Malcolm Gordon on music, liturgy, and the cadence of God’s story

Irina Lesik - Three Musicians

Irina Lesik, ‘Three Musicians’

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
  • Welcome
  • two more upbeat songs plus prayer
  • Notices. Kids go out
  • two more reflective songs plus prayer
  • Message
  • 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.]

Work of God, Work of the People: Reflections on the Spirit of Liturgical Worship

Coptic worship

A guest post by Chris Green

Liturgy, we are often reminded, is ‘the work of the people’. But that claim has to be qualified immediately by (at least) two other truths. First, liturgy – and, more importantly, the worship that it serves­ is always already God’s work before it is ours. Worship is not our gift to God until it is God’s gift to us. And just because God is Trinity even our gift to God is made possible only by God giving God to God through us. Secondly, the liturgy is the church’s work before it is ours, personally or communally. The liturgy in its various expressions belongs to the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ and not to my tribe or yours.

Faithful liturgies emerge and are developed over time as ‘accrued wisdom of the body of Christ, led by the Spirit’. That means the ‘liturgical heritage’ of the church catholic belongs to all Christians – indeed, to everyone and everything.[1] As Jamie Smith puts it, ‘these rituals are the gifts of God, for the people of God’.[2] We should be thankful for these gifts. Were our liturgies entirely of our own making, our vision would be tragically narrowed. We would see only that part of God’s work that looks like what we expect to see. We would, in other words, be blinded by our own lights rather than given light to see the light that enlightens everyone coming into the world.

I just said that liturgy serves worship. But how is that so? Iris Murdoch observes that within our inner dialogue, words mean in the same way as ‘outer words’, and this indicates that ‘we can know our own internal imagery [only] because we have been initiated into a shared public world of meanings’.[3] What she says about the work of learning to speak and to read Russian applies at least in some ways that liturgy serves worship:

… I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me … something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.[4]

In other words, it is as we are faced with the alienness of the liturgy in its ‘authoritative structure’ – a structure that cannot be ‘taken over’ or ‘swallowed up’ – that we are humbled, prepared to speak to God and about God more truthfully, more transformatively.

As Israel enters the Promised Land, she is warned against worshipping as the locals do – ‘You shall not worship the Lord your God in such ways’ – or according to her own heart-desires (Deut. 12.4, 8). Instead, the people are bound to ‘seek the place’ where God has chosen to ‘put his name’ (Deut. 12.5). True worship, they are told, can take place only there, in that chosen-for-them place. The same rule holds for us now. Grace, in drawing us into ordered worship, calls us to the place of crucifixion, the place of kenotic openness to neighbor-in-God. The chosen place is identified for us by the liturgy of Word and Sacrament, where we are gathered as a sanctified, Spirit-filled people in a sanctified, Spirit-filled space and time to be present prayerfully to the God who speaks and acts paradigmatically in the liturgy. As we enter into the play and work of liturgical worship, taking its words and gestures as our own, we make ourselves available in a particular way to the Spirit’s sanctifying work.

All that said, let me hasten to add: these forms, by themselves, will not get done what needs doing. Jenson gets it right, I think: ‘the question of our liturgy as liturgy of the Spirit is not so much a question about any particular things we do, as about the spiritedness of the whole performance’.[5] A lifeless performance of the liturgy is a betrayal of our calling. Now, it clearly does matter what we do.[6] But how we do whatever we do is at least equally important.

Of course, spirited liturgical performance is not the only or ultimate concern. In a sense, the truth about the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of our liturgy and liturgical performance comes to light only after the service ends. The question is: do we ‘walk worthy’ (Eph. 4.1) of the Gospel we enact liturgically? Bonhoeffer is unquestionably right: ‘only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God’s love and mercy’.[7] If we are enacting the liturgy faithfully, then we are going to find ourselves inescapably sensitized to the needs of our neighbors, opened to their world in all of its otherness. The Eucharist, as the center of our worship, first gathers, then scatters us into ever-widening circles of service and care. Filled with the Spirit of the liturgy, we cannot help but live ex-centrically, compelled by Christ’s love to live not for ourselves ‘but for him who died and was raised’ for us (2 Cor. 5.14–15).

[1] James K. A. Smith, ‘“Lift Up Your Hearts”: John Calvin’s Catholic Faith’, Meeter Center Lecture (Oct 2012), p. 15. Available online:; accessed: August 24, 2014.

[2] Smith, ‘Lift Up Your Hearts’, p. 15.

[3] Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge Classics, 2001), p. 14.

[4] Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, p. 87.

[5] Robert W. Jenson, ‘Liturgy of the Spirit’, The Lutheran Quarterly, 26.2 (May 1974), pp. 189–203 [189].

[6] In Jenson’s own words (‘Liturgy of the Spirit’, p. 191), a ‘relatively superficial, but nonetheless vital level of our concern is, therefore, that the liturgical items be there, by which our service can be eschatological promise and anticipation’.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), p. 100.

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s 2013 Kantzer Lectures


Nick Wolterstorff’s Kantzer Lectures are now available for viewing:

I. The God We Worship: A Liturgical Theology

In this first Kantzer lecture, Nicholas Wolterstorff provides the overarching structure to his liturgical project. Using as his main interlocutors liturgical theologians Schmemann and von Allmen, and working at the convergence of Orthodox, Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions, Wolterstorff expounds his ontology of liturgy as dependent on the enactment of a “script,” the complete set of rules that determine what is a correct liturgy. He argues that the nature and purpose of the church become manifest in the correct enactment of the liturgy. Anticipating future lectures, Wolterstorff suggests that the God implicit in the liturgy is discernible at three levels: the understanding of God implicit in (1) the entire liturgy, (2) the various types of liturgical actions, and (3) the particular content of individual liturgical acts. Thus, Wolterstorff will lend his analytic tools to decode and thereby reveal the theological logos of Christian liturgy.

II. God as Worthy of Worship

In the second lecture, Wolterstorff explicates what he calls the implicit understanding of God within the Christian liturgy as a whole (or as it accords with the convergence of the five traditions he is considering), the third and highest level of implicitness (see lecture 1).  The highest level of implicitness is the assumption that God is worthy of worship. This understanding of God, says Wolterstorff, leads us in Christian worship to acknowledge the unsurpassable excellence of God. There is a definitive orientation taken on in worship, which he calls an attitudinal stance. This way of orienting ourselves toward God in Christian worship evokes (at least) awe, reverence and adoration of God. Awe is the proper response to God’s creative and redemptive glory; reverence to God’s holiness as untainted perfection; and adoration to God’s love for humanity. Thus, the implicit understanding of God as unsurpassably excellent and thereby worthy of worship is manifest in our attitudinal stance, or orientation towards God in worship.

III. God as One Who Listens and Speaks

Wolterstorff now considers the understanding of God implicit in some of the fundamental types of Christian liturgy. He submits that the address of God is the most common type of action that occurs in the enactment of Christian liturgy. In addressing someone. In the act of (strongly) addressing God the participants of Christian worship hope, Wolterstorff contends, that God can and will attend to, grasp, and respond appropriately to their address. By addressing God directly, the participants and God enter into a “we-Thou” relationship. God as listener is implicitly understood, therefore, as one who is reciprocally oriented to those who have addressed him. He is free to respond favorably, but not bound. The community hopes and prays that he will respond favorably. The other most common type of action in Christian liturgy is being addressed by God through (1) the reading Scripture, (2) prophetic proclamation, (3) and the clerical mode (e.g., pronouncing absolution). That the enactment of liturgy is the place and sight of people speaking and listening to God provides an understanding of God as One who listens and speaks.

[Image courtesy of Daniel Rodrigues-Martin Photography]

The liturgical year: training for life in this world and the next

Halden Doerge’s latest post, The impotence of the liturgical year, is well worth reading. And why I have neither the time nor the inclination to give a full response, I did want to post just a few of my initial reactions. To publish one’s thoughts on-the-run, as it were, is always a somewhat dangerous thing to do in blogdom, but what the salami; it’s close to Christmas, and my responsibility-guard is down.

What Halden wishes to affirm needs to be affirmed: that Advent and the Church’s liturgical calendar as a whole is, properly conceived, about God and not about a fascination with or idolatry about liturgical time per se; that God in his freedom may meet us like he did Zechariah, i.e., while ‘going about the usual liturgical practices of [the] calendar’; we ought not presume that God in his freedom will meet us like he did Zechariah, i.e., while ‘going about the usual liturgical practices of [the] calendar’; that the liturgical calendar functions as something like an icon insofar as we are invited to look through rather than at it, etc., etc., … So three or more cheers for Halden. Halden may also be right when he suggests that some of the claims made by ‘liturgical enthusiasts’ for the efficacy of calendar observance are exaggerated and often appear to lack any empirical testing (I think that the Bible calls this ‘fruit’; the Bible also encourages us to look for such). While I confess that I’ve never actually met such enthusiasts (I haven’t met most people), it is probable that in a world where people can get excited about watching synchronised swimming that some such people do exist.

But I want to defend the claim, made by Hauerwas and others (there is some irony here for it was Halden, among others, who inspired me to read Hauerwas again after some years of neglect), that living in a deeper awareness of the story of Jesus and of the Church does, in the freedom and grace of God, ‘do’ something. Specifically, it trains us. It immerses us into a gospel-forming rhythm. And that is precisely something that the Church’s calendar encourages (rather than ‘does’) too. Like praying the Lord’s Prayer, or fasting, the Church’s calendar calls us into the river with others and watches to see if we are learning to swim in it yet, or otherwise. It does not turn us into liturgical automatons. Again, it trains us. It trains us in the way of ordinary gospel-posture. (It seems significant to me that the bulk of the Church’s time is ‘ordinary’). To claim that keeping Church time ‘does’ something is different to claiming that such time-keeping has some kind of magical power, something akin to a superstitious understanding of baptism articulated by some (in less enlightened times than our own ;-)). The former is to say something about the way that faith understands God’s way with us; the latter is simply atheistic.

I understand that every time we come to the Lord’s Table, for example, which is where the entire Church story is enacted in concentrated form, we are offered training in how to live sacramentally in the world, to unearth its idolatries and to expose what William Stringfellow (in Free in Obedience) calls the ‘transience of death’s power in the world’. I agree that the training itself doesn’t, in Halden’s words, ‘just do it’, i.e., do the work in and of itself of making us more like the discipling community intended by the training ‘event’, but I’m not sure that the fault (if we are looking for such) here lies with either the teacher nor with the training manual. I think that Jamie Smith’s thesis, in Desiring the Kingdom, is basically right. To be baptised into the liturgical life of the community is to be immersed into its habit-forming practices, practices which are invitational, which are undertaken with a view to fostering transformation of both mind and performance, and have something like what we might call eschatological reserve or groan. In other words, they are the gift of the Spirit, and so bear the print of the Spirit’s hand. As one of my students put it to me recently, the Church is called to be ‘a foretaste of a community of right relationships’, not the kingdom arrived! This begs the question of how the Church’s observance of ‘real’ time prepares and directs one for life as it shall be: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (1 Cor 13.12).

Or think of the Supper, the central act of the Christian community. As the community gathers around the Table, we are offered, among other things, training in how to forgive others. God creates koinonia around the Table in which, as Hauerwas and Willimon argue in Resident Aliens (sorry Dan but I think that Hauerwas has a point here, even if his response to you was less than satisfying), ‘even small, ordinary occurrences every Sunday, like eating together in Eucharist, become opportunities to have our eyes opened to what God is up to in the world and to be part of what God is doing. If we get good enough at forgiving the strangers who gather around the Lord’s Table, we hope that we shall be good at forgiving the strangers who gather with us around the breakfast table. Our everyday experience of life in the congregation is training in the arts of forgiveness; it is everyday, practical confirmation of the truthfulness of the Christian vision’ (p. 91), and it is an invitation to live as if the one who first appeared as a stranger at the Emmaus breakfast was serious when he preached the so-called Sermon on the Mount.

As a side note, Jaroslav Pelikan (in The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300–1700), p. 124) recalls an interesting point argued by Nicholas de Cusa. While de Cusa supported communion in only one species (bread), he linked Eucharistic practice with the health of the church. Pelikan summarises de Cusa’s position thus: ‘When the love of the church was at its peak, believers communicated often and under both species; when it was only warm, they received more rarely and by means of intinction; and now that it was merely tepid, they received even less often and under one species. Thus, “the usage was commensurate with the love of the church”’.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, afterall, that St Paul comes back to the Supper as he deals with the Corinthians and their train-wreck of a church. We either feast on Christ, or we feast on each other!

Ordinary Time

There is much to appreciate about Joan Chittister’s book The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. It’s a well-penned introduction to the foundational narrative of Christian discipleship framed against the backdrop of its requisite ecclesiology and its own sense of time, a time inimitable because grounded in the one unique narrative of Jesus Christ and enfleshed in the body with which he has so incontrovertibly and enduringly bound himself. To be exact, the sense of time – the liturgical calendar which ‘puts in relief the full array of Christian mysteries and spiritual cycles for all to see’ and which contrasts so powerfully with the civic metanarrative – is a given time, graced time, time which outlasts all times.

And while each of Chittister’s lyrical and informative elucidations of the feasts and seasons of the Church year provide much fare for reflection, it is what she has to say about ‘Ordinary Time’ – that time between Christmas and Lent, and then between Pentecost and Advent – that struck me most, and which I want to share here:

‘Ordinary Time refuses to overwhelm us with distractions, even religious and liturgical distractions, regardless how pious they may seem. Instead, it keeps us rooted in the great, driving truths of the faith: Jesus was, is, and will come again. In those three insights is all there is to know. In that conviction we have enough spirituality for a lifetime. Everything else is in apposition, is simply a modifier, an explanation, an example of the truth of it. But that takes a lifetime of contemplation, of pause, of reflection. That takes an understanding of the value and purpose of Ordinary Time’. (p. 99)

‘It doesn’t take a lot of living to realize that life is more than simply a series of highs and lows. By and large, existence as we know it is not a display of moments marked either by excitement or despair, by dazzling hope or formidable tragedy. It is, in fact, basically routine. Largely uneventful. Essentially predictable. Life is, by and large, more commonplace than exciting, more customary than electrifying, more usual than unusual. And so, not surprisingly, is the liturgical year.

Because the liturgical year is a catalog of the dimensions of the spiritual life, it is not unlike life itself. It, too, is made up of the habitual and the common coordinates of what it means to live a spiritual life. What’s more, it is precisely this routine of holiness-as-usual that is the ultimate measure of the quality of a soul’. (pp. 182–3)

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part VII, On the Church Calendar

‘The Protestant church was already in the process of discarding the named Sundays of Lent and Easter even as we blessed and planted the seeds. Now they bear the evocative names “The First Sunday in Lent,” “the Second Sunday in Lent,” and so on. The fourth Sunday in Lent was once named Laetare, which means “rejoice.” It was known in the church as Refreshment Sunday. On this Sunday rose paraments replaced the traditional purple of Lent, and, psychologically and spiritually, we breathed a little easier. The color rose seemed to say, There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Even at the dead center of Lent, Christ is risen.

The Protestant church got rid of Laetare as well as Rogate and many of the other days for reasons I have never fully understood. It created a bland church calendar and liturgies du jour in the image of people who have been abstracted from place and history, who have no feel for the symbols and no memory of the stories. They live, work, and worship in climate-controlled buildings. They have largely adopted a digitalized language. Their daily routines override the natural rhythms and longings of life.

I can only say that the Latin words were not too much for my high school dropouts. The simple outline of church history didn’t overtax their imaginations. The liturgy and church year made sense to the farmers in New Cana, for who better than a farmer understands the circularities of life? The church year had a rhythm, and so did their lives.

Some would argue that the observance of Rogate arose in an agricultural world and is, therefore, irrelevant to all but the 1.7 percent of Americans who still live on farms. But my congregation understood the metaphor that underlay Rogate, which is this: When we do any kind of useful work, we join the act of creation in progress and help God keep the universe humming’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 144–5.

Helen Gardner (via Rowan Williams) on Liturgy

‘Liturgy is not a matter of writing in straight lines. As the late Helen Gardner … remarked, liturgy is epic as well as drama; its movement is not inexorably towards a single, all-determining climax, but also – precisely – a circling back, a recognition of things not yet said or finished with, a story with all kinds of hidden rhythms pulling in diverse directions’. – Rowan Williams, ‘Service to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, 21st March 2006’. Full sermon here.