Church Services – For believers or unbelievers – Part 1?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 24, 2009 by cockett1

One of the questions that is excercising the church at the moment – whether it is aware of it or not – is the question articulated above. Are the services of the Church, our regular Sunday worship,  primarily for those who are seeking, or those who have found, faith? It is an important question because on the answer depends what sort of Church we are building and what sort of services we hold.

Before trying to answer that question I want to look at the recently published Orthodox Study Bible and some of the  interesting insights it gives into what was going on in Bible times, first in the Old Testament and then in the New. Starting with the Old Testament here are some of the things it has to say with my thoughts added:

Liturgy and the acoutrements that accompany Old Testament worship are laid out in some detail in the book of Exodus especially chapters 20 through 30. Here are instructions concerning the keeping of the Sabbath (Chapter 23:10-13), the annual feasts (Exodus 23:14-19), and the various offerings and furnishings in the sanctuary (Exodus 25:1-40). Following this chapters 26-30 deal with the design of the tabernacle, the altar, and the outer court, the priest’s vestments and their consecration, and instructions for daily offerings.

Why such detail and why such great lengths to ensure that everything is done ‘just so’ and in no other way?

One reason may be that up until this point in history the people of Israel were not a unified group of people, They were not yet a ‘nation’ centred on the worship of the one true God. By giving them not only an outline of worship but a priesthood with a clearly defined worshipping year and sacrifices. God was forming them into a nation, a cohesive whole with a clear set of principles to guide them, moral principles and laws – the Ten Commandments etc – and a worship pattern and shape that helped underpin and reinforce those laws.

Another reason was that God wanted them to not only look forward but first to look up. If He was to be their God and their leader, the One who rescued, called and commissioned them to be part of His saving work, then one thing had to be made clear. Their eyes must constantly and continually be fixed on Him. The success of the mission depended on it. Their very survival and their lives depended on it. WIthout it keeping the Land let alone conquering it, would be impossible.

Thirdly, worship is a kind of preparation for heaven. Man has been made as a worshipping creature. It is one of the things that distinguishes him (and her) from the animals. If our reason d’etre is found in worship then that has to be a key focus of our lives. It has to be at the very centre of all that we do. And because it is so very, very easy to fall into idiolatry, then detail is important. How we worship and in what manner we worship is of ultimate and utmost importance. Nothing can be left to chance.

Fourthly, we need a model for worship. We can’t make it up as we go along because we will build it around us. We will too quickly substitute ourselves for God and make ourselves, and what we want, the focus of what we do when we meet together for worship. That is why, I believe, the Ten Commandments begin with a reminder of what God has done and then tells us that “You shall have no other gods but me.” (Exodus 20:2-3) Sin is the tendency to put ourselves at the centre. Holiness is the striving, with grace and through right worship, to put God at the centre. There will always be that wrestling at the heart of man. I see it in myself, I see it in society, I see it everywhere. God knows us better than we know ourselves and so gave specific instructions on the ‘how’ of worship to help negate that. It is one of His chief instruments to change and sanctify us.

Fifthly, our earthly worship is meant to reflect the heavenly one. I cannot help but think here of two things. First, the Lord’s prayer in which Jesus asks us to pray that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) What is God’s will and what does it look like? I mean how can we pray for God’s will unless we can identify it when we see it? Only when we see it can we be encouraged that our prayers are getting somewhere. In Exodus God’s will is made visible in the instructions He gives to the people of God. It is His will that worship should look like the way He has articulated it. In that way His will is expressed physically but also spiritually in that the actions performed can provide the springboard for true worship of the true God. Does that make sense? And second, it is difficult not to think of those passages from Hebrews which tell us that God instructed Moses to make the earthly place of worship as a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5 and Exodus 25:40)

And lastly, the shape and character of Old Testament worship was a preparation for worship in the New. It prefigured Christ and it prefigured Christian worship. God gave a pattern that served the people of God for the centuries following God’s gifting of it to the fledgling nation of Israel. It was not to be the subject to change or manipulation. When Christ came, then, like the seamless robe, New Testament worship followed on with its robes, altars, sacrifice (then One sacrifice, Once made) and liturgical structure. That is why the New Testament does not feel it necessary to give us too much detail about how the early Christians worshipped, although subsequent documents – the Didache and Justin Martyr’s writings – tell us more of what was going on.

So from this brief look at Exodus there is a lot to think about and lots of thoughts and further questions. Like:
1. What relation, if any, is there between the Old Testament pattern and New Testament worship?
2. Does Old Testament worship help us in any way when we look at how we worship today?
3. How prescriptive and detailed should our worship be and does it matter?
4. If the tabernacle and then the Temple with its liturgical structure is meant to be a pattern of heaven, have we any right to alter it or try and ‘improve’ it in any way.
5. What are the dangers if we do?

One thing we must avoid is to dismiss the Old Testament as old hat and superceded in EVERY way by the New. We are not Marcionites. We must also remember that the Old Testament were the scriptures of the Church, the books Jesus referred to and lived by and “not one jot or tittle will by no means pass away” till all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)

I can’t promise any answers to these questions but I believe they have an important bearing on the Church and where it is headed today. In deciding to go down the route of an almost endless variety of services, has the Anglican Church cut itself even further off from the Church God intended it to be? How far have we gone down the road to making our worship man-centred rather than God centred? What are the consequences? Thoughts anyone?


Just wondering

Posted in Uncategorized on March 14, 2009 by cockett1

This is just an ‘I wonder’ blog, a thinking out loud. I have heard and read a lot about conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy over the past two years. The stories are both fascinating and intriguing. What attracts people from all church background – Methodist, evangelical, baptist, brethren and non-denominational – to search for that something more that they can’t find in their own church?  The answers usually revolve around two centres. The first concerns the lack of depth and reverence in worship. Although the seekers value the emphasis on evangelism in their own particular denominations and the knowledge of the Bible, they bemoan the lack of reverence and an element of mystery. They also express concern at the leaning towards ‘entertainment’ as a means of attracting outsiders.

The second regards theology or more accurately ecclesiology. Having read particular biased versions of the Bible over the years and a history which dates back to the Reformation and then jumps back to the first century, the seekers are amazed to discover (or rediscover) that there was a ministerial structure of priests (or presbyters) deacons and bishops from the very beginning. Also, that tradition is not all bad or negative but was actually responsible for keeping the Word of God alive until the Church authorized the key texts that today make up the New Testament. This elevation of the Church over the Bible (yet answerable to it) comes s a huge shock to everyone and gives an authenticity to the Orthodox Church that was previously overlooked or unnoticed.

However, given all this, it is noticeable that those converting come from a church background not a secular one. They don’t come from nowhere but somewhere. Is it because the Orthodox Church can take Christians deeper but has no appeal to those who are seeking for understanding or faith? Is this where it falls down and fails? Is this why so many are converting from existing churches which are good at communicating the faith to non-believers but not to those who won’t go near church in the first place? Just thinking and wondering.

Relics and altars

Posted in Uncategorized on December 4, 2008 by cockett1

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?”( Revelation 6:9-10)

Commenting on the above passage in one of her many excellent articles, Frederica Mathewes-Green writes:
“During the first centuries of Christianity, the church was battered within and without. Pseudo-Christians distorted the faith and misled the faithful, while the powerful Roman Empire persecuted Christians with torture and death. When local church members were able to gather the remains of their fellow-believers (often, this was forbidden), they lovingly interred these broken bodies beneath their altars, a reminder that the blessed departed are invisibly present to join us in worship. St. John writes that, in his vision, he heard the voice of the martyrs crying out from under the altar.”

Is this the basis for the practice in some churches for embedding a relic in the altar? I remember once when I was sacristan in the college chapel of St. Michael’s in Llandaff, Cardiff, taking the altar linen off before a service and noticing a slab of concrete placed in the middle of the wooden top. When I asked what it was I was told that it contained the relic of a saint or martyr and it was the inclusion of that that made it a legitimate altar.

In an article on the subject in OrthodoxWiki it states: “The relics of the saints are venerated because in Orthodox belief the body remains temple of the Holy Spirit even after death.” It then quotes St.Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 AD) who writes:”Though the soul is not present a power resides in the bodies of the saints because of the righteous soul which has for so many years dwelt in it, or used it as its minister.”

It is this tradition, dating back at least to the fourth century, that is maintained today. Is an altar a legitimate altar if there is no relic? Why not? The Eucharist is still the Eucharist wherever it is commemorated. But why did the tradition emerge if there were no benefit to be gained and it was just a ‘nice’ thing to do. If there is power in the remains of a saint then why not gain access to it through embedding one in an altar. I can think of no better place to put it.

Chasing Change

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on August 27, 2008 by cockett1

I am tired. It may be to do with my being a busy parish priest with a busy parish or that life in general is just too fast and living on the outskirts of a city means that I get sucked into it’s rather frenetic life every now and again. But it’s more than that. It’s about getting caught up with this 21st century’s obsession with change where only the new is  relevant and only the recent is cool (apart from a little retro now and again – but even then it’s ‘new’ retro rather than old). It’s about trying to help the Church which I serve ‘keep up’ with what is going on around it and the fear of being left behind. It’s about trying to find ways of helping the church – known and criticised for it’s obsession with the unchanging message of the gospel – keep up with a society that is obsessed with change by embracing change itself? Or is it? That is the question that haunts me at the moment. That is what is making me tired.

Now no-one is arguing that we do not need to “keep up with the times” in terms of keeping informed about what is going on, after all as a priest I have to speak into that through sermons and articles etc.. But when that obsession with the new and the now affects the way in which we worship, well that is when I get tired. I get tired because i can’t keep up.

I am 52 years old and I have never been ‘contemporary’ in the way I relate to young people, fashion and the various trends that preoccupy people from time to time. In fact when I first met my wife, such was my old-fashioned dress-sense (and ways – I was good-mannered, very un-cool) that someone jokingly remarked to her: “You are not going out with him are you – he’s forty!” Yet such has been (and still is) my zeal for spreading the gospel that I have willingly –  and at times enthusiastically – used any method or means that lay to hand in order to make the church, and therefore the gospel, relevant. In fact one of the things that has most stung me is the criticism that the Church is out of touch with society and failing the younger generation which is hemorrhaging from the church at an alarming rate. So in my panic and sense of failure therefore I have responded by trying to embrace every trend and change, introducing modern music and modern worship wherever I can, using powerpoint, alternative worship, you name it I have/will try it.  I have introduced so many changes and embraced so many new movements, ‘waves’ and methods of evangelism that my poor congregation has not known what has hit them. In fact such was the frustration of one parishioner that in an anonymous questionaire he/she stated that the Vicar thought more of people outside the church than those who faithfully attended it week by week. Okay there may have been more issues behind the statement but the comment still bit and has some relevance to the subject at hand.

The (rather laboured) point I am trying to make is that maybe I have got it wrong – all wrong. That in trying to follow the tide of change I have been cast adrift spiritually from what church and worship is essentially all about. That by focussing on the why and what of worship I have taken my eyes off God. The problem with chasing change – which always changes and never stays still – is that it becomes God, an idol, to which all is sacrificed. Instead of becoming a means to an end – that of honouring and encountering God – it has become the end. Maybe that is why the Orthodox Church so attracts me. Okay I still struggle with chanting, the volume of scripture readings and the length of the services. The Liturgy (Eastern Rite at least) seems so complex and so full of odd stuff – processions, crossings, kissings, standing for long periods, comings and goings – that it is the very opposite of the simplifying process I have been trying to introduce over my ministry. And what happens behind the iconastasis and why is it out of sight? So many questions about why it is all so mysterious when surely the thrust of our calling is to communicate the faith not enclose it in mystery. And why make the clergy so distinct and other when surely we are creating a distance between the church and society. And Mary and the saints and confession – the list goes on. And yet..and seems despite all that so right??? It’s very changelessness makes it an oasis in a desert society where more has become definitely less.

And there is the whole argument about when does worship cease to become worship and instead become entertainment? At what point does what goes on become something that focusses on me – my likes/dislikes, what interests or titillates me – rather than on God? If I don’t get anything out of worship is that a reason to change the worship? Or is it another way of evading the whole question about my own personal need to change?

No one is saying pop music is demonic or that films can’t have a teaching value but maybe there is a line somewhere which we should not cross? But who lays down that line? And shouldn’t worship be to some extent enjoyable in the old meaning of the word i.e. giving ‘joy’? Should it be solemn, mournful, serious, sombre and all about our own sinfulness?

So you (whoever you are) can see where I am going. Or can you? If not I am just casting these questions into the ether. I don’t know if anyone can answer them or wants to. But if all words and questions end up being heard by God anyway then this is a kind of prayer, ultimately, to Him. I need help.

Making disciples

Posted in Uncategorized on August 20, 2008 by cockett1

I have long been preoccupied by the Great Commission of Jesus which comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, and throughout my ministry have used it as a kind of personal mission statement to guide me. In fact it has taken on almost ultimate importance in my ministry and been the driving force behind almost everything to the point that even worship has become a means to that particular end. However reading a lot of Orthodox material over the past few years I am beginning to question the basis of my whole ministry over the past twenty plus years and wonder if I haven’t been building a house of straw? For example just lookng at Orthodox liturgy there is a point at which, historically at least, the service comes to a temporary pause and those who are being instructed with a view to baptism or chrismation are asked to leave so that the mysteries of the Eucharist – reserved for those who are part of the church membership (i.e. disciples?) – are not shared with those who have not been fully initiated. This is the complete opposite to the kind of Willow Creek approach where everything is brought down to the lowest point so that everyone can step into the church and be an immediate part of what is going on! It is also at odds with the kind of approach I have been espousing where church is open house to all and the liturgy has become simplified almost to the point of banality so that those from the outside will know what is going on and not feel excluded. So rather than the worship becoming the pinnacle point of what discipled disciples do it has become dumbed down and made so accessible that it is no longer worship but one step removed from a sort of enlightening form of entertainment. Mystery is avoided (because it does not ‘communicate’) and everybody is in (because to be too demanding will put future prospective disciples/converts off).

Perhaps this is an oversimplification of what either goes on or needs to go on. For example catecumens are no longer asked to leave during the Orthodox Liturgy anymore (I stand to be corrected) and liturgy is seen by orthodox to be part of the discipleship process because when you ask questions about orthodoxy the usual response is, I am told, “come and see”! However I just wonder if we (I) need to revisit the whole notion of discipleship and try and understand it more within the context of an awesome liturgy where the mysteries of God act as a kind of draw to go deeper rather than an open book that all can easily read without too much effort or commitment?

Some answers?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on August 3, 2008 by cockett1

With regard to the unchanging Liturgy of the Orthodox Church here is one possible answer as to why it doesn’t or shouldn’t change. The following is a quote from a letter of resignation written by a Lutheran pastor who left his denomination for the Orthodox Church. Here he (John Fenton) talks about the importance of the Liturgy as he writes to his former congregation:

“Your new bishop recently asked me what core issue motivated me to embrace the Orthodox Faith. It is this: The liturgy never changes. I don’t mean that chants or prayers or feasts are not added or subtracted gradually over time. What I mean is that no priest or bishop or congregation can decide to cut the Eucharistic Prayer or go with a new style of worship or change things to suit his convictions or the times. Why? Because the liturgy is not something smart men have created and so can modify. The liturgy is from the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Scriptures are from the Holy Spirit. In the Liturgy, the Holy Spirit rightly instructs us in Holy Scripture and His presence transforms us and the gifts set forth in the Holy Eucharist. So the liturgy is the way the faith is given, confessed, prayed and proclaimed. As the liturgy goes, so goes the Faith together with your certainty and surety.”

The question is, is he right? First I am not entirely sure about his claim that the Liturgy is on the same level as the Bible? I suppose if you believe that the Church wrote the Bible then it’s a small step to saying that the Church is able to create a Liturgy that is of equal inspiration. But is it right? And second, what Liturgy? The Eastern or the Western Rite which both are recognized? Am I right in saying that one is later than the others?

More objections?

Posted in Uncategorized on August 2, 2008 by cockett1

Isn’t Orthodoxy Eastern? That is, isn’t it too wedded to a particular context or culture? And what makes a worship style ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Some of the books written by converts to Orthodoxy criticize the ‘pop’ culture of a lot of today’s modern worship songs but doesn’t that reflect the tastes of the individual rather than some real and objective right/wrong? I love classical music rather than pop music but that is not the ‘taste’ of the general public who get a lot out of some of todays music. Isn’t it wrong to impose my own preferences on others? Wouldn’t it be better to use the culture in order to win it? When I take a funeral I often have a request for music to be played that is very definitely not my idea of what is appropriate but who am I to decide that?