We have developed many poor habits in our ecclesiology today. One of the evidences of this is the way in which the word “worship”, when used to describe a church service, is often applied exclusively to the music aspect of the service, notwithstanding the reality that the entirety of the service – song, preaching of the word, sacraments, offering, etc – is (certainly should be) an act of worship to our Triune God. Another unfortunate problem that sometimes rears in churches where the prior error is less rampant is the marginalizing of singing, as if it were the ugly stepsister of the Sunday Order. This can be done by selecting songs that are virtually unsingable for the congregation, not leading the congregation well, or failing to ensure the musicians are ready and able to accompany the singing.
These issues came to mind earlier today when I read one of C. S. Lewis’ letters where he discusses corporate worship. Unsurprisingly, he makes many excellent points, though I get the sense from reading this letter that he may have run the risk of marginalizing the outburst of emotion that can sometimes spontaneously manifest in a service where the wonders of God and the glories of His plan are expounded. With at least that one grain of salt (and there may be other things to quibble over), here is a portion of the letter that I found especially full of great insights:
I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.
To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain—many give up churchgoing altogether—merely endure.
Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshiping. The important question about the Grail was “for what does it serve?” “’Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.”
A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”
There is a danger in the drive for novelty, but, I believe, also a danger in the automatic rejection of anything that simply seems “modern”. We should be thoughtful in the entire Order of worship, and eagerly anticipate that God just might draw us out to new depths, as Annie Dillard says – from “where we can never return”.