Doth not all nature around me praise God? If I were silent, I should be an exception to the Universe. Doth not the thunder praise [God] as it rolls like drums in the march of the God of armies? Doth not the mountains praise [God] when the woods upon their summits wave in adoration? Doth not the lightning write God’s name in letters of fire? And shall I, can I, silent be? – Charles Spurgeon
I sometimes think God looks down upon us, sees our constant bickering, and facepalms. We can become so caught up in arguing for argument’s sake, in being right, in being the top dog, we forget something so basic, so fundamental, it gets missed. Last week, the Commission on General Conference of the United Methodist Church offered for consideration an alternative process for considering legislation regarding sexuality. Along with a different process, the Commission offered a different set of categories, keeping the Church and its mission front and center, through which to consider the legislation. At the link above, you’ll find comments from folks who don’t see the boon being offered. A chance to have fruitful dialogue that sets to one side all the preferred ways one side or another has insisted the matters be discuss actually offers a chance for us all to come to the table with something to offer and, more importantly, receive.
To the categories of mission, identity, and ministry, I would add a particular context. It is this that I think we are missing, this that continues to cause strain, confusion, and distrust rather than offer hope and real freedom: Our context for these discussions (and I believe all matters of controversy within the Church) should be our gathered presence as those who worship our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is worship where we both proclaim and receive our identity. It is through doxology that we come to know who God is, God for us. It is in our voices joined in song that we become one with the great cloud of witnesses who sing before the throne of the Father and the Lamb who was slain. It is at the table where in the mystery of the Eucharist, reenacting the Passion, our lives are sealed by God for the purposes to which we are called. It is when we are blessed to go forth that we receive the promised power of the Spirit to be the Divine Presence in our lives in the world.
Doxology is the center of the Christian life. The old dogmaticians understood this. That’s why their ethical teachings always began with our obligation to worship, and what worship should be. We may well declare our faith in the silence of our hearts, and through our varied experiences of the Spirit of the Risen Christ in each of our lives; it is only in worship, however, where we gather together that this is confirmed, challenged, denied, and an offer for yet another chance is given and – we always pray! – will be received with open hearts.
Isn’t it odd how little this fundamental reality is set to one side? Isn’t it strange that this place, where all the differences we carry with us from our world-weary lives are denied even as our identities as children beloved of God are not only affirmed but reshaped each week through song and word and table, the visible signs of the presence of the invisible Spirit that calls us, blesses us, and sends us forth to be the church in the world? It is only in and through worship and its elements of songs of praise, the reading and preaching of the Word, and the great mystery where simple things become vehicles of Divine Power and acceptance, that we are marked with the cross of the risen Christ. It should be simple enough, then, to understand that it is only in this setting, as the people gathered to worship and praise God and sent forth with the power of the Spirit to be the church in and for the world, that real, fruitful conversation can take place.
Yet, we don’t. We ignore it. It’s all about Rules of order and what Church law allows and doesn’t allow. It’s about, of course, being right, being charge of the conversation, telling others what’s right and what’s wrong. Instead of coming to that one place, the only reality that sets in blood our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ, we demand some arbitrary place from which we can stand above the crowd and lead them to our preferred conclusion. In worship, through our songs of praise, hearing the proclamation of the Word, and around the Lord’s table, we might well have the chance to recall whose we are. In worship, we might have the humility to remember that it is not through any virtue or deed on our part are we together in this assembly. Each of us and all of us are here only through the love and grace of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Thus it seems to me it is only in the context of worship we should even attempt discussions that all hope will bear fruit for us as the Church called United Methodist, our particular part of the Body of Christ. Songs of confession, songs of supplication, and songs of praise for the daily gift of grace that is the only reason we are who and what we are, should accompany our discussions. The Word read and proclaimed should remind us at each moment whose work we are about. At the table, where we are not just called, but offered renewal, strength, freedom, hope, love, and faith, we might yet remember the sister to our right and the brother to our left, regardless of what they may seem for all our worldly differences, is just that: our sister and our brother, worthy of love and therefore respect as we try to move forward with being the Church.
The past few days I’ve been writing at my other site, and the article about which I wrote last night on mystagogy really struck a chord with me. The author, Michael Driscoll, is Roman Catholic. His emphasis, in an essay in a collection of essays on the role of music as serving the liturgical needs of the gathered congregation in worship, dealt specifically with how music can enhance our understanding that the mystery that lies at the heart of our collective faith. In Roman Catholic pedagogy, mystagogy is dealt with specifically during catechesis; Driscoll insists that we should be emphasizing mystagogy throughout the liturgy of the Church. For the Roman Church – and the Orthodox churches as well – because of the centrality of the sacrament to the worshiping life of the people, the place of mystagogy within a structured liturgy is far easier than it is in Protestant churches where the emphasis is upon the read and proclaimed Word. While the liturgical renewal in Protestant circles over the past couple decades have been welcome; while we have returned the sacrament to its role as the central act of the gathered worshiping community, the sign of the mystery of the Life of God for us, and our life for God; nevertheless the distance we have to travel to emphasize mystery as part of the theme of Christian worship is still long, indeed.
At one point, in remarks critical of some aspects of the liturgical reforms coming from the Second Vatican Council, Driscoll describes them as some of the worst aspects of Enlightenment rationalism. On its face, this might sound a bit over the top. At the same time, I believe he has a point. The fact that the modern era began with humanism/Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation is probably not a coincidence. The fact that most Protestant churches emphasize the Word, i.e., the Incarnation at the Living Embodiment of Divine Communication/Revelation, and see in the sacrament a nearly indecipherable experience in which we participate without ever clearly articulating why we do so or how it builds up the community is, I think, the essence of the critique Driscoll makes. That Roman churches not only began using the vernacular, but the Congregation on the Liturgy continues to emphasize proper translation of particular words and expressions at the expense of creating a larger liturgical environment in which those words, important as they are, are signs that point to the things signified, i.e., the sacramental mystery at the heart of the Christian experience of faith.
If any Church (or group of churches) realizes the proper balance between the need for the proclamation of the Word along with the centrality of the sacrament, which leaves space for mystery at the heart of the life of the Christian community, it is the Anglican Communion. Always considering itself occupying a via media between the extremes of ultra-montane Catholicism and the radical Reformation, Churches in the Communion deemphasize both the emotionalism of the radicals and the authoritarianism of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, seeking instead to express the life of the gathered community as one in which the ekklesia and the God who calls it out mutually interpenetrate one another, with room both for rational explication of what it is we believe while never believing it exhausts the Truth that is the revelation of the God in Jesus of Nazareth, a mystery expressed in the eucharist. We United Methodists could do worse than to work toward creating liturgical experiences in which both Word and Table, as the Book of Worship calls it, serve one another, make room for one another, and the whole service of worship can indeed surround the whole person – our rational need for understanding as well as remind us that, at its heart, the worship to which we are called is a mystery that cannot be explained, but only experienced, no more so than at the eucharistic table.