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.]
One thing I often like to do when I’m travelling is to visit places of religious worship, whether such be Buddhist, Baha’i, or Hindu temples, or Muslim mosques, or Jewish synagogues, or Christian houses of worship. Among other reasons, this is partly because understanding the cultus (i.e., those convictions and values embodied in ritual and ceremony) of a place is a window into better understanding its broader culture, and partly because I’m fascinated by how such strange creatures as we constantly seek to orient our lives around, from, and towards things transcendent. We are, after all, homo religiosus, as St Augustine taught. One way that this is manifest is in the erection of little shrines around the country, such as this one pictured on the left – a phenomena prevalent in every part of the world I’ve visited.
Currently, I’m in Chile. It’s a country where about 61% of the population describe ‘religion’ as being either ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’ in their lives, and where somewhere in the order of 70% of those over the age of 14 identify themselves as ‘Christian’, the majority of whom (60–70%) are Roman Catholic, and around 15% identify as ‘evangelical’. 90% of evangelicals tick the box that says ‘Pentecostal’. The remaining 10% of Protestants are a smorgasbord of mostly Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Methodists. While the numbers are debatable, Mormons claim to be the second largest religious group in the country, after Roman Catholics. There are only around 17,000 Jews, and 3,000–4,000 Muslims in the entire country.
During my time here, I’ve visited a number of churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Last Sunday, for example, I was in Santiago and spent time at the Primera Iglesia Bautista de Santiago (pictured on the right), a large Baptist church with strong links to the Southern Baptist Convention. It was an interesting experience, although I must say that an hour of 80s-style rock ‘n’ roll – even when led by a delightful worship leader, as it was – followed by a sermon that goes for over an hour is hard work on the crowd, especially since it seemed like all the important stuff was happening ‘up the front’ as it were. Still, it seemed that most people like it this way. Open Bibles and the provision of a detailed sermon outline indicated that here were people wanting to be schooled in Christ. That said, judging by the queues for the loo after the service it also seems like many were literally busting to get out of there. I know I was. And yet, at the same time I very much welcomed this connection with my Baptist sisters and brothers.
During the week, I also visited a number of Roman Catholic churches, mostly in Santiago’s inner city. These were near empty on Sunday morning, but during the week these cold, dark, dusty, and musty buildings were frequently occupied by somewhere between 40–100 or so people who were praying, mostly at the various side chapels, a couple of which in each place were clearly more important – or more interesting, or more something else – than the others. People stood to pray, knelt to pray, sat to pray. I was struck by how expressive much of this prayer was. (To be sure, it was on par with other forms of physical expression I observed in countless public places.) Apart from the sidelines of sporting fields or the endless checkouts of shopping malls, such out-in-the-open demonstration of one’s religion is rarely seen in Australia, where we tend to keep our religion more private and where public displays of such are likely to attract the unforgivable accusation of ‘hypocrite’ or ‘religious wanker’.
Today, when the church marked Pentecost, I attended two church services in San Pedro de Atacama, in northern Chile. The first was at the Ministerio Iglesia Apostolica Internacional. Here a small, friendly, and welcoming congregation of just under 20 devoted worshippers meet each Sunday morning in a very small and minimally-adorned room on the edge of town. I too heard the Call to Worship here:
Here, there were no song sheets or data projector to be had (what a relief!), and a sole musician strummed a nylon-string guitar, simply. It was beautiful.
These were humble and decent folk. For two-and-a-half hours, they loved Jesús nuestro Señor together (it was unclear who ‘the’ pastor was, as most adults seemed to take various leadership responsibilities) through some very loud singing and prayers and constant sharing of potato chips, through the reading of Holy Scripture (they stood for the Gospel reading. The preacher read the full text, and then the congregation all read it together), and through an impassioned 20-minute sermon on Matthew 13.45–46, during which time the kids and two women went to a house up the street for Sunday School. Together, they prayed as if ‘God’ might be able to hear them. They prayed like people desperate to find a rare pearl in a field of weeds. They prayed as if their entire world depended on these two hopes. They prayed like they lived – expectantly.
The sermon was immediately followed by most people falling onto their knees and praying – led loudly by the preacher; I did wonder at times if some of the men here imagined that God was deaf – and by the mysteriously-coordinated return of the children and their teachers. I wondered about Barth’s warnings about giving ‘no opportunity for enthusiastic rhapsody’, but it was not my task here to make that call; and anyway, if he was serious about that then he should never have written IV/2.
This was followed by a time of laying-on-of-hands and of mutual blessing.
Overall, the gathered seemed to go through an enormous number of tissues, wiping eyes and blowing noses that had been stimulated by some very emotional worship.
Did I mention that it was beautiful?
Not yet worshipped out, an hour or so later I attended Mass at the beautiful Iglesia San Pedro de Atacama, probably the second oldest church building in Chile. The church building is made principally of mud and algarrobo and cacti woods, and bound together by llama leather. It was first constructed during the seventeenth century, and has undergone various modifications and additions since. Here, two priests adorned in Pentecost red, a few nuns, and an impressive music group, led a packed cathedral in worship. I was grateful for the moments of silence here, silence shared with so many devoted people who were seeking connection with things transcendent.
And as the handsome priest placed the wafer on my tongue, I found myself joining them. It was as if the entire week – indeed my entire life, including all those worship events – was simply the prelude to this moment when the Body of God might be consumed.
In recent years, Hillsong London has marked the coming of Christmas in ways reminiscent of what lots of churches do – an evening of carol singing marketed as ‘a night that is focused on celebrating what Christmas is really about – JESUS!’
Last year’s event included this unique performance of ‘Silent Night’:
Some of us found the performance to be quite confusing, on so very many levels. This is not a bad thing. (Of course, a quick Google search reveals that there are no shortage of people who confess no such confusion at all.) When those whose experience across a wide range of ecclesiastical supermarkets together find that their hermeneutical skills are up against it, this is a time to embrace the questions.
So this post. I have my own developing thoughts, which I may post at some stage. But consider the comments box below my invitation to you, dear reader, to help me interpret what the Willy Wonka that was all about. [NB. I want this to be constructive, so vitriolic comments are likely to find my delete button.]
Update: For those who may be interested, I’ve posted a few follow-up scribbles here.
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. As Jamie Smith puts it, ‘these rituals are the gifts of God, for the people of God’. 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’. 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.
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’. A lifeless performance of the liturgy is a betrayal of our calling. Now, it clearly does matter what we do. 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’. 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).
 James K. A. Smith, ‘“Lift Up Your Hearts”: John Calvin’s Catholic Faith’, Meeter Center Lecture (Oct 2012), p. 15. Available online: http://www.scribd.com/doc/109817080/Lift-Up-Your-Hearts-John-Calvin-s-Catholic-Faith; accessed: August 24, 2014.
 Smith, ‘Lift Up Your Hearts’, p. 15.
 Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge Classics, 2001), p. 14.
 Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, p. 87.
 Robert W. Jenson, ‘Liturgy of the Spirit’, The Lutheran Quarterly, 26.2 (May 1974), pp. 189–203 .
 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’.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), p. 100.
‘Music has always been a central feature of Christian worship, and it’s worth asking why that might be. After all, there’s no very obvious reason why God should take pleasure (if indeed he does!) in the sound of voices and pipe organ or whatever other instruments we might use. We’re told in the Bible that in the temple there were cymbals and drums and all sorts of percussive music accompanying and complementing the singing, which isn’t very Anglican, but sounds like quite a lot of fun! But why music at all? Why not praise God in some altogether more quiet and sedate fashion?
I suspect the answer has as much to do with us as with God. Musical settings of words, for instance, transform the words, seeming to get more meaning out of them than simply saying them. And, typically, we also find words that are sung regularly quite easy to remember (often we’re still humming the tune and singing along in our head later in the day). So, what we sing together gets ingrained, and shapes the substance of our faith. That’s one reason why I am quite careful about our choice of hymns in church. Singing bad theology can be dangerous to our spiritual health!’
– Trevor Hart, ‘A letter from “The Rectory”’, The NET: The magazine of Saint Andrew’s Church, St. Andrews, May 2014, 2–3.
Nick Wolterstorff’s Kantzer Lectures are now available for viewing:
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.
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.
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]
Recently, I drew attention to a public lecture that Graham Redding would be giving on the development of Presbyterian worship in Aotearoa New Zealand. Last night, to a crowded room, Graham delivered what was a fascinating lecture in which he traced the contours and patterns of worship trends in NZ Presbyterianism from its Reformation and Scottish roots, through its early colonial characteristics, to the modern era.
Drawing upon a host of indigenous examples and personalities, notably Harold Turner, Helmut Rex, John Henderson and John Dickie (pictured left), Redding concluded that ‘there is a desperate need for a revitalisation of worship in the Presbyterian Church. In my view, if such a revitalisation is to be of enduring significance, it is unlikely to take place independently of a recovery of core liturgical principles that undergird and inform the practice of Christian worship. Our church needs ministers and liturgists committed to this fundamental task’.
A copy of the full lecture, ‘Scottish Seeds in Antipodean Soil: the development of Presbyterian worship in Aotearoa New Zealand’, is available here. I’ve also uploaded a copy of the audio which can be downloaded from here.
And while I’m drawing attention to lectures, here are the links to three lectures by Walter Kaufmann on existentialism:
The next meeting of the Presbyterian Research Network (14 April) will see Graham Redding speak to us on Scottish Seeds in Antipodean Soil: the development of Presbyterian Worship in Aotearoa NZ.
We meet at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Knox College, for drinks and nibbles at 5pm for a 5.30 talk, and are away by 7pm. All are welcome.
Subsequent meetings will consider the following topics:
- 9 June 2011. The Demon Drink and the Christian: Yesterday and Today. Speaker: Geoff Troughton
- 8 September 2011. How patterns of congregational life are changing. Speakers: Kevin Ward and Sarah Mitchell
- 10 November 2011. The Challenge of Changing the Justice Landscape: how do we do justice honourably with victims, reduce recidivism and change public attitudes? Speaker: Janet Sim Elder
- Wonderful stuff by Slavoj Žižek on the miracle of Tahrir Square
- Fascinating pieces by Bert Olivier on Egypt: The crisis of modernity all over again?, and on Panopticism, Facebook, the ‘information bomb’, and Wikileaks
- Immanuel Kant’s guide to a good dinner party
- Jason Byassee on mentoring people with books
- David Gambrell on welcoming children in worship
- The 2011 Barth Conference is on the theme ‘Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue’
- On the subject of conferences, registrations for the ‘”Tikkun Olam” – to mend the world’ conference and exhibition are now open. This is shaping up to be a really exciting event.
- Kent Eilers offers ‘four handles’ on reading Barth
- The so-called ‘Romero Prayer’, by John Cardinal Dearden:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Vince Boudreau’s book Resisting Dictatorship: Repression and Protest in Southeast Asia begins with these words:
There are times and places about which nothing seems more significant than the sheer energy and violence that states direct against basic freedoms. The snippets of information that filter from these dictatorial seasons – tales of furtive hiding and tragic discovery: hard times and uneasy sleep – describe lives utterly structured by state repression. Authoritarians bent on taking power, consolidating their rule or seizing resources frequently silence opponents with bludgeons, bullets and shallow graves, and those who find themselves in the path of the state juggernaut probably have trouble even imagining protest or resistance without also calculating the severity or likelihood of state repression. Such considerations surely influence whether individuals take action or maintain a frustrated silence, and will over time broadly shape protest and resistance. (p. 1)
My long interest in the people and politics of Burma, in particular, means that I think a lot about this kind of stuff, and particularly about how the community of God might witness to and in the midst of such situations where the abuses of authority birth such blatantly evil fruit and where the climate of hope has been beclouded in fear. [Rose Marie Berger’s recent post on Guantanamo: When Will it Get Foreclosed?, for example, recalled such fruit in another part of the world]. Certainly, all human relationships and institutions live under the constant threat of the abuse of power. And even a cursory reading of history will reveal that the Church too has been both victim and perpetrator of such abuse. (I am aware that already I have used the words authority and power interchangeably here. Certainly they are at least related, and the proper understanding and use of each will decide whether the ways being pursued bring the fragrance of life or the stench of death to a situation.)
In my teaching, I am particularly interested to encourage thinking about the relationship between power and pastoral ministry, between the politics of power and what I call the ‘eucharistic ontology’ of Christian witness. Of course, we might do just as well reading 1 Corinthians 1.27–29, and recalling that ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, what is weak in the world to shame the strong, what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God’. I guess that I am concerned with exploring the Church’s option of resistance to powers’ abuse as noted by Boudreau; namely, whether we ‘take action or maintain a frustrated silence’. And if the Church is called, among other things, to participate in Jesus’ work of destroying ‘the works of the devil’ (1 John 3.8), then what weapons does God (for surely, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, that section of humanity in which Christ is taking form must resist the temptation to take up other weapons!) arm the friends of Jesus with?
In his ‘Reflections on the Notification Sent to Jon Sobrino’, published in Getting the Poor Down From the Cross: Christology of Liberation, José Comblin recalls that ‘Christendom has meant that there has been a close alliance between the clergy and the civil powers, meaning the civil authorities. A long reflection that is not only theory, but that has emerged out of living together with the poorest of the people, has demonstrated that this alliance has left no space for the Church of the Poor. This alliance has treated the poor like beggars, and has not allowed them to grow socially and/or culturally. This has been the case despite the pretty speeches of the authorities, meaning the dominant aristocracies’ (p. 75).
The fact is, as Duncan Forrester has also reminded us of in his Theological Fragments, Christian worship loses its integrity when it becomes either isolated from the realities of life, or an escape from the implications of oppression. ‘It is impossible to keep company with Christ if we refuse to accept the company he has chosen to keep. Following the patristic principle ubi Christus ibi ecclesia (where Christ is, there is the Church), it is necessary to go to find Christ and therefore the Church among the poor he loves, to listen to them, and to learn afresh from them how to worship God in Spirit and in truth … Worship separated from the great issues of liberty and justice has become idolatry, an instrument of ideological manipulation, a way of hiding from God rather than encountering Him’ (pp. 109, 110).
So the need to keep worshipping, to keep being confronted by the Word who puts us and our schemes to death and then calls us to participate in his action, and to keep hoping, like John the Baptist, that the One we encounter on the road might be ‘the one who is to come’ (Matt 11.3//Luke 7.19–20).
While writing a lecture on the Lord’s Supper, I’ve been reflecting on some interesting images which, each in different ways, invite us to think again about what the Church might be up to when it engages in this particular proclamatory performance. Here’s a few that struck me:
The PCUSA has kindly made available the text and music of a hymn by David Gambrell. The words are set to the familiar tune Leoni (‘The God of Abraham Praise’), and bear witness to the dynamic nature of the Word of God as understood in the Reformed tradition, as ‘Scripture – the Word written, preaching – the Word proclaimed, and the Sacraments – the Word enacted and sealed, bear testimony to Jesus Christ, the living Word’ (Directory for Worship, W-1.1004). Permission is granted for congregational use in worship/educational settings.
1. We praise the Word of God
made flesh in Jesus Christ:
the wellspring of undying love,
the bread of life,
who spoke with human lips
yet taught with heaven’s voice,
in whom we put our hope and trust,
and still rejoice.
2. We learn the Word of God
in stories of the faith:
the Scriptures’ living witness to
God’s truth and grace,
where prophets cry for peace,
apostles preach and pray,
and saints of all the ages seek
God’s holy way.
3. We live the Word of God
when good news we proclaim:
when captives find their liberty
and lose their chains;
when mourners sing with joy
the Word of God resounds,
the Spirit of the Lord still speaks,
and grace abounds.
The sheet music is here.
‘The question of providing religious services for summer holiday-makers in the country was before the Dunedin Presbytery at its meeting yesterday in relation, particularly, to the growing popularity of Warrington and contiguous seaside resorts.
A report submitted recommended that a tent be procured at Warrington, but this proposal did not seem to find general favour although the point has not been settled, the matter having been referred to a small committee.
The Rev. J. Chisholm said it seemed to him that more attention should be given to these seaside resorts in the future.
The churches were almost empty for a few weeks in the year, and unless more attention were paid to the young people they would form habits which would doubtless be confirmed, and that would be to the injury of their church.
The Rev. R. Fairmaid brought the matter nearer home than the northern coast by referring to Broad Bay and the Peninsula.
A young man had told him that a kind of pagan life was lived thereby the young people who gathered for week ends.
This was a deplorable condition from the moral point of view, and, so far as he understood, there was no service provided by their people in these quarters.
The committee appointed could perhaps attend to this matter, too.
It was pointed out by the Rev. W. Scorgie, in concluding the discussion, that there was a Methodist Church at Broad Bay and a Presbyterian Church at Portobello’.
Also, there’s some good reading around the traps at the moment:
- William Cavanaugh on Christopher Hitchens and the myth of religious violence.
- Matthew Bruce reviews Matthias Gockel’s Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election. [BTW: my own review of this book is available here].
- Richard L. Floyd shares an appreciation of Donald Bloesch.
- Kim Fabricius shares a wonderful Call to Worship.
- Steve Biddulph on fatherhood.
- Robert Fisk on ‘honour’ killings and on the pain of satisfying family ‘honour’.
- Ben Myers shares a note on misreading.
- Robin Parry (shamelessly) plugs a forthcoming book on universalism: “All Shall Be Well”: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann.
- Luther is still bugging the locals.
- Simon Holt shares a nice prayer from Ken Thompson about pigeon holes, compartments, and other places.
- And Ken MacLeod offers a brilliant solution for distracted writers: ‘One of the major problems for writers is that the machine we use to write is connected to the biggest engine of distraction ever invented. One can always disconnect, of course – there’s even software that locks out the internet and email for selected periods – or use a separate, isolated computer, but I think something more elegant as well as radical is needed. What I’m thinking of is some purely mechanical device, that took the basic QWERTY keyboard with Shift and Return keys and so on, but with each key attached to an arrangement of levers connected to a physical representation of the given letter or punctuation mark. These in turn would strike through some ink-delivery system – perhaps, though I’m reaching a bit here, a sort of tape of cloth mounted on reels – onto separate sheets of paper, fed through some kind of rubber roller (similar to that on a printer) one by one. The Return key would have to be replaced by a manual device, to literally ‘return’ the roller at the end of each line. Tedious, but most writers could do with more exercise anyway. Corrections and changes would be awkward, it’s true, but a glance at any word processor programme gives the answer: the completed sheets could be, physically, cut and pasted’.
BTW: I haven’t abandoned my series on the cost and grace of parish ministry. If all goes to plan, I’ll be back posting on it this week.
‘The greatest product of the Church is not brotherly love but divine worship. And we shall never worship right nor serve right till we are more engrossed with our God than even with our worship, with His reality than our piety, with His Cross than our service. It is well to dream and to talk much of brotherly love. But the brethren who love best and the love that loves longest are made by the Gospel. It is this they confess in loving, as they confess it in other ways also. Christian charity is not the sweet reasonableness of culture, nor is it natural kindliness of temper. To the lover of righteousness it does not come easy. It grows only on the stem of Christian faith, which is the tree of the Cross and its righteousness. The good live by faith and work by love. Never did Paul dream that his song of Christian love would be turned to belittle or to belabour the Christian faith on which alone it grows. The Church is the greatest product of history, and the greatest product of the Church is a holiness answering the holiness that made it, which is Holy Love. The first commandment of the Cross is “Be ye holy, for I am holy.” Its call is for the confession, worship, and service of that divine Holiness of love which is the spring of our Redemption. The service of God is the root, the service of man is but the fruit. True, by their fruits shall we know them; but not produce them. The fruits are the evidence, not the principles. Love does more to show faith than to produce it. Grace produces it. We live by that faith in holy Love whose fruit is to be a love not only kind, but, still more, holy’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1947), 25–6.
Today is PT Forsyth’s birthday.
To celebrate my recent success, I awarded myself with a copy of The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon. Thus far, I’ve resisted the temptation to post on it, to rave about the homiletical energy of the twentieth-century’s greatest theologian, his exegetical insights and proficiency in what is arguably the preachers’ most difficult task, namely application. But I give in. Here he is on Romans 12:1–2, from a sermon preached on 3 March, 1918:
‘In the words “well pleasing to God” it is said that our thoughts, words and works are in need of God’s blessing if they are truly to be a worship of God. It is indeed right when we search for God and wish to bring about better conditions in the world, but God must also be able to say yes to the ways and means we have of doing it, for otherwise nothing will come of our efforts. It is indeed good, for example, to pray for and pursue the conversion of persons, but if one cannot put aside an evil way of being that pricks and stings, God is not in it. To give the needy from one’s surplus is also good, but whether or not God rejoices in it will depend, for example, on how one has gained the surplus. To turn the world upside down, like the Bolsheviks now want to do, would also be good and much needed, but when they wave around their automatic weapons, the blessing of God cannot be in it. Good, pure persons are needed in order to serve God in a good, pure way, a way that is well pleasing to God. What passes by this good and pure way of being can never lead to the goal.
I think that we now understand a little of what Paul meant when he said that a sacrifice is needed for a reasonable worship of God. Here we must look deeply into what is holy. Something must be brought, presented, given. In the words themselves we already notice something of that serious, radical, and personal decision that the Bible requires of us and before which we are rightly perplexed. It is difficult for us and even hurts to give something away, even if it were only a little money that we would rather keep, or a friendly word, when we would rather say something sullen or rude, or an hour of our time that we would rather have for ourselves. The word “sacrifice” always attacks us, like a sharp knife. We would rather serve God in some other way than through sacrifice. In what Paul calls a reasonable worship of God, the giving of a little money is not enough, nor is a good word, nor a little time. One must seriously question whether any of these is a “living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” In fact, they are holy sacrifices only when another and much greater prior sacrifice has taken place, so that it now stands behind them.
For there is only one sacrifice that God acknowledges and accepts from us, and if you do not make this sacrifice, the rest collapses like a house of cards. This one sacrifice, according to Paul, consists in “presenting your bodies.” What he means is your personhood, your own self, without making a difference between the outer and inner person or of what is spiritual in us and what is natural. He says expressly “your bodies!” and not “your souls!” What Paul means is that there is no difference, that when he speaks of the body he includes the soul. We like to make fine and seemingly intelligent distinctions, as when we say, “Inwardly I am also of this opinion, but outwardly I do not wish to show it”; or, “In my heart I stand on this side too, but with my person I would rather not confess it”; or, “In my soul I want to belong to God, but my body – which means all that I am outwardly in the concealment of my private life, in my family, in my business, in my position in the village – this body of mine may keep going along as usual and often goes fully other ways than the ways of God.”
The Bible does not make such fine and clever distinctions. Paul prevents them simply by saying, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” Here none of those distinctions and the like are acknowledged, such as when one reads worshipfully in the hymnbook on Sunday morning, but on Sunday afternoon goes a completely different way, as many of our teenagers in the confirmation class do. Here one is not allowed to be an idealist that reads good books in the evening, but in the factory during the day acts on the basis of the same principles, or rather lack of principles, as everyone else. Here one is not allowed to be a child of God who today cannot boast enough of the glory of truly trusting God, but tomorrow gets entirely out of sorts when their store of goods has dwindled in some small way.
Such fine distinctions are not possible for Paul. “Present your bodies as a sacrifice!” Then God will receive what God wills to receive from you and what God can use. As long as we do not wish to present our bodies, we wish to give nothing of ourselves. If we have once understood the inner and the outer, what belongs to the soul and what belongs to the body, one’s personal human spirit and one’s physical person – then we will sacrifice what must be sacrificed; then it will be a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God, just as God is living and holy; then we will give ourselves into the power of God!
That is what is meant by a reasonable worship of God. What a pity it is and what a distress that at bottom we all fear the gods so much that we are all so religious and full of endeavor, and yet understand so little of this sacrifice, of giving ourselves, our bodies, as sacrifices into the power of God. Oh, how would the doors that are now closed to us open – all the doors of sin and care before which we so helplessly stand; the doors of persons we do not understand nor they us; the doors of sad social conditions that we presently cannot change – how would truth and salvation come to light, how would the change of things that we wish for happen, if we would only break out of all our so-called worship of God, our religions, convictions, and endeavors! We would break out of all these prisons, over which is written, “My intentions are good,” and instead enter into what God intends, into that reasonable worship of God in Spirit and in truth. This is what the Bible places before us in such a great, natural, and healthy way!’ – Karl Barth and William H. Willimon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon (trans. John E. Wilson; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51–3.
‘Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgements are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Yahweh. (Psalm 36:6)
‘My mouth shall always praise Yahweh, let every creature bless his holy name for ever and ever’. (Psalm 145:21)
Eugene Peterson is always worth listening to, and his writing on pastoral ministry is enormously encouraging. Here’s some snipperts from a Leadership interview with this pastor to pastors:
‘The most important thing a pastor does is stand in a pulpit every Sunday and say, “Let us worship God.” If that ceases to be the primary thing I do in terms of my energy, my imagination, and the way I structure my life, then I no longer function as a pastor. I pick up some other identity. I cannot fail to call the congregation to worship God, to listen to his Word, to offer themselves to God. Worship becomes a place where we have our lives redefined for us. If we’re no longer operating out of that redefinition, the pastoral job is hopeless. Or if not hopeless, it becomes a defection. We join the enemy. We’ve quit our basic work’.
‘I don’t ever want to convey that our primary job as pastors is to fix a problem. Our primary work is to make saints. We’re in the saint-making business. If we enter the human-potential business, we’ve lost our calling’.
‘I begin with the conviction that everything in the gospel is experience-able. As a pastor, whatever the person’s situation, you’re saying to yourself, This person can experience the gospel here. I haven’t a clue how it’s going to happen, but I’m willing to slog through whatever has to be slogged through and not give up. I will continue to keep the gospel clear on Sundays; I will continue to be a companion with this person on Fridays’.
‘You cannot go to a pulpit week after week and preach truth accurately without constant study. Our minds blur on us, and we need that constant sharpening of our minds. And without study, without the use of our mind in a disciplined way, we are sitting ducks for the culture’.
‘I get my job description from the Scriptures, from my ordination vows. If I let the congregation decide what I’m going to do, I’m as bad as a doctor who prescribes drugs on request. Medical societies throw out doctors for doing that kind of thing; we need theological societies to throw out pastors for doing the same thing. And if you give up prayer and study, you will soon give up the third area: people’.
‘Listening, paying attention to people is the most inefficient way to do anything. It’s tedious, and it’s boring, and when you do it, it feels like you’re wasting time and not getting anything done. So when the pressures start to mount, when there are committees to run to and budgets to fix, what’s got to go? Listening to people. Seeing them in their uniqueness, without expecting anything of them. You quit paying attention, and people get categorized and recruited. It doesn’t take long for pastors to become good manipulators. Most of us learn those skills pretty quickly. If you can make a person feel guilty, you can make him or her do almost anything. And who’s better at guilt than pastors?’
‘The person who prays for you from the pulpit on Sunday should be the person who prays for you when you’re dying. Then there’s a connection between this world and the world proclaimed in worship. Classically – and I have not seen anything in the twentieth century that has made me revise my expectation – a pastor is local. You know people’s names, and they know your name. There’s no way to put pastoral work on an assembly line … Pastoral care can be shared, but never delegated. If the congregation perceives that I exempt myself from that kind of work, then I become an expert. I become somehow elitist; I’m no longer on their level. Elitism is an old demon that plagues the church’.
‘The church is not a functional place. It’s a place of being’.
‘It’s odd: We live in this so-called postmodernist time, and yet so much of the public image of the church is this rational, management-efficient model. If the postmodernists are right, that model is passe; it doesn’t work any more. In that sense, I find myself quite comfortably postmodern. I think pastors need to cultivate “unbusyness.” I use that word a lot. My father was a butcher. When he delivered meat to restaurants, he would sit at the counter, have a cup of coffee and piece of pie, and waste time. But that time was critical for building relationships, for doing business. Sometimes I’m with pastors who don’t wander around. They don’t waste time. Their time is too valuable. They run to the tomb, and it’s empty, so they run back. They never see resurrection. Meanwhile, Mary’s wasting time; she’s wandering around. To be unbusy, you have to disengage yourself from egos – both yours and others – and start dealing with souls. Souls cannot be hurried’.
‘For me, being a pastor means being attentive to people. But the minute I start taking my cues from them, I quit being a pastor’.
‘Most pastoral work is slow work. It is not a program that you put in place and then have it happen. It’s a life. It’s a life of prayer’.
‘There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters — God and Cæsar’. So was Tertullian’s response (in On Idolatry 19) to a question he posed of ‘whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments’.
My recent return to the Antipodes (after only 3 years) has been met with something of a shock at what I observe to be a distinct revival of patriotism in this part of the world symbolised not least in the hoisting of national flags. I can only interpret this as a public confession that the soul of the nation is distressed. Holding this thought, I remember once hearing (on tape) the great Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamenting that the saddest day in ecclesiastical history was when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. (Of course, it may been different if Constantine had turned out to be a different kind of Emperor, but that’s not my point here). At the time, I wondered if this was a bit of an overstatement (a brilliant preacher’s rhetoric beclouding more constrained reflection on what is only one of millions of possible ‘saddest day’ candidates), but he was certainly onto something: that the Church’s jumping into bed with and baptising nationhood with its programs and events – such as Anzac Day – serves to highlight yet again that there is literally all the difference in the world between discipleship and citizenship, that with or without the third verse the Church cannot in good conscience sing the hymn ‘I vow to thee, my country’, words which were rung out at many a recent Anzac Day service. (And while I’m on Anzac Day services, let me tout that the Church can only faithfully recall the deaths that war has claimed if she does so as part of her proclamation against all war.)
The Church betrays its witness to the one Word of God when she includes a national flag among – or alongside – her emblems of worship. Nationalism and patriotism are always idolatrous enemies of a jealous Lord who tolerates no rivals. To see a national flag displayed in a place of Christian worship is to witness a message as scandalous and confusing as to see an ATM machine in a ‘church foyer’. Moreover, to witness (or to participate in) what Lesslie Newbigin described as ‘the Constantinian trap’ is to observe (and/or to participate in) the greatest of public failures – the denial of the Church’s font, table and pulpit, its raison d’être and its catholicity in the world. It is to preach that the greatest thing in the world – the Church – has become a chaplain of the State and its violent machinery. Paul Fromont recently gave voice to similar concerns by drawing upon Stanley Hauerwas’ writing as that concerned with ‘liberation’. For Hauerwas, he writes, this typically centres on a two-fold dynamic: (1) The liberation of the church from its captivity to agendas, values and practices intrinsically alien to its character and calling; and (2) liberation (in order to) restore the church to be and act as what [Hauerwas] terms a ‘free agent’ of the Kingdom appropriate to God’s agenda of the salvation of the cosmos and its re-creation (cf. Rev 21:1; Rom 8:22). I recall Hauerwas’ words from another context: to ‘worship in a church with an American flag’ means that ‘your salvation is in doubt’. Patriotism is no Christian virtue. (See Hauerwas’ Dissent from the Homeland, p. 184). The problem in Germany during the 1930s and 40s wasn’t that German Christians draped the cross with a Nazi flag; it was that they draped the cross with a flag full stop. Christian communities ought remove all national flags from their places of worship, and to do so at least as publicly as when they were first placed there. The removal should be accompanied by a public prayer of confession for despoiling the Church’s witness to its Lord, and to its own catholicity.
Against those who contend that the Church’s role is to baptise those creations of common good that the State concerns itself with, William Cavanaugh, in his brilliant essay, ‘Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good’ (Modern Theology 20/2, 2004), observes that Christian social ethics more often than not proceed on the false assumption that the responsibility for promoting and protecting the common good falls to the State. He avers:
The nation-state is neither community writ large nor the protector of smaller communal spaces, but rather originates and grows over against truly common forms of life. This is not necessarily to say that the nation-state cannot and does not promote and protect some goods, or that any nation-state is entirely devoid of civic virtue, or that some forms of ad hoc cooperation with the government cannot be useful. It is to suggest that the nation-state is simply not in the common good business. At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that never quite provides value for money. The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more; namely, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values that demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for genuine communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear; as Augustine saw, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. The nation-state is a simulacrum of common life, where false order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division. The urgent task of the Church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company. At its best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order – mail delivery is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The Church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state. The Church must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence. The Church needs, at every opportunity, to “complexify” space, that is, to promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish. (pp. 266–7)
Cavanaugh contends that by regarding the nation-state as responsible for the common good, ‘the Church’s voice in such crucial moral matters as war becomes muted, pushed to the margins. Just war reasoning becomes a tool of statecraft, most commonly used by the state to justify war, rather than a moral discipline for the Church to grapple with questions of violence. The Church itself becomes one more withering “intermediate association”, whose moral reasoning and moral formation are increasingly colonized by the nation-state and the market. To resist, the Church must at the very least reclaim its authority to judge if and when Christians can kill, and not abdicate that authority to the nation-state. To do so would be to create an alternative authority and space that does not simply mediate between state and individual’ (p. 268). That is why one appropriate Christian witness might be the refusal of those who reside in States where funding goes to pay for the machinery of aggressive war to withhold a percentage of their income tax commensurate with the State’s war budget. (Here I have in mind Yoder’s essay ‘Why I Don’t Pay All My Income Tax’).
While the Church shares some cultural space with the world, it is not an institution alongside others, and it exists for the propping up of none. The Church, as Peter Leithart argues in Against Christianity, is both ‘an alternative world unto herself’, and a participant in the Spirit’s ‘subversive mission of converting whatever culture she finds herself in’. And the Church participates in the second only as she lives authentically as the first – i.e. as she embodies an alternative Societas determined by its own jealous Servant-Lord and shaped by its own unique narrative. Christendom can never undertake this mission because it can only propose ideas or offer the Church as a ‘new sort of religious association’, essentially no different to a local lawn bowls club. It does not form an alternative city, a ‘new, eschatological ordering of human life’. ‘Constantinianism … is a theological and missiological mistake’ (Rodney Clapp).
If Leithart is right that the mission of the Church involves the converting of culture then, as I intimated above, this can only happen as the congregation of Jesus lives uncompromisingly under a different economy and politic. The consequence of such living will inevitably provoke a declaration of war by the gods. History is indeed the battle for worship, as the Book of the Revelation bears witness to.
Anyway, back to the issue of the flag. Few have named the stakes as cogently and as carefully as Karl Barth, with whose words I bring this post to a close:
[The] combining of the Word of Jesus Christ with the authority and contents of other supposed revelations and truths of God has been and is the weak point, revealed already in the gnosis attacked in the New Testament, at almost every stage in the history of the Christian Church. The prophecy of Jesus Christ has never been flatly denied, but fresh attempts have continually been made to list it with other principles, ideas and forces (and their prophecy) which are also regarded and lauded as divine, restricting its authority to what it can signify in co-ordination with them, and therefore to what remains when their authority is also granted. Nor is this trend characteristic only of early and mediaeval Catholicism. It is seen in Protestantism too, from the very outset in certain circles, even in the Reformers themselves, and then with increasing vigour and weight, until the fatal little word “and” threatened to become the predominant word of theology even in this sphere where we might have hoped for better things in view of what seemed to be the strong enough doctrine of justification. It needed the rise of the strange but temporarily powerful sect of the German Christians of 1933 to call us back to reflection, and at least the beginning of a return, when the more zealous among them, in addition to their other abominations, awarded cultic honour to the portrait of the Führer. The overthrow of this whole attitude, and its provisional reversal, was accomplished in the first thesis of Barmen which is the theme of the present exposition. But there are other Christian nations in which it is customary to find a prominent place in the church for national flags as well as the pulpit and the Lord’s table, just as there are evangelical churches which substitute for the Lord’s table a meaningfully furnished apparatus for the accomplishment of baptism by immersion [or, one might add, that most holy of contemporary ecclesiastical furniture – the data projector and its accompanying screen]. These externals, of course, are trivial in themselves. But as such they may well be symptoms of the attempt which is possible in so many forms to incorporate that which is alien in other prophecies into what is proper to that of Jesus Christ. If these prophecies are prepared for this – and sooner or later they will make an open bid for sole dominion – the prophecy of Jesus Christ asks to be excused and avoids any such incorporation. If it is subjected to such combinations, the living Lord Jesus and His Word depart, and all that usually remains is the suspiciously loud but empty utterance of the familiar name of this Prophet. “No man can serve two masters” (Mt. 6:24). No man can serve both the one Word of God called Jesus Christ and other divine words’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 101–2.
Regular readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem can gear themselves up for some more Forsyth in the next few posts. Here’s a few nuggets from his 1914 essay, ‘Christianity and Society’ (Methodist Review Quarterly):
‘The Church’s true attitude and action in the world is Christ’s. It is that of him whose indwelling makes it a Church The question, therefore, of the Church’s relation to Society is really the whole question of Christology’. (pp. 3-4)
‘Christ is God by his eternal personal relation to the divine holiness, rather than by his essential relation to the divine substance’. (p. 4)
‘The Church is not simply the superlative of religious society. It is not spiritual Humanity coming to its own. Christianity is not the republication of the lex naturæ with supreme éclat. Grace is not a mere reēnforcement of nature. There is a new Creation. That is the vital thing’. (p. 5)
‘The principle of the Church is thus the antithesis of the world; and yet it is in constant and positive relation with it. They co-exist in a vital paradox which is the essence of all active religion. The Gospel can neither humor human nature nor let it alone. That is the grand collision of history, however its form may vary … Hence the first business of the Church is not to influence man but to worship and glorify God, and to act on man only in that interest. All its doctrine, preaching, culture, and conduct is a confession and glorification of the Saviour. The Church does not save; it only bears living witness and makes humble confession, in manifold ways, of a God who does. It is not a company for the promotion of goodness, but a society for the honor of God’. (p. 6)
‘The evil neglect of the theologian by the public today is in a measure his own fault. His truth has not kept pace with the growth of social interest. It has been too idealogical, and not enough social. His doctrine has not remained a living expression even of his own society of the Church. He has failed to show how necessary it is for the social interest itself. And he has not so construed the Gospel as to force a social regeneration on the Christian conscience. He has been often occupied with a God of substance, process, or ideas, instead of a God of act, life, and the Kingdom’. (p. 7)
‘Christianity has more and more to face a dechurched civilization. The circumstances are thus quite different from the mediæval state of things. The traditional civilization is turned more and more upon its own resources. Can they save it from anarchy? It is on its trial’. (p. 14)
‘… our eyes are being purged today to see many things. We feel the effects of a modernized Pelagianism, the effect of worshiping (if it is worship) a God whose revelation is too little of a moral crisis and re-creation of human nature, and too much of its glorification. We inherit a Christianity which allows too much to human nature, and therefore is conquered by it’. (p. 17)