Posted by: owizblog | June 6, 2013

An Essay on Worship

Here’s an essay on worship I prepared for the Kilbarchan East website years ago – but I still haven’t changed my mind about the substance of this!

Why We Worship As We Do

So – you come into Kilbarchan East at 10. 52, and sit down. If you’re new, you won’t be “pounced on”, but people will chat to you, and are sensitive enough to gauge if you just want to smile and sit, or if you are happy to chat. Then the choir comes in. Then the Bible comes in and we all stand…

You could easily just follow what everyone else is doing. It isn’t complicated. But you might like to know just why the service unfolds as it does. Indeed, this might be quite important for you to understand what worship is about, and what you should be “getting out of it”.


The Church of Scotland’s freedom in worship.

Presbyterian worship is basically Christian worship as done by Presbyterians! That might seem a bit obvious – but it explains a lot. Our tradition sits somewhere between the churches with fixed liturgies (Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican) and the churches which have such complete freedom that their worship can be almost without form. Since the sixteenth century, the Church of Scotland has worked with Books of Common Order. Not“Common Prayer”!  (Charles I tried to give the Kirk a Book of Common Prayer, and it was a disaster!) Our service books have been intended to give ministers an authoritative pattern – but how they use that pattern has been the responsibility of the minister in each parish. The Church of Scotland has a tremendous creative freedom, that can only be used properly when we understand the materials of worship.


Office Worship

In the older Protestant churches, there are basically two patterns of regular (morning) worship, and they both derive from the mediaeval church. One is patterned on the great cycles of prayer which dominated the life of the clergy, and especially monastic life. This is the “Office”. Classically there are seven “Offices” of prayer over each 24 hours. During the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer brilliantly boiled these down into two, “Mattins” and “Evensong”.  For much of its history, regular Sunday morning worship in most (especially “Low Church”) Church of England parishes would have been “Mattins with Sermon”.  Oddly enough, for some reason, something similar seems to have happened in many Scottish congregations, but maybe for different reasons. Here, the stress on preaching – which is one of the glories of our Reformed tradition – produced a service in many places which is basically an office of hymns and readings, followed by the sermon, followed by a last hymn and Benediction. At its best it’s much better than the turgid old “hymn sandwich”  – where an alternation of “singy bits” and “speaky bits” leads eventually to the sermon! And it can be made to work superbly well.


Communion Worship

But there is an alternative pattern, and we follow this one. It’s based on the other great inheritance of the Scottish Church, which is, of course, Communion. It’s also, we feel, more true to our Reformed tradition – Calvin, it’s well-known, wanted to celebrate Communion every Sunday – but could only get the Elders of Geneva to thole once-a-month!  In the Scottish Reformed tradition, too, the stress on Communion is enormous, but here it worked in favour of very much more infrequent celebration – still, in some places, only twice a year – but with deep and careful preparation beforehand.

Likewise, we in Kilbarchan East celebrate Communion quarterly with the distribution of cards, and on a few other occasions much more informally. But our worship is patterned on Communion as the basic form of worship of the Church, the pattern of worship we have from Christ himself.


Synagogue and Upper Room

In our Reformed tradition, as Romilly Micklem has pointed out, the two sources of worship are the Synagogue and the Upper Room, and what we do on a Sunday brings them together. We hear the Word read and preached; and as we do, “The congregation waits, not for the words of the minister, but for the word of Christ, who is the Word of God.” For us, in the first place, the Word of God is Christ, and Scripture and preaching are the “Word of God” inasmuch as they hold Christ out to be glorified, worshipped and trusted.


The Bible

Listening to the Bible being read is an encounter with God, in which He speaks into our fluid and changing situation in the real world, and confronts and challenges us. All sorts of unexpected things may come from this encounter. We don’t have this situation “tied down” with a definitive understanding of “what the Bible says.” That would put us in charge, give uscontrol – where the whole point of an encounter is that it isn’t entirely in our control. It would risk making us worshippers of the Bible, instead of the Christ that Scripture witnesses to. Once you do that, then everything in the Bible becomes as important as everything else, and the shattering newness of what God is doing in Jesus Christ is lost. Which means that the principal thing that Scripture is bearing witness to is lost!


What is Preaching?

And so with preaching. Preaching is an encounter, in which the important thing is that we are confronted by a word we didn’t speak. And the preacher didn’t speak it, either! God did. One of the basic confusions about preaching is that it’s “teaching”. And that means that people – including preachers – assume that it’s a lecture, or a classroom lesson. It isn’t. One of the most ancient, and basic, distinctions in Christian practice is between teaching and preaching, or, in Greek,didache and kerygma.  Preaching is kerygma, proclamation: “This is what God has done! This is what God has done in Christ! You can believe and trust this. And you need to respond to it…”


And that means – and this is another central Reformed position – that preaching has a sacramental quality. It isn’t what the preacher says – it’s what God says. Oooh! That sounds authoritarian and dangerous! What can it possibly mean? Remember – think encounter…

Here’s a preachers’ Trade Secret! Almost everyone who preaches has the experience of someone coming to them at the end of a service, and saying “Thank you for that! I really needed to hear that!” The weird thing is that, not infrequently, this happens after the preacher herself has just delivered a sermon that she thinks was woefully deficient. Maybe it’s been one of those weeks. Maybe the preacher was feeling low, or vulnerable, or whatever. Maybe the readings didn’t seem to speak to her as the sermon was being written. Whatever… But something was communicated to the hearer. Something happened…

If people hear, in preaching, a word that ultimately consoles them, or that ultimately forgives and accepts them, or thatultimately sets them free, does that not point to the heart of what we’re saying here? Only God could have said it. The Word preached is Christ, the Word of God.


The Sacraments (mostly Communion!)

And if preaching, for Protestants, is a sacrament, then the sacraments are preaching! They, too, hold forth the incarnate Word, for us to believe in, and be grasped by. Unlike some of their successors, the Fathers of the Scottish Reformation believed that Baptism and Communion are “converting ordinances”. They aren’t just things that we do because we are Christians. They are things given by God in Christ that can make us believers, because they hold Christ out to us, to be entered into, and nourished by.

For Calvin, there was no transformation in the bread and wine of Communion. But they were far more than just mnemonics, ways of remembering what Jesus had done, or the equivalent of a knot tied in a hankie to remind you of something that you have to do. The bread and the wine of Communion bring us the “virtues” of the body and blood. We really do feed on these things, in faith, as we feed on the edible elements. They really do bring Christ to us.

Put it another way: things most really are what God intends them to be. In the Communion service, what God intends the Communion elements to be is the Body and Blood of Christ. What faith does is to see what God intends, to take the reality of these things the way God means them. In that sense, the presence of Christ in the Communion is very real. We “feed on him in faith” as our Communion Service says.


Our Regular Sunday Worship

So we have Reading/Preaching, and we have Communion. The Synagogue and the Upper Room. And we have what we do on a Sunday morning.

And in Kilbarchan East, what we do on a Sunday morning follows a pattern pretty much two thousand years old, which arises directly out of the Church’s understanding of God in Jesus Christ. It’s this simple.

1)       We prepare

2)       We listen for what God says to us

3)       We respond.

And – that’s it…

1)       We prepare: by hearing God’s call to worship him, and by coming together in his presence. By confessing that we aren’t what we should be, and that, yet again, we have done and said and thought things we shouldn’t, and omitted much that we should have done. By proclaiming our forgiveness in Christ, and responding to it with joy.

2)       We listen for what God has to say to us: by hearing Scripture read and preached. Most Sundays, we do just that, and in that order. Sometimes, though, especially in children’s or young people’s or special services, “preaching” is done in all sorts of ways, with audio-visual presentations, dialogue or drama, or whatever seems most appropriate. It may not feel or look like preaching – but it’s still very much “the Ministry of the Word”. It still holds out the promises of God in Christ to be received and trusted.

3)       We respond: With the Offering – because that’s an act of worship, and our visible gifts are signs that we give to God out of what he has given us. With the Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession – because we are all, all together, God’s priestly people, and we are called to bring our prayers for the world – for Creation – and for all people to the Father in Christ our High Priest. And, once a quarter formally, and on various other occasions, in the worship which Christ has given us – Communion, Eucharist – which means “thanksgiving”.

If you look at our Order of Service most weeks, you’ll see this pattern. It’s modified a bit – the “Preparation” includes a self-contained service for the children, who leave after receiving their own Benediction; and because the children need to be able to say it with us, we have the Lord’s Prayer in what is technically the “wrong” position for this kind of service. Purists might grumble, but we know why we’re doing it!  

It’s important to know why we do things in worship. It’s important to know that there are points at which the “flow” of a service is from God to us, as in the Call to Worship, or the Declaration of Forgiveness, or the reading and preaching. But God is God, and we aren’t chess-pieces. God graciously looks for our response, just as he graciously makes our response possible. So sometimes the flow is from us to God, as in confession, but also as in intercession, to say nothing of the hymns we sing.

It’s nice when people “enjoy” a service, or “get something out of” it. But it’s vastly more important to understand the ways in which a service is always an encounter with the gracious God, who is also the God of truth. That’s why sometimes we come out of a service feeling something more complicated than just “good”! Sometimes it’s because we heard something we really needed to hear.

It isn’t always because the sermon was duff!

We know of man – only of man, but of man from the Word of God –that his being on earth and under heaven is wholly determined and created in order that God should speak with him and that he should hear and answer.

We know of man – only of man, but of man from the Word of God – the full significance of the depth of God’s mercy and goodness towards him; of the seriousness of the interest with which God the Lord has turned to His creature; and the praise and gratitude which He awaits from His creature and which He is ready to receive as His supreme and only honour.

We know of man – only of man, but of man from the Word of God – that God Himself wills to have dealings with him and to make him His partner in the history between them; and that at the climax of this history God Himself willed to become and did become what man is – the Creator a creature, this creature, not a stone or plant or animal, but man.

[Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III. 2, 17f.]





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: