W. David O. Taylor has here expressed well many of the desires of a good teacher to encourage their students to write good essays. He has also said some very kind words about a little video I produced some time ago to assist my own students to that same end. Thank you, David.
This is what insanity looks like.
‘There are a few ways you can lose your religion – in a slow drift where the time between mass attendance and sacraments like confession gets longer and longer, until you can’t in good faith claim to be a member of the flock any more. And then there’s the frank event, where something happens and you realise you cannot continue supporting the institution that has inflicted so much pain’.
– Brigid Delaney, ‘Losing my religion: after the Pell verdict, the conflict for Catholics’, The Guardian, 30 August, 2019.
‘Repression is a seamless garment; a society which is authoritarian in its social and sexual codes, which crushes its women beneath the intolerable burdens of honour and propriety, breeds repression of other kinds as well’. – Salman Rushdie, Shame (London: Vintage, 1995), 173.
‘Literary criticism, to survive, must abandon the universities, where “cultural criticism” is a triumphant beast not to be expelled. The anatomies issuing from the academies concern themselves with the intricate secrets of Victorian women’s underwear and the narrative histories of the female bosom. Critical reading, the discipline of how to read and why, will survive in those solitary scholars, out in society, whose single candles Emerson prophesied and Wallace Stevens celebrated’.
– Harold Bloom, from the ‘Foreword’ to Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.
[Image from The Paris Review]
‘People clearly do not need [pastors and theologians] to live. But it seems like they want to use us to die; their entire lives stand in the shadow of death. History marches along at its pace without us, but when the eschatological, the final things, appear on their horizons – and which problems in history do not ride the wave of the final things? – we apparently ought to be there and have open and decisive words to say. They are for the most part well adjusted in themselves and their own capacities and life possibilities. But amazingly, when it comes to the state of the gossamer upon which the entire net of this life hangs, when it comes to the razor-sharp ridge between time and eternity along which they suddenly find themselves wandering, after having long forgotten it, they want to hear from us. The theological problem comes into being on the boundaries of humanity. The philosophers know this, but quite often, it appears that we theologians do not’. – Karl Barth, ‘The Word of God as the Task of Theology, 1922’, in The Word of God and Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 178.
I thought I’d start to put together in one place a list of resources that I have found helpful and that might serve as a resource to guide the church in its responses to the challenges posed by Euthanasia/Voluntary Assisted Dying. The list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it will be constructive. I intend to keep editing it as other resources become known to me. Suggestions welcome.
- Allison Jr., Dale C. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016.
- Anderson, Ray S. Theology, Death and Dying. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
- Badham, Paul. ‘A Theological Examination of the Case for Euthanasia’, In Facing Death: An Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by Paul Badham, and Paul Ballard, 101–16. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996.
- Banner, Michael. ‘Christian Anthropology at the Beginning and End of Life’, In Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems, 47–85. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- ––––––––––. ‘Scripts for Modern Dying: The Death before Death We Have Invented, the Death before Death We Fear and Some Take Too Literally, and the Death before Death Christians Believe in’. Studies in Christian Ethics 29, no. 3 (2016): 249–55.
- Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. Translated by A. T. Mackay, T. H. L. Parker, Harold Knight, H. A. Kennedy, and J. Marks. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961.
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. Translated by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Scott. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 6. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
- Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Homebush: Society of St Pauls, 1994.
- Duff, Nancy J. Making Faithful Decisions at the End of Life Paperback. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018.
- Dutney, Andrew. ‘Christian Support for Voluntary Euthanasia’. Monash Bioethics Review 16, no. 2 (1997 April): 15–22.
- Fiddes, Paul S. ‘Acceptance and Resistance in a Theology of Death’, Modern Believing 56, no. 2 (2015): 223–36.
- ––––––––––. ‘The Living God and the Threat of Death’, In Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity, 224–50. London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2000.
- Goroncy, Jason A. ‘Dying Without a Script: Some Theological Reflections on Voluntary Assisted Dying’. Colloquium 51, no. 1 (2019): 23–37.
- ––––––––––. ‘Euthanasia: Some Theological Considerations for Living Responsibly’. Pacifica 29, no. 3 (2016): 221–43.
- Gustafson, James M. ‘Suicide’, In Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume 2: Ethics and Theology, 187–216. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.
- Hauerwas, Stanley. Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
- ––––––––––. ‘Rational Suicide and Reasons for Living’, In On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics, edited by Stephen E. Lammers, and Allen Verhey, 461–66. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987.
- Jenson, Robert W. ‘Thinking Death’, in On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions, 1–15. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
- John Paul II. ‘Declaration on Euthanasia: The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 5, 1980’.
- ––––––––––. ‘Evangelium Vitae’.
- ––––––––––. The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1997.
- Jüngel, Eberhard. Death: The Riddle and the Mystery. Translated by Iain Nicol, and Ute Nicol. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975.
- Küng, Hans. ‘Assisted Dying – Also Active?’, in Eternal Life?: Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem, trans. Edward Quinn, 209–13. London: Collins, 1984.
- Küng, Hans, and Walter Jens. A Dignified Dying: A Plea for Personal Responsibility. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM Press, 1995.
- Lewis, Alan E. ‘The Theology of Death and the Care of the Dying: Affirmations, Attitudes and Actions’. Theology in Scotland 2, no. 2 (1994): 7–20.
- Messer, Neil. Respecting Life: Theology and Bioethics. London: SCM Press, 2011.
- Rahner, Karl. On the Theology of Death. Translated by Charles H. Henkey. Frieburg: Herder, 1961.
- Stoneking, Carole Bailey. ‘Receiving Communion: Euthanasia, Suicide, and Letting Die’, In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas, and Samuel Wells, 375–87. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
- Sutherland, D. Dixon. ‘From Terri Schiavo toward a Theology of Dying’, In Resurrection and Responsibility: Essays on Theology, Scripture, and Ethics in Honor of Thorwald Lorenzen, edited by Keith D. Dyer, and David J. Neville, 225–46. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2009.
- Swinton, John. Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016.
- Swinton, John, and Richard Payne, eds. Living Well and Dying Faithfully: Christian Practices for End-of-Life Care. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009.
- Williams, Rowan. ‘On Making Moral Decisions’. Anglican Theological Review 81, no. 2 (1999): 295–308.
- Anderson, Ray S. ‘What Do I Say At the Graveside of a Suicide?’, In Dancing with Wolves While Feeding the Sheep: The Musings of a Maverick Theologian, 59–67. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001.
- The Anglican Church of Canada. Care in Dying: A Consideration of the Practices of Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1999.
- ––––––––––. In Sure and Certain Hope: Resources to Assist Pastoral and Theological Approaches to Physician Assisted Dying. Toronto: General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, 2018.
- ––––––––––. In Sure and Certain Hope: Resources to Assist Pastoral and Theological Approaches to Physician Assisted Dying: Study Guide. Toronto: General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, 2018.
- Banner, Michael. ‘Dying in the Lord? A Sermon Before the University: May 20th 2012, King’s College’. The Cambridge Humanities Review: A Journal of Literary and Intellectual Essays Easter Term, no. 1 (2012): 7–9.
- Epperly, Bruce G., and Mills, John. ‘A Word to the Church on End of A Word to the Church on End of Life Care: Life Care: Theological, Spiritual, and Ethical Reflections’. The United Church of Christ Science and Technology Taskforce, nd.
- Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In Life and in Death We Belong to God: Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, and End-of Life Issues. Louisville: Christian Faith and Life Area, Congregational Ministries Division, PC (U.S.A.), 1995.
- Rahner, Karl. ‘Theological Considerations for the Moment of Death’, In Theological Investigations, Volume 11: Confrontations 1, 309–21. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974.
- The United Church of Canada. Caring for the Dying: Choices and Decisions. Etobicoke: The United Church of Canada, 1995.
- United Church of Christ, and Julie R. Harley. Making End-Of-Life Decisions: United Church of Christ Perspectives. Cleveland: The UCC Council for Health and Human Services Ministries/The UCC Chaplains in Health Care, 1997.
- Duckett, Stephen. ‘Arguing in the Public Square: Christian Voices Against Assisted Dying in Victoria’. Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 30, no. 2 (2017): 165–87.
- Gleeson, Gerald. ‘Is it Always Good to be Alive?’. Interface: A Forum for Theology on the World 13, no. 1 & 2 (2010): 97–111
- Hitchcock, Karen. Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly. Carlton: Black Inc., 2016.
- May, Arnd T. ‘Physician-Assisted Suicide, Euthanasia, and Christian Bioethics: Moral Controversy in Germany’. Christian Bioethics: Non-Ecumenical Studies in Medical Morality 9, no. 2/3 (2003 Aug-Dec): 273–83.
- Singer, Peter. Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 1994.
- ––––––––––. ‘Taking Life: Humans’. In Practical Ethics. 2nd ed., 175–217. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- Stefan, Susan. Rational Suicide, Irrational Laws: Examining Current Approaches to Suicide in Policy and Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Tolstoy, Leo. ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, 39–91. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009
- Waters, Brent P. ‘From Death as Necessity to Death as Choice’. Ethics, Medicine and Public Health 2, no. 3 (July–September 2016): 442–47.
My esteemed colleague, Dr Keith Dyer, Associate Professor of New Testament at Whitley College, will be leading a series of Bible studies on the four Gospels. This is a relatively-rare opportunity for Melburnians to study the Bible face-to-face with a top notch biblical scholar at an affordable cost. Here are the details:
Topic: Why four Gospels and why are they different?
Dates: Thursday evenings August 1, 8, 22 & September 5, 12, 26
Time: 6:30 start with soup and rolls, then 7:00–8:30 for study
Venue: Westgate Baptist Community, 16 High St., Yarraville [map]
Cost: $80 or $50 concession
Contact: To book your place, or to find out more, contact Kaye Cameron (email) or Neville Taylor (ph: 0417 003 115).
The latest edition of Colloquium includes a little piece that I wrote on Voluntary Assisted Dying:
“Dying Without a Script: Some Theological Reflections on Voluntary Assisted Dying.” Colloquium 51, no. 1 (2019): 25–39.
In theological discourse about voluntary assisted dying, two of the most contested areas are those that relate broadly to matters of individualism, autonomy, and rights, and those that are concerned with interpretations around the sanctity of human life given by God. These two areas represent unavoidably difficult theological spaces, with profound implications for Christian theology, especially for theological anthropology and for theologies of death. Drawing upon a range of sources mostly from Christian traditions, this essay locates these two concerns in a broader milieu, and engages in some critical discussion around their theological complexities. It argues that fidelity to competing theological commitments presses against the temptation to make the terrain of relevant moral judgements incontrovertible.
I am excited to announce that Dr Gwyn McClelland and I are seeking expressions of interest for a study tour to Japan during Easter next year (8–16 April, 2020).
The trip offers an opportunity to encourage ongoing learning about past mission, issues of colonialism, peace and reconciliation, and the contextualisation of Gospel. The tour includes participation in Good Friday Mass at the Urakami Cathedral, which was destroyed in the blast and is only 500 metres from Ground Zero, a visit the Atomic Bomb Museum, the Nagai Takashi resource room, and, if possible, speaking with a survivor about their experience of the bombing. We will also visit the remote Goto Islands, relevant to the Hidden Christians who were persecuted for over 250 years.
Further details here.
Readings: Psalm 58; Luke 13:31–35
On Friday we were exposed once more to the unfathomable depths of human evil. We may have believed that it couldn’t happen here. But we were mistaken. In fact, while some have spoken of this event as unprecedented in New Zealand, tragically it is not. Wayne reminded us down at Araiteuru marae yesterday that in 1864, during the land wars in New Zealand, about 100 Māori women, children, and the elderly took refuge in Rangiaowhia in face of Governor Grey’s attempts to conquer Māori settlements in the Waikato and seize their land. The women, the children and the elderly took refuge while the men prepared to engage in battle elsewhere. Bishop Selwyn was told, and was asked to convey the message that Rangiaowhia would be a place of sanctuary. But on a Sunday morning the crown forces went to Rangiaowhia and slaughtered all those who had taken refuge there.
The massacre on Friday was not unprecedented in New Zealand. Atrocities like that have struck us before. We have been exposed before in this country to the depths of human evil, and it is probably the case that we will be again. Hatred takes root in the soil of indifference, and in fields of complacency. It grows there undetected until it unleashes its terrible violence and destructiveness. We cannot pretend that New Zealand’s soil provides no nourishment for the seeds of hatred and evil. We cannot pretend as some memes on social media have put it, that this is not us. Racism, intolerance and hatred are nourished here too. The man who drove past the mosque in Linwood on Friday and yelled out the window, ‘I’m here to celebrate’, or those who watched the live feed on Facebook of the killer at his work and cheered him on, are people in our midst, here in Aotearoa New Zealand, in this place that we thought was immune to all this.
We are not immune. So what are we to do?
Many of us will have started out already to embrace our Muslim friends, to try to assure them that this is their home too. Sadly, for now, they have good reason to doubt it. We may try to reach out to ethnic minorities in New Zealand and try to assure them that they are welcomed and their culture is respected. But sadly, their everyday experience frequently tells a different story.
We ought to reach out in these ways wherever we can, but we also have other work to do; it is the work of confession. We are not, as a country, as hospitable, as welcoming, as compassionate as we imagine ourselves to be. The seeds of hatred, nourished by indifference and complacency, can grow here too.
Our Gospel reading this morning is a reading for the season of Lent. It continues the story of Jesus making his way toward Jerusalem. Jesus knows what he will face there. He did not need the warning some Pharisees brought to him that Herod was seeking to kill him. Jesus already knew of the darkness and evil that lay ahead. And yet he continues on.
But for a moment he pauses, and utters a lament for the city toward which he journeys. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’, Jesus says, ‘the people that killed the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’
A little later, when in sight now of the city, Jesus pauses again. This time, Luke tells us, Jesus wept over the city, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! … Indeed the days will come upon you when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave you with one stone upon another’.
This is Jesus’ lament for the city. He is speaking of Jerusalem, of course, but we can claim it also for Christchurch today. ‘Your enemies will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you’.
Where do we belong in this story of lament? We want to stand with Jesus of course, joining in his lament for the city, shedding our own tears, longing for the city that it might be comforted, and that it might find a path to peace. It is right that we should stand with Jesus offering our lament.
But we are also those who are lamented over. ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together’, Jesus says, ‘as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ We are among those lamented over, and we must confess our resistance sometimes to Jesus’ way of love. For all that we do in seeking to follow Jesus, we could do more. We, I’m afraid, take time off now and again, let our own prejudices show, tire of the work of compassion, and harbour intolerant thoughts. We belong also with those for whom Jesus laments: ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ We have work of confession to do.
In a third place of belonging in this story, we may hear a lament for the Muslim community. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you …’ Not only children, but brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers have been crushed by the gunman in Christchurch. We can claim Jesus’ lament for them, and for us wherever we stand in solidarity with them.
We have also read this morning from Psalm 58. It is a Psalm of bitter anguish cried out to God in the face of atrocity. It is not a Psalm we read often in church, for in crying out for vengeance, the psalmist expresses sentiments that don’t seem to fit very well with the way of Christ. Jesus calls us to love our enemies. We are enjoined to respond to evil with love. Can a Psalm like this, crying out as it does for vengeance, have any place in Christian worship?
I want to suggest to you this morning that it does have a place. Psalm 58 is a psalm of outrage, and outrage is exactly what we should feel in the face of what went on in Christchurch on Friday. Approval is unconscionable and indifference is also a failure. In the face of such terrible evil, we should feel outrage alongside our sorrow. What is more, this is precisely the place where that outrage should be expressed – before God, in worship and lament.
But it is important for us to recognise what we are doing in bringing our outrage here. The psalmist pleads that God will bring vengeance upon his enemies, and in doing so, in placing the outrage before God, the psalmist waives the right to seek vengeance himself. To place our outrage in the hands of God is to offer it up for God to deal with.
‘O God break the teeth of the wicked in their mouths’, cries the psalmist, ‘tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!’ The psalmist has witnessed terrible atrocity and he brings his outrage to God. Outrage is the appropriate thing to feel, but having prayed a prayer like that, the psalmist must leave his bitterness and anger in the hands of God. And then he must wait upon God’s answer to his prayer.
That brings us back to Jesus and his journey toward Jerusalem. Jesus goes to Jerusalem precisely to face the suffering and the evil of our world. Despite the warning of the Pharisees, he does not turn away. He faces the evil by bearing it himself. ‘Vengeance is mine says, the Lord, I will repay’. In Jesus we find that the Lord repays evil by taking its consequences upon himself.
How are we to respond to the atrocity that has taken place in our midst? Outrage is an appropriate response, but we must bring it here and place it in the hands of God. And then we must seek to be faithful to the God we discover in Jesus who does not return evil for evil, but responds to evil with love. It is our Muslim brothers and sisters who need our love most of all just now. We must be diligent in offering our love and our support.
But there is another job for us as well. When we see the evil of racial intolerance appearing among us, or among our friends and acquaintances, when we see the evil of hatred and prejudice manifesting itself in casual remarks among our peers, or in attitudes embedded in our communities, we followers of Christ must call it out and answer it with Jesus’ way of compassion, and kindness, and love.
I sympathise with the thousands of people who have posted on social media and protested before television cameras that the evil unleashed in Christchurch is not our way. But we cannot take that for granted. Compassion cannot be taken for granted. The overcoming of racial prejudice cannot be taken for granted. The removal of religious suspicion and intolerance cannot be taken for granted. We have to work at it, and in that work, we desperately need God’s help.
Let us pray.
Lord we are deeply saddened by what has taken place in our midst. We acknowledge our feelings of anger that an evil man has wrought such destruction among us and brought us all so low. We come before you with our anger, with our sorrow, and also with our confession that we have work to do ourselves to overcome those feelings of intolerance and suspicion and mistrust that we find at times within our own hearts and minds. We need your help, O Lord. We need your help. Do not delay we pray in bringing your aid to all of us, and especially to the Muslim community with whom we mourn today. Amen.
Preached on 17 March at Pine Hill Church, Dunedin, 17 March.
Murray Rae is Professor of Theology at the University of Otago.
‘Regard: from the French, meaning a steady gaze or esteemed.
To lead a place of reconciliation is to think of the stories that have been disregarded, that have been discarded, cast away, considered peripheral, or ignorable, and to know that people who have lived fragmented lives need to have their edges re-enlivened. Stories of hatred and stories of survival, stories of hope and stories of dreams where dignity is a reality. Reconciling involves making mistakes while trying to do good. Sometimes bad mistakes.
Even if we cannot make dreams true, we can regard each other. Because one thing is true: we are perfectly capable of making nightmares real. Just look around. Regard’.
– Pádraig Ó Tuama, ‘The Place Between’, in Neither Here nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality, ed. Timothy Carson (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2019), 17.
Explore the practical, legal, pastoral, and theological implications of Victoria’s new Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation.
- Jenika Graze is a palliative care nurse who serves in numerous roles in the residential and community aged care sector.
- Joel Hallinan is the Inquiry Officer with the Legal and Social Issues Committee, Parliament of Victoria, which led the inquiry into and reporting on the end of life choices legislation.
- Jason Goroncy is a church minister who teaches in the area of systematic theology at Whitley College, University of Divinity.
I had grieved. I had wept for a night and a day
over my loss, ripped the cloth I was married in
from my breasts, howled, shrieked, clawed
at the burial stones till my hands bled, retched
his name over and over again, dead, dead.
Gone home. Gutted the place. Slept in a single cot,
widow, one empty glove, white femur
in the dust, half. Stuffed dark suits
into black bags, shuffled in a dead man’s shoes,
noosed the double knot of a tie round my bare neck,
gaunt nun in the mirror, touching herself. I learnt
the Stations of Bereavement, the icon of my face
in each bleak frame; but all those months
he was going away from me, dwindling
to the shrunk size of a snapshot, going,
going. Till his name was no longer a certain spell
for his face. The last hair on his head
floated out from a book. His scent went from the house.
The will was read. See, he was vanishing
to the small zero held by the gold of my ring.
Then he was gone. Then he was legend, language;
my arm on the arm of the schoolteacher – the shock
of a man’s strength under the sleeve of his coat –
along the hedgerows. But I was faithful
for as long as it took. Until he was memory.
So I could stand that evening in the field
in a shawl of fine air, healed, able
to watch the edge of the moon occur to the sky
and a hare thump from a hedge; then notice
the village men running towards me, shouting,
behind them the women and children, barking dogs,
and I knew. I knew by the sly light
on the blacksmith’s face, the shrill eyes
of the barmaid, the sudden hands bearing me
into the hot tang of the crowd parting before me.
He lived. I saw the horror on his face.
I heard his mother’s crazy song. I breathed
his stench; my bridegroom in his rotting shroud,
moist and dishevelled from the grave’s slack chew,
croaking his cuckold name, disinherited, out of his time.
– Carol Ann Duffy
In February 2019, I will be coordinating and teaching an intensive class on Theology and the Arts at Whitley College. The class is an introductory-level doorway into a range of other related subjects, including those on film, on imagination, on poetry, and on creativity and spirituality. It is aimed at practising artists, theologians, curators, pastoral workers, and anybody else with interests in the arts and/or Christian theology.
This year, I am delighted to announce that a number of wonderful people will also be contributing: Peter Blackwood, Anne Mallaby, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Safina Stewart, Christina Rowntree, Rod Pattenden, Joel McKerrow, and Libby Byrne.
For more information about the class, or to apply, visit here.
‘Humans yearn for places of respite, opportunities to be free from the ugly madness of the corporate world. We need to know there are still some precious sites left intact, ecosystems whose richness, scale and enduring health afford us hope for the future, even if we never get the chance to visit them ourselves. For our own sanity and honour we want to believe there are some habitats we won’t destroy, places so special they’ll never be offered up to the maw of industrialisation. Not now. Not ever. I believe Ningaloo is one of those places’.
– Tim Winton, ‘Saving Ningaloo again’.
Exploring Liturgy has a little reflection I wrote about visiting some churches in Chile.
Criticising contemporary worship songs has become pretty old hat. It’s such an easy target, with favourite gripes including (but not limited to): the lack of good theology, the ever-increasing prominence of ‘me, myself and I’, and the combination of complex musical arrangements with simplistic melody lines, or complicated melody lines with predictable arrangements, depending which side of the bed we emerge from.
But I think we are wrong. While I agree there are problems with contemporary worship music; I don’t agree that this is the sum total of the problem. There is a problem, but it may not be the music’s fault.
If you went back sixty years to many churches, you had people singing from hymn books, accompanied by an organist, perhaps strengthened by a choir, and in between the singing they were led through the service by a pastor, priest or minister. This person led prayers, said blessings, and ushered the congregation through the story-line that is worship. God welcomes us, we praise and confess, God speaks to us, God feeds us, we respond in prayer and offering, God sends, we go. The hymns belonged in the midst of this well-worn journey. Yes the hymns were richer in doctrine, or perhaps ‘thicker’ is a better word sometimes. And how could they not be when they have five to seven verses and no repetition?! But like then, as now, I don’t think the hymns were doing all the heavy lifting for giving the worship services its depth and meaning. Rather it was this careful curation through the worship journey of God encountering people, people responding, God blessing, people going – which was punctuated with spoken prayer, acts of blessing, celebrating sacraments and passing the peace as well as sung worship. Music was certainly part of that, but it was only part of it.
Recently I went to a seminary to teach some ministry students about worship. I asked them what their standard church services looked like. To be truthful, I asked them for their ‘liturgy’. This was their response:
- two to three upbeat songs
- two more upbeat songs plus prayer
- Notices. Kids go out
- two more reflective songs plus prayer
- one more reflective song, ministry time
As you can see, they covered some of the ‘how’ of worship, but they left the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ untouched. They weren’t able to tell me if the opening songs were functioning as a Call to Worship or as songs of adoration and praise. The prayers were not routinely prayers of confession or intercession, just whatever was ‘on the worship leader’s heart’. I don’t actually think it’s their fault, much like I don’t think it’s the fault of a generation of contemporary worship songwriters who have written theologically impoverished songs. Because the music was never meant to carry the liturgy, the liturgy was meant to carry the music. The liturgy is the order of what we do and why we do it, which was the task of the pastor, priest, minister, and it gave meaning to the songs we sang, the responses we made, the prayers we offered, and the gifts we brought. The old hymns didn’t exist in a theological vacuum, but most of our contemporary worship songs are expected to. We betray this when we ask the congregation to stand and sing with the words, ‘let’s worship’ – because music is now the only worshipful activity that remains to us. Perhaps what we are remembering when we recall the hymns, is not just the richness of the pieces of music themselves, but the general coherence of the service as a whole.
Now our worship songs (which are, let’s face it, more theologically lightweight than their forebears) are framed in a significantly vaguer space than before. We might know how many songs we do before the welcome, and then how many more before the notices, but we no longer remember what function those songs are meant to perform. Is it any wonder our songwriters struggle for depth? We have them playing in the paddling pool!
Now I’m not advocating a return to worship how it was ‘back in the good ol’ days’. I’m advocating that pastors, priests and ministers reclaim their role as liturgical theologians. Given the influence of the charismatic movement initially, compounded later by a shift in priorities for pastoral leaders as well as a heightened consumeristic expectations from church folk, pastors have largely abdicated having direct input into the worship service apart from the message, and they have handed that role over to musicians. One might ask, have those musicians begun to receive resourcing and training to enable them to lead the congregation in worship, to give voice to the spirituality of a whole community before God? In my experience, no. This situation may not strike us as odd because we are so used to it, but consider this scenario. How weird would it have been, ‘back in the good ol’ days’ to have let the organist lead the service, pick their favourite songs, and lead all the prayers (off the cuff) from the console? It didn’t make sense then, and I’m not sure it makes sense now.
Pastors are uniquely qualified to give logic and coherence to a worship service. They are pastorally linked in to what is happening in the congregation, they are theologically astute in order to let the great themes of Scripture seep through a whole service, and they are wordsmiths. Just the sort of people to craft prayers which gather up our hopes and our fears, and hold them alongside the promises of God. When the pastor abdicates this role to the guitarist, or leaves the guitarist with too few resources to draw upon, then the worship service starts to feel like a variety concert, rather than a pilgrimage into the heart of God, and then with God into the world.
What am I suggesting? If you’re in a church where the worship service is completely in the hands of the musicians, perhaps it’s a matter of sparking up some conversations with your key leaders, helping them to move beyond their own spirituality and into facilitating a experience of worship that is hospitable for the whole congregation, linking them with the cadence of God’s story. Introduce them to the rhythms of worship, the back and forward nature of God calling and people answering.
When we share the liturgical load across the service, I suspect we won’t find so many things lacking with our songs anymore. The strength of the contemporary worship song is that they are often simple; offering space to allow a truth to sink deep within us, or for us to reflect or wonder. Exactly the kind of liturgical experience that will deepen and enrich a thoughtfully tailored worshipping journey. These songs belong in a rich tapestry of artful worship, not hung out on their own.
When there is a coherence to our worship, and depth and meaning to our prayers, prayers where the word ‘amen’ comes out of us with conviction rather than out of habit, words of welcome and sending that draw people out of their small, fractured worlds, into the wide-open spaces of God, then I think we’ll be in a place to write even better songs as well.
Malcolm Gordon is the Worship, Music and Arts Enabler at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. [Reposted from Candour.]
Over at Art/s and Theology Australia, the wonderful Clare Boyd-Macrae has shared a reflection on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Here’s a snippet:
They poured out their very souls in these letters, in a way that I suspect contemporary lovers rarely do with their instant messaging and their moving in together five minutes after they ‘hook up’. The sheer longing for each other in these epistles is a world away from the instant gratification we have come to expect in everything, including sex. I’m not wishing myself back there exactly – I do wonder how marriages panned out when these heightened times were over and a couple had to settle down to jobs and housework and the daily irritations that are a part of a long love. But the contrast with current practices is staggering.