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What should Christian worship look like?

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 7 January 2015


The fragmentation of the Church since the Reformation has produced multiple denominations all with their idiosyncratic styles of worship. The question this essay addresses is whether there is a form of worship that is more faithful to the gospel than any other. Such a suggestion will raise the relativist objection, so commonly present in our day, that each person is unique and has the right to choose the kind of worship that suits them best. To propose that one form of worship is more faithful than others will draw the accusation of a new hegemony in such matters that proclaims that in worship one size fits all.

However, the Church of Rome does insist that Christian worship is not open to spontaneous or "creative" alteration and the Anglican Church at least pays lip-service to uniformity. Pope Benedict XVI was eager to emphasise that music and liturgy must be of a certain kind that was formed by prayer and the gospel and that Christian Worship finds no room for our current priority of individual subjectivity.

There is no room here for relativism, no room for an individual making a choice on the style of worship that suited him or her best. The worship of the Church is just that: the worship of the Church. Indeed, our fascination with creativity is unwelcome in the Church if it ignores that worship is gifted. Creativity can only be exercised as it contributes to and does not deface that gift. For example, the Eucharist is a gift to the church as is baptism. These rites need to be exercised according to the theology that accompanies them and with words that present them to us.

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Similarly, music in Church is not the shallow celebration of celebration that it so often is in the secular world, but is found in the mouth of worshippers when they experience the joy of the gospel. This means that not any music is sacred music.

The decline in attendance in most churches has tempted many to produce music and liturgy geared to the times. For example, the mega churches employ musicians and composers to pump out popular choruses that are crooned by singers who would find themselves at home on any teenager's iPod. I am sad to say that it is not only the music that is so conformed to the age but the preaching is also often geared to give a popular "message" loosely based on biblical texts. Some of these churches owe more to a business plan than they owe to the gospel.

If these churches are an extreme form there are many others who are perhaps more theologically astute but who also pander to the subjectivist view. The idol here is "the man in the street" who is seen to be too dumb to appreciate sophisticated music and liturgy. It is agreed, in some circles, that classical music is sudden death to a Parish and that formal liturgy is boring. It is thought that in order for the church to thrive we need to reach the non churched who are not in the church anyway.

I think that the Church of Rome and the Anglo-Catholic arm of the Anglican Church are right when they prescribe the worship of the Church. The Mass is the fundamental form of worship and it is to be accompanied by art and music of the highest quality. The beauty of God is reflected in the beauty of the art that we use in worship. The architecture of our buildings, the art that we install, the vestments of the ordained and the music must all reflect the transcendence and beauty of God. Preaching must be theologically sound as well as poetic.

In the last ten months we have been members of The Church of the Resurrection in Swanbourne WA. The new priest, trained at Oxford, inherited three walls and no roof of the old church that had burnt down. He oversaw the design and rebuilding of a new church and demanded attention to detail to produce a space that spoke of the sacred.

The altar is a monolith of crazed purple, green and white marble. Behind the altar, stretching almost to the ceiling is a sculpture in white plaster that suggests the peaking of a wave from a calm sea. Tall candles are placed at the sides of the altar and at the back. Suspended from the ceiling hangs a pyx that consists of a copper sphere surrounded by three stainless steel rods that produced the shape of a mandorla. The host is lowered during the Eucharist as a metaphor of the bread that comes down from heaven.

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The liturgy is formal with a team of two Deacons and the priest in robes plus a crucifer and servers in white. There is one service on Sunday morning that is always a sung Eucharist. A bequest made early in the building process enabled the setting up of music scholarships for four singers named after the benefactor; the Mapstone Scholars. These singers aided by a very experienced music director, who was also trained at Oxford, provides ancient and modern music and introduces new settings for the Mass.

Attending church has become for me the high point of the week. Each significant point on the church calendar introduces new music sung by the scholars and is a source of constant delight. Many have argued that classical music is now favoured by a decreasing elite and thus it is not attractive the "the man in the street." This judgment rests on the assumption that there is only classical and popular music and dismisses the existence of sacred music that has its own form and origin. Certainly sacred music is strange to the untutored ear. However, our experience at Swanbourne is that people come to appreciation it quickly and it has become a major draw. Surely, when we enter church we should experience something otherworldly, something that is strange to the surrounding culture just as we expect a sermon to stand, as they say, in the world but not of it?

Why would we go to church at all if all we experience is a copy of popular culture. Why would we go to church just to hear common wisdom about life? The more modernity proceeds the more we can expect that the church will be different in all its expressions.

The Church of the Resurrection is a rapidly growing church. It has not dumbed down preaching or liturgy so that the man in the street may not be alienated. It has reached for the very best in liturgical expression and music. Much of this consists of a retrieval of ancient tradition, tradition that was alive before modernity placed the subject in the middle of everything. This is the reason it sounds strange to us, because it reaches backwards to a time when faith was at the center of life and not just an optional extra.

The Church of the Resurrection could be a model for out time. It combines the best in theology, liturgy, music and design. However, small as it is, it commands resources that few parishes can muster. We do not need massed choirs but we do need a small troop of trained singers who can carry complex music to the congregation. We need a cantor for the psalms and a priest who can sing. But most of all, we need someone to direct the music, who has refined taste.

The poverty of the Church in Australia is exacerbated by the way priests and ministers are formed. Here I can speak only of the Anglican and Uniting Church. There is little or no emphasis on the role of the arts in worship. On the more Protestant side there is still a fear that to use a fine silver chalice or wear vestments or install fine art is to be too like the Roman Church. In other words our denominations function as a wall of exclusion that limits what we can do in worship. This is a profound impoverishment that ensures that many churches will eventually fail.

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Worship at The Church of the Resurrection in Swanbourne, Perth begins at 9.00am.



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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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