Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Advice from a Bishop on Worship and Mission

Recently I've been reading a new book, The Good Worship Guide: Leading Liturgy Well by Robert Atwell, currently Bishop of Stockport to be translated to Exeter later this year. It's sold as a "practical guide to leading worship" (p.xiii). This comes with two health warnings: 1) it is about leading worship within the liturgical structure of the Church of England, so not everyone who wants some help with leading worship will find it obviously useful - though there are principles within that apply to any church congregation in any tradition; 2) by worship, +Robert means much more than songs. Although he is very aware of the charismatic movement within the Church of England - he has been a speaker at New Wine in the past - and makes reference to Hillsongs and modern Christian worship music, when he talks about worship he means everything from the welcome received at the door, through to the liturgical event, the songs, the Communion, the sermon: the whole lot. I find this approach really refreshing, because it challenges me to think about everything we do at a service as part of our communal sacrifice of worship. This is more unusual than you might think: often, especially in the low-church charismatic evangelical tradition in which I have been shaped, we have "a time of worship" within the "service". And though there is very little formal liturgy, there is an obvious liturgical structure in which worship is often confined to points in the programme (welcome and notices, 3 "worship" songs, bible reading, sermon, response time of "worship", prayers etc.).

The most interesting bit about the book is the emphasis Atwell places on mission. His contention is that "worship is the shop front of the Church" and so getting it right really matters both for the formation of the Christian community, and because it is worship which other people most associate with Church buildings. We all know there are countless numbers of people who only come into Parish Churches once in a blue moon, but when they do they expect worship to be offered - and they often expect to be able to join in (whatever we may think about that theologically). Getting this right and making it a good event, for regulars and not-so-regulars, matters because it is the place where scripture is read, the sacraments are celebrated, and where God promises to be in the midst: it is therefore also the place where people encounter Jesus Christ. Though the latter is a work of the Holy Spirit in the sovereign will of God, it is not beyond the wit of Christians to think that putting effort into our deliberate times of worship and prayer might be significant for enabling this encounter. Atwell writes:

If the readings from scripture are inaudible, the sermon banal, the intercessions poorly prepared, and the music group or organist embarrassing, we should not be surprised when people undervalue church. Without warmth or welcome the liturgy soon feels tired and routine. Without an opportunity for reflection or silence there is little chance of a contemplative dimension emerging. Matters are made worse if those leading lose their way in the service or or lard the liturgy with inappropriate matiness. None of us can get it right all of the time, but we will be justly criticised if we fail to prepare properly or if we lead a service in a slovenly manner. Whatever our churchmanship...we should aspire to excellence. Nothing else will do.
Atwell is not being fussy here: his desire for excellence grows out of love for God and His people which means that our best is wholly appropriate. It also encourages us to get our priorities right. He goes on in the pages immediately after this to question some of our assumptions as regular worshipers. My favourite is his comment about the smell of old hassocks, which many regular church attenders might confuse with "the odour of sanctity." In the gentle humour is the reminder not to lose focus on what matters: we worship Jesus Christ, and in so doing we offer our best. As we worship, we witness to Him and invite others to join with us, to meet this Jesus, and to live lives transformed by His love.

I'm only part way through this book, and I'm waiting for a serious engagement with Fresh Expression and Seeker Friendly Services. Much of what +Robert has to say is directly applicable to inherited or traditional forms of worship: the church is none the poorer for that. But Fresh Expressions and intentional missional communities have different histories from Parish Churches, and often very different, sometimes implicit, ways of "doing" worship. None the less I'm looking forward to reading more...


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