Char and I are in Oxford, England. Yesterday evening we went to a Vigil service at a tiny but very ancient Anglo-Catholic Church. This morning we attended a larger Anglo-Catholic church for morning worship. Then this evening we went to Evensong at a huge 900 year old Anglican Cathedral.
It may take a couple of days to clear the incense out of my sinuses but other than that the experience with the first two churches was enjoyable. I can’t say it was easy to worship in that extremely liturgical situation but it was fascinating to observe.
The music this evening at the Cathedral was wonderful and, though it was still a liturgical service, it was easier to let my mind turn to the Lord. None the less, the primary fascination I felt in all three churches was in thinking about the theological and psychological implications of liturgical worship.
In the Cathedral, I could only see about 40 feet in any direction. It was a very large sanctuary in terms of square footage but the cruciform shape and the large columns blocked the view in every direction. One thing is clear: both the architecture and the liturgy are meant to draw people out of themselves and out of their daily realities. People are dwarfed by the buildings and their worship is practically done for them.
There is an ancient Roman Catholic idea — still very obvious in these English churches — that the priest is a double vicar: He stands before the people in the place of Christ and, turning his back to the people, stands before the Lord in the place of the people. Nothing in the three services we visited hinted that there is any sense in which the whole congregation is the Body of Christ.
So part of me says I have nothing to learn from such churches. Yet, I cannot deny that the liturgy does tie us in with the long flow of Christian history. It is not designed to slavishly follow popular fads but reflects the line of Christians who have gone before us. That is valuable. And I certainly cannot deny that aesthetics is far more important in these churches than in modern American Evangelical churches. The little ditties we sing ad nauseum have little musical value and the buildings in which we worship would never inspire anyone to turn thoughts toward God.
So methinks I’d better not throw stones at the worship of others. If it is truly worship for them even though I can’t quite see how, then that is my problem, not theirs.
In a week or so we’ll be in Rome. I wonder if they have any liturgical churches there? We’ll be in Mother Church (St. Peter’s Basilica) and probably about a dozen more. These churches get thousands of visitors daily. I’ve been pastor of two Evangelical churches and I cannot recall a single person ever stopping by either of them just to marvel at the architecture.
It is easier for me to envision a person-centered ministry in a plain building with minimal liturgy, so I’ll stick with plain. But I know I am missing a lot. That’s okay: On the other side of the grave there will not be one single joy I miss out on. Sounds good enough for me!