Being a faithful Christian today involves a willingness to listen to culture and to (accept) what is good and to challenge what (is not of God)…can only be achieved through an openness to innovation and experimentation, and encouragement of local creativity and a readiness to reflect critically at each stage of the process – a process which is…never ending.
Bishop Graham Cray has written an article in the Magazine of the Royal School of Church music which has stimulated my thought. I thought I would share it, and with you. The headline of the article is ‘Making Contact with today’s Culture’
Bishop Cray talks about the significant part that music plays in Worship, and the way in which music can, as he says ‘function simultaneously as an identity marker which must be respected and as a ‘no entry’ sign which cries out for reconciliation through Christ.’
In encouraging local Churches to ‘listen to their culture’ he quotes Leslie Newbigen who says “The character of the local church will not be determined primarily by the character, tastes, dispositions of its members, but by those of the society in which and for which it lives – seen in the light of God’s redemptive purpose revealed in Jesus Christ for all men “(sic).
Here is where I start to have problems. At the very least, I would like to turn the sentence around and say ‘The character of the local church will be determined neither by the tastes of and dispositions of its members nor the society in which it lives, but by the Christ who is Lord and in whose likeness we are striving to be formed.”
This means that neither the Church, nor society have any reality or value apart from Christ. So our music needs to reflect our engagement with Christ.
How then does this work? Well, our engagement with Christ has in the Eucharist many dimensions. There is ‘gathering’ and there is challenge and there is comfort and celebration. Our music ought to contain elements of all of these.
Second, our music ought to reflect the way in which all the people present want to express all these elements of worship before God. It is not enough just to want to sing comfortable hymns. It is not enough simply to stick to the hymns that we were brought up with (another form of comfort). It is not enough to take on, uncritically, forms of music that are ‘new’ without asking how these forms of ‘newness’ serve the whole Christ.
But I am convinced that worship is not what we offer to the people who come, from up the front, but that what we all do, for God: including our music.
That is why we have made some changes to the music, and the arrangement of the Eucharist. It is a regular enough comment from visitors, that the experience of being in the ‘body’ of the congregation feels a bit dead. We needed to take some steps to give more responsibility for taking their part to members of the whole body. This involves asking them to sing more, and to spend some time before church’ gathering’ ourselves together. The reaction from most of the people I have asked is that the Sunday Eucharist feels as though it has been dusted off and is ‘fresher’. Good. This is a part of realising, ‘on the ground’, as it were the prayer that we pray at the beginning ‘that we may worthily (not passively or sloppily) magnify your holy name’.
So that deals with the way in which we as Christians engage with Christ, and let that engagement find expression in lively Eucharists which communicate our passion for God.
But there remains the group of people whom we are hoping to attract. We will all be dead soon. We need to find others who will also want to engage with Christ, and offer their worship, as a result of their engagement, with us all. This might be different from what we are used to, but on the principle that worship is what we all offer to God, we are bound to receive their offerings as much as our own.
The difficult question is this: to becmoe a Christian, involves a transition for them. How is this transition made, and how do we help them?
Clearly something has to happen to ‘peel people’ off their old sense of life, so that they are open to a new sense of life in Christ. This can happen in a number of ways that do not involve music or worship. Our care for them in distress may be a good form of witness to Christ. Our social concern through the putting on of forums or the running of groups for refugees (all of which are being thought about) are ways that people can take the first steps on their journey of following Christ, with us. Then, as they come to learn about the Eucharist, and what is important to us, they can take some of that on board, and then make their contribution in worship, and to the music. I can see no problem in principle with ‘rap’ intercessions if we had a good ‘rapper’ who wanted to intercede! I would love it if some of our younger members could offer their contribution to the music, but it has not happened yet. The ‘Sunday Larks’ experiment sounded like a very good thing, and it is a shame that this ministry has stopped for want of someone to lead it.
So that is one way that people can be helped to make the transition into discipleship of Jesus.
But it remains true that the Church building and what we do on a Sunday morning is our front door. You know how, that as soon as you enter some one’s house and see how husband and wife and family are with one another, you get an idea of what kind of a family it is. The same is true of us. If we do not send signals to new comers that we welcome them, and that we are committed to being a community that is prepared to engage with something of Christ that they recognise, then they will leave.
This is the value of Hill Song. It sends a message via its ‘front door’ that young people will find something that they recognise when they come through that door. It may be ‘baby food’ for Christians, but it is at least food.
This is where I agree with Bishop Cray. Sunday Eucharist is not all front door. It is an invitation to engage with Christ at our deepest. But it is also front door and if we don’t pay attention to that character of worship in some way, we will simply attract people who like worship the way it has been and this number is declining. As one member of the Zürich congregation said ‘The job of the older members of the congregation is to offer their financial resources, in order to let the next generation have their go.’
For me then the basis of both congregational life, and our mission is the same: engagement with Christ. As the 1990 York statement of the Anglican Church says ‘A willingness to listen to culture and to (accept) what is good and to challenge what (is not of God)…can only be achieved through an openness to innovation and experimentation, and encouragement of local creativity and a readiness to reflect critically at each stage of the process – a process which is…never ending. That is what we are doing. That is our ‘programme’. Who will come on board?