CHRISTIAN worship does not happen in a vacuum. We bring to church the rest of our lives, our concerns for the world, and, crucially, our continuing relationship with God. Ideally, personal prayer and corporate worship spill over into each other, illuminating each other, and enriching our sense of “the sacrament of the present moment” (as Jean-Pierre de Caussade put it in the 18th century).
The more seriously we take our regular prayer, and allow times (if this is possible) to be still before God within daily life, the easier it becomes to be inwardly quiet, and fully present in church services, listening and responding at a deep level.
Conversely, the more mindfully we participate in worship, with receptive minds and hearts, the likelier it is that familiar prayers will inhabit our inner landscape, and that we will remember words or themes that nourish our everyday walk with God.
This is not to say that we ought to be in a state of perpetual serenity in church. We may well arrive harassed or preoccupied, and we are never “worthy” enough to worship. Rather, we come with all our concerns and failings, to be mended and strengthened by the God who never tires of forgiving us.
Given the nature of parish life, we will, no doubt, feel irritated at times; but, rather than try to stifle our annoyance, we can use the prayers of penitence to place the whole messy situation in God’s mercy, as well as confess our part in the wider injustices of humanity and our shared misuse of creation.
We always gather as a flawed and motley collection of people, but we can still genuinely desire Christ’s peace and blessing for each other, as we join in praise together, and exchange the Peace, with those who hurt or exasperate us, as well as others.
If we are anxious or hurt, we should not be made to feel that we are letting the side down when we cannot be joyful in church. On the contrary, we can place our pain in the suffering of Christ, who is alongside us, as well as in the prayer of the gathered community, for the healing and blessing of both ourselves and all broken humanity.
A vital element in corporate worship is holding before God the needs and agonies of the world of which we are a part. In the “priesthood of all believers” (cf. 1 Peter 2.5), our coming to church is always an offering of love for others as well as for ourselves, and, at the end of every service, we are sent out as bearers of Christ’s love in the world.
While church worship is a profoundly personal experience, we are at the same time participating in an essentially corporate activity. Each of us has our own way to God, which is uniquely ours, and needs to be respected.
We are not, however, like a cluster of individual tubes, each pointing towards God, but never interacting; as we worship, we are formed by the Spirit of God into the Body of Christ, the ecclesia, and our prayers are also taken up into those of the communion of saints beyond space and time.
People should not feel obliged to continue worshipping in an atmosphere or tradition that goes completely against the grain for them. On the other hand, it is not unusual to go through phases when our spiritual life feels bleak and barren.
As the great Christian mystics remind us, God is still present, even when all we can sense is inner darkness. What matters is that we do not give up: the value of worship, like that of personal prayer, cannot be measured according to how good it happens to feel on any particular occasion. The test is in the fruits — the quality of our living and loving.
If we belong to a dwindling congregation, we may feel discouraged as we come to church week by week. And yet conventional assessments of “success” and “failure” are inadequate tools for understanding the value of worship. How can you measure prayer, commitment, and the work of the Spirit? Christ can be present as much in a tiny, prayerful congregation as in a big, popular church.
This is not to say that numerical decline is to be welcomed, and of course, we celebrate when more people come to church. But statistics and managerial targets, when applied to church services, distort our perception of what matters most, and can have a demoralising effect on faithful clergy and people. The gospel is counter-cultural, and the Passion of Christ reminds us that it is in places of hiddenness and powerlessness that God can be found in the most surprising ways.
Somebody once sent me these notes about a weekday eucharist that stays in her mind:
Small congregation, including eccentric, depressed people, and a quaint old chap.
The celebrant is ordinary-looking, but his authority is apparent.
The focus is direct, still.
The presence of God utterly transcending all that is happening, and utterly immanent within it.
There is laughter — a mistake in the reading!
Bread and wine seem very ordinary, and very holy, like an old, well-tried relationship.
Everything we receive in worship is gift and grace. We are not trying to make anything happen, or to generate a “spiritual high”. We are there first and foremost to honour God, and to open ourselves to the subtle, transforming energy of the Holy Spirit. The rest is up to God.
Angela Ashwin lives in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Her books include Faith in the Fool (DLT, 2009).
A six-part course on prayer, worship, and the connections between them is at www.angelaashwin.com.