to ponder.

And while I was making the bed the other morning, it came to me again. And in that moment, my mind stumbled upon something my friend Jeremy once said about the BCP, that through it, as we pray together, we learn how to pray when alone. The BCP is a school of prayer. This is a point my brother also makes.

Whether or not a general confession is absolutely theologically necessary to make us worthy to receive Holy Communion is, therefore — besides being a question that brings us to the realm of reductionistic, minimalist worship and theology — off the mark. The question is, rather, are we to confess our sins each day at prayer when alone, when praying with family? The answer is assuredly, yes. And how are we to pray? Here is the general confession to be said before receiving Communion:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And so we see the stance of humility found throughout the 1662 BCP, reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. That, as stated elsewhere, we do not approach Christ ‘through our own righteousness, but through thy manifold and great mercies,’ that last phrase being a parallel to ‘our manifold sins and wickedness’ bewailed above.

The general confession that commences Evensong calls to mind how it is that we sin, ‘We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.’

If you pray the BCP often, its words and its rhythm, its phrases and ideas get into your blood. Phrases such as, ‘O God make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us,’ spill from your lips. And all the while it teaches you to pray, not just when you make your confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees, but also when prayers rise like incense for the Queen, for Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, for Peace, for All Sorts and Conditions of Men.

I hope you have a BCP (not ECUSA 1978, tho) nearby you this evening or tomorrow morning. I hope you can take it in your hand and pray to Almighty God, that he may open your lips — and your lips may show forth his praise.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

St. Paul’s Cathedral and the BCP

St. Paul’s Cathedral

This past Tuesday evening, my wife and I found ourselves outside St Paul’s Cathedral, London, 15 min before Evensong. Being lovers of Evensong, how could we resist? Plus, it meant getting into one of the grand churches of Anglicanism without having to pay an evil fee.

We were cheerily directed to the Choir where we sat on a little bench in front of the stalls (which were full already — but the little bench had better back support!). We walked through this glistening white space, beneath its large dome where music can resound and ring like the voices of the angels of heaven. In the choir we sat in the gilded space, mosaics gleaming down from above us, the Holy Table with its canopy at the far end.

I like the Holy Table at St. Paul’s; it has yet to be marred by a modern, swanky cross; let us hope it stays that way. It is beneath a large canopy, calling to my mind the ciborium in the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. Hanging from the canopy are carved cherubim, calling to one’s mind the Temple of Solomon (although his would have had a more Near Eastern feel, not Renaissance). These cherubim bring to mind the reality that Christ’s sacrifice, which we commemorate and (in a way) recapitulate in the Eucharist, is the culmination and fulfilment of Israel’s Temple worship of old.

I also noted that in the aisles flanking the choir, the ceiling is decorated with mosaics of angels. Appropriate — a reminder that we are joined by them as we worship Christ on his heavenly throne, the God-Man depicted in the mosaic on the half-dome above the altar.

But my words cannot do the Baroque majesty of St Paul’s justice. The cathedral website can at least try.

Evensong, as you well know, is an ancient service. The creators of the pew cards at St Paul’s believe that it traces its roots to the monastic worship developed in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. However, as Robert Taft points out in The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, it has its roots in earliest Christianity, possibly even Judaism, and was developed both in monastic hours of worship and in Cathedral worship, the latter being the time for the whole Christian community to gather in prayer before and after the work of the day.

The service as it was sung at St Paul’s that night was substantially Thomas Cranmer’s as originally produced in 1549 — a simplification of the two services from the Roman Breviary of Vespers and Compline with the addition of space for two substantial readings of Scripture. And, of course, in English.

Although they cut a few things, such as the prayer of confession at the beginning (despite the Prologue to the service saying that ‘we ought most chiefly so to do’ at times of common worship), one of the strengths of this service, in contrast to Westminster Abbey the night before as well as to St Mary’s Cathedral and a couple of Edinburgh’s Anglo-Catholic communities, was this very fact that the service was entirely in the English tongue, rather than ‘in a tongue not understanded of the people’, thus following Article of Religion 24. Well done, St Paul’s. Keep it up.

Furthermore, they provided us with Psalters to use during the service. Thus, although we did not join for the Psalm-singing (the congregation only joined in for the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed), we could follow along. This made the Evensong feel more like a church service and less like a choir concert — unlike Westminster Abbey the night before.

After the requisite collects, we were led in a few prayers, including a lovely one from the Venerable Bede.

The choir was magnificent. It was mixed men’s and boys’ voices, bringing us the full range of luxuriousness and texture and beauty that the English choral tradition can provide. Thus we found Cranmer’s beautiful words — paired, of course, with Coverdale’s beautiful Psalter — matched with beautiful music in a beautiful cathedral. If there had been more congregational worship, perhaps the perfect production of the BCP?

Now, St. Paul’s Cathedral was begun in 1675 after the Great Fire of 1666 and finished in 1711. These dates are notable as we consider this 350th year of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the most influential and widely-used edition of the Prayer Book for three centuries of Anglicanism, and still substantially the Prayer Book of the Church of England (though never of the Scottish Episcopal Church).

This Prayer Book of Prayer Books balances Catholic with Reformed in a way never seen before, avoiding the extremes both of Cromwell’s Puritan rites and of Mary I’s Sarum rite.* It has room for beauty, though, beauty in the language, beauty in the humility of penitent sinners making their confession, meekly kneeling upon their knees. Beauty in Coverdale’s Psalter. Beauty in the phrasing of the Collects, in the Prayer of St. Chrysostom, in the majestic language of 1611’s KJV to be used for the Lessons.

Alas, however, this period of the apparent triumph of the Prayer Book, the period of the Restoration of the Monarchy, the days of rebuilding St. Paul’s, are precisely when the Anglican experiment changes tack. Having produced a liturgy that is theologically consonant with the Reformed point of view, the Church of England at this time makes it possible for non-conformists to preach and worship outside of the Anglican hierarchy and to construct their own chapels. Thus, the bulk of the successors to the Puritans eventually leave, removing their voice from the Anglican conversation and becoming Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists.

This is the backdrop for Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s where you can hear sung Cranmer’s beauteous liturgy beneath a gilded mosaic. These figural representations of angels (not Saints, my friends!) and of our true King, Jesus Christ, are part of an Anglican conversation where Laud and Charles I (the Church of England’s sainted martyr!) are triumphant, and where majesty can rule as the Church seeks a balance between tradition and reform, part of an Anglican conversation diminished by the loss of some of her participants.

*Technically the Sarum Use of the Roman Rite.