Evangelicalism and Worship


I don’t want to name this church, the last in this series, because I’m going to be critical when I don’t have all the facts. But it would be a shame not to complete the tour, so here goes.

The church in question is a well known evangelical church with three Sunday services, one at 9.15 which includes participation by children and teenagers, a more traditional, ‘reflective’ service at 11, and a ‘prayer and praise’ service at 6 pm. It’s not C of E but in worship style the 11 am service fit right in with those described here and here. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the words of the prayer of confession came right out of Common Worship. At any rate, the similarities were strong enough that I don’t need to go into any detail, except to say that the singing was almost as good as at St Helen’s, and I was given the opportunity to sing Lyngham, which always leaves me feeling like a lion. I was also introduced to an excellent new hymn by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty (a metrical setting of Psalm 23).

So I feel like an ungrateful churl in being critical, but when there’s a problem with the preaching, no amount of good music can undo the damage done. The preacher, who appeared to be the senior minister, began by explaining that he felt the need to address certain issues the congregation was facing. Some of these arose out of a possibility the church had of acquiring retail space in the shopping precinct in which the church finds itself after redevelopment of the area some years ago, others arising from the growth of the 9.15 service in comparison to the 11 am in particular. The first issue would involve the congregation in raising money, the second would involve change in the 11 am service. I knew he was in trouble when he asked the congregation if they were excited about this, and, getting no response, asked them if they could at least look excited. I assume this was meant as a joke—there was scattered laughter—but it appeared to represent his approach to the whole subject: ‘The leadership has a plan and we want you to cheer us on.’ He then applied various verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, out of context, to the situation. Not understanding the situation very well, I can’t say whether his plan was good, but his preaching was not the careful exposition of scripture to which Evangelicals have historically been committed. If I were a newcomer wondering whether to make this my church home, I’d probably go somewhere else next Sunday.

Actually, I will certainly go somewhere else next Sunday, but that’s the end of this mini-series!

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I’m always torn between the morning services at All Soul’s Langham Place and the morning meeting at St Helen’s Bishopsgate, but this time other commitments made the decision for us, and 10.30 found us at St Helen’s, a medieval building in the financial district that was severely damaged by an IRA bomb in the 1990s. The walls remain medieval, the furniture and most of the fixtures inside are modern.

The rector, William Taylor, wearing jacket and tie, called a noisy crowd (very few empty seats) to order at the appointed time, and announced that the theme of the day was God’s sovereignty. He gave us a Scripture verse expressing that, and then announced a hymn making the same point, ‘O Father You are sovereign’, to a rousing tune by Basil Harwood, Thornbury. There was organ accompaniment for most of the hymns, but the congregation’s vocal power put it in its proper place. The church web-site‘s claim that ‘we love to sing together as a church family’ was proved true throughout the service.

The sovereignty of God over all earthly powers was proclaimed throughout the service, each hymn being introduced with a scripture verse justifying the hymn texts, which included ‘God rules in the height, almighty to save’, ‘King of Kings, Majesty’ (the only contemporary hymn), ‘His sovereign power, without our aid’ and so on. The sermon, however, was only incidentally related to this theme; although this wasn’t stated, I couldn’t help thinking that the theme of God’s sovereignty was intended as a reminder of priorities to a nation celebrating a different sovereignty.

Although the Queen’s sovereignty was not celebrated, it was prayed for with sincerity and a deep gratitude for the Queen’s faith, which has become more and more outspoken in recent years. Her faith—‘traditional and low church’ according to one newspaper— has been a regular subject of discussion in the press during the week before the 60th anniversary. The prayers concluded with the singing of two verses of the national anthem, which is of course also a prayer.

St Helen’s is coming to the end of a sermon series on Isaiah which has been going on over six months, and today’s sermon was on Isaiah 60. Isaiah’s words to Israel were applied to the contemporary church by calling us to be a reflection of God’s glory by our obedience to Him. The preacher was Paul Clarke.

There were more liturgical elements in this service than in the service at All Saints last week (described here). A confession, the collect of the day, a Communion prayer and a post-Communion prayer from Common Worship were all used. The rector said the communion prayer from the lectern below the pulpit rather than at the table. The words of administration were said once, to the whole congregation, and the elements distributed to the congregation in complete silence. There was hardly even any coughing or shuffling of chairs as the patens and chalices were passed down the rows of communicants.

The final hymn, during which the alms were collected, was accompanied by piano and violin, played by members of the church’s music apprentice program.

As one might expect in a church in an area where there are few local residents, there were not as many children or elderly as we saw last week, and there did not seem to be the same personal relationship between rector and congregation. Taylor was once an army officer, and there was a bit of a ‘synchronise your watches’ feel to the service. But the pure word of God was preached and the sacrament duly administered, and I’d give up a lot of other things to be part of singing like that every week.

All Saints’ Crowborough is probably typical of evangelical parishes in small towns (about 25,000, among whom was, once, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). The vicar is Andrew Cornes, well-known to many Episcopalian Evangelicals because of a series of talks he gave here in the 1990s. Originally built by Sir Henry Fermor in 1744, the classical stone building has recently been enlarged, and the original church is now what architects would call the narthex. The additional space has preserved the 18th century emphasis on classical lines and plenty of natural light.

All Saints has four Sunday services, ‘quiet Communion’ at 8, Morning Service at 9.15, Morning Worship at 10.45, and 6.30 pm Evening Worship. Once a month there is an Evensong at 4.30 pm. Our holiday mindset ruled out anything earlier than the 10.45; the difference between the ‘service’ and the ‘worship’ turned out to be that the 10.45 was more contemporary, the 9.15 more classically (or ‘properly’ for our regular readers) evangelical.

In fact, the music at the 10.45 was not all what the word ‘contemporary’ conjures up (in my mind, at any rate). The ‘contemporary’ stuff  (three chords and lots of sighing) was played as prelude and postlude, while the hymns we actually sang were real hymns, although many of them recently written. The others were a new text to a traditional tune and a new tune to a traditional text. And the congregation sang audibly.

Neither the BCP nor its alternative, Common Worship, was used, and there were no liturgical elements in the service at all. The service was led by a lay person, who began by welcoming us, explaining that the theme of the day was the fact that Christians are God’s adopted children, and after a brief prayer introduced the person who would read the lesson, Romans 8.15–17. The lesson was introduced in her own words by the reader, who had obviously thought about it pretty carefully. The worship leader then reminded us of how easy it was even when in conversation with those we love and respect to get distracted, and that it wouldn’t hurt to read it again. So someone else came up and read the same passage. There was noticeably less rustling and shuffling, including that of your correspondent, during the second reading of it, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we were there to hear from God’s word! After a hymn Andrew went to the pulpit and expounded the text, making the point that the adopted children of a loving father can be as sure of the father’s love as his natural children, and that part of the Holy Spirit’s work is to enable us to be sure rather than hopeful of our salvation. Andrew’s careful, methodical exposition was a delight; he was constantly repeating ‘look again at v 15′ or look again at v 17’—there was no doubt we were feeding on God’s word rather than the preacher’s opinion.

After the sermon the children came in from Sunday School and acted out the lesson they had studied, with a most effective representation of Egyptian soldiers disappearing beneath what must have been one of the roughest seas the Red Sea has experienced!

Announcements made it clear that personal evangelism is a priority, with every member being reminded to look for opportunities to share the gospel during the coming week. A parochial mission of the sort described here is planned for the fall, and the person invited to lead it is preaching next Sunday at all services, so that people can invite their friends to the mission with the words “I’ve heard him speak and…’.

After the service the congregation was exceptionally friendly, but we had no sense that we were being ‘greeted’ by persons assigned to the task.

It was a wonderful morning.

We’ve discussed music a couple of times (here and here), but I want to narrow the focus a bit, because I recently attended a workshop at which John Bell talked a bit about congregational singing, and even led those present in some songs we had not heard. His presentation on the subject was brief, due to the nature of the event, but I found what he said so encouraging to the evangelical musical tradition, now alas all but dead, that I ordered one of the books he mentioned.

Thanks to what I’m sure was divine intervention, I ordered the wrong book, but after reading the first page, there was no question of sending it back. The book, The Singing Thing, is his contribution to one of the discussions about the purpose of music in worship that followed the posts mentioned above, except that he focuses solely on congregational singing.

Bell asserts that Christians sing for the following reasons: first, because it is in our nature to do so, but also because by singing we create or intensify our sense of identity, we give expression to the emotions that God’s goodness or, sometimes, His discipline rightly arouses in us, we express a level of meaning that words alone are not always capable of, we tell and even relive our history, we shape our future, we gather strength and courage for the work to which we are called, and, most important of all, perhaps, when we overcome our shyness and sing, we are offering God our hearts at the deepest level of which we are capable.

Evangelicals were famous for their singing long before the Wesleys. Bell quotes a contemporary description of a party of Scots Protestants, returning to Edinburgh from continental exile in 1582, who as they approached the city gate

took up the 124th Psalme, ‘Now Israel May Say’ etc, and sang in such a pleasant tune in four parts, known to the most part of the people, that coming up the street all bareheaded till they entered the Kirk, with such a great sound and majestie, that it moved both themselves and the huge multitude of the beholders…

The Bible says Sing forth the honour of his name: make his praise glorious… make a loud
noise, and rejoice, and sing praise
. Give it a try. Although for that you might need the book I thought I was ordering, The Singing Thing Too, which suggests ways of getting a congregation that doesn’t sing to reconsider its decision. I’m sure I’ll tell you more about it when I get mine.

Music in worship sometimes gets mentioned even when we’re discussing eucharistic sacrifice (that imaginary beast), so perhaps we should consider this post by Rebecca Rollett at the Pittsburgh Camerata website. Rebecca directs the Camerata, whose repertoire is described as ‘the entire choral repertory, with an emphasis on Renaissance/Baroque and 20th century music’.  She has a a Masters degree in Choral Conducting from Carnegie Mellon University, and teaches organ at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. She is also a devout Christian. Her whole ‘take’ on sacred music is worth reading, but here is an appetiser:

The use of music in worship is an age-old argument. The real question is, what is its purpose? … “Music wasn’t simply a chance for the congregation to sing together, rather it was a series of sonic sign-posts angled towards illumination of the underlying spiritual truth of the service.” The question for me is, does it continue to function as such?  I started to write that “I am perhaps the wrong person to ask,” but as I pondered it I realized that perhaps I am the right person to ask, because I’m one of the few people I know that has a deep and abiding love for the long tradition of sacred choral music, and yet attends a church with a “worship team.” In fact, I not only attend such a church, I am on the worship team. This is an unpaid position, so it isn’t a question of working for the highest bidder. I am there by choice.

The last two posts on this subject have explored ways in which Evangelicals can celebrate Holy Communion according to the rubrics and still avoid implying that Communion in any sense re-enacts Christ’s sacrifice. For those willing to be thoughtful in their encounter with the rubrics, here’s something I’ve done pretty consistently over the last fifteen years or so: use the eucharistic prayer on p 402 of the Prayer Book. This prayer is designed for use when using the Order for Communion on p 400, but there’s no rubric that prohibits its use in a regular service. The rubric concerning the eucharistic prayer in Rite II says ‘Alternative forms will be found on page 367 and following’ and this prayer follows p 367, even if at a distance.

The prayer has several features that commend it to Evangelicals. First, it uses the word ‘bring’ instead of ‘offer’ when indicating the elements. To say that the elements are brought can hardly mislead anyone. It’s true that they are described as ‘gifts’, but since the prayer immediately preceding these words is left to the discretion of the celebrant, they can easily be referred to in that prayer as God’s gifts, which will remove any ambiguity. The celebrant could pray something like ‘Heavenly Father, You sent Your only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, Who, before He died for us, took bread and wine and gave them to us as a sign of His infinite love.’ Then continue, ‘And so, Father, we bring you these gifts’.

Second, it refers to I Corinthians 11.26 in saying that in doing this ‘we show forth the sacrifice of His death’. Third, the language of sacrifice is firmly linked to our offering of ourselves rather than our observing the rite: ‘Make us a living sacrifice of praise’.

My own experience in using the opportunity to pray parts of the eucharistic prayer in my own words suggests that it is better to write them out and read them than to invent them on the spot. The prescribed petitions in the prayer are all very short, none of them longer than two sentences, and I find that when I pray spontaneously I tend to ramble a bit, and in the comparison between my ramblings and the crisp points of the prescribed prayer, it’s not me that comes off best. Better to write it out, edit out everything that isn’t absolutely necessary, and then put it in your Prayer Book so you can read it out. Even when I insert one of the Prayer Book prefaces, I shorten them to match the style of the printed prayer.

Congregational reaction to this has usually been non-existent, especially if printed in a full-text service leaflet, although occasionally someone will say ‘I had no idea that was in the prayer book’. And the relief of knowing that no one is likely to have read anything into the service that isn’t justified has made it worth the extra trouble.

Another important consideration when trying to avoid any implication that Holy Communion somehow re-enacts Christ’s sacrifice is the way we treat the bread and wine before the consecration. Lifting them up in a gesture suggestive of offering is clearly misleading, but so is bringing them to the priest along with the congregation’s alms in triumphant procession. The elements should not be treated as something that either the congregation or the priest offers. Colin Buchanan wrote a Grove booklet on this some years ago, The End of the Offertory: an Anglican Study, in which he argued that the preparation of the elements is not part of Christ’s institution, and it does not matter when or how they are put on the table. ‘They do not need to be carried about by lay people, as there is no theological mileage in this. If the “specialised wafer” and vino sacro are being used, then it is actually misleading to pretend that they have been contributed by the congregation in the way that alms have.’ In a large part of Anglican history the elements were on the table before the service started, and the bread was uncovered, and the wine poured into the cup, without ceremony immediately before the consecration began.

Unfortunately, many congregations have been taught that a procession with alms and elements symbolises lay participation in the liturgy, or gives them their proper role in the liturgy. Buchanan has particularly strong words about this: ‘Fancy a dud procession with two, four or even six silent laymen carrying materials which do not need to be carried, and fancy it all being over in 45 seconds, and our calling that the ‘layman’s liturgy’! How could we have ever been so blind?’ It will take a great deal of patient and persistent teaching to get such a congregation to understand the need for this to change, but this is the work that faces Evangelicals in today’s Episcopal Church.

The use of special prayers or gestures relating to the elements at the preparation, such as the Roman ‘through your goodness we have this bread to offer’ etc is especially unfortunate liturgically, Buchanan argues, since they amount to a thanksgiving over the elements, which is all that the prayer of consecration actually is. The use of such prayers renders the ‘great thanksgiving’ superfluous.

Concerning re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice, Bishop Hoadley’s words are worth remembering: ‘the Lord’s Supper was not instituted as a Stage-Play, to act over our Saviour’s death (which is an unworthy thought), but as a Rite, for the remembrance of his death once past and not to be repeated’ (A Plain Account of the Nature and End of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper [1735] p 55).

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