It’s time to be ancient and modern again    

07 December 2018

Maintaining a line between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ worship impoverishes it, argues Edward Dowler

IN THEIR recent document on church-plants, the bishops of the Church of England wrote that “there is a role for both traditional forms and new forms in all dioceses and in most areas” (News, 29 June).

The assumption here, as in other places, appears to be that church life and, in particular, Christian worship, comes either in “traditional” or “inherited” forms, comprising things such as vestments, liturgy, and sacraments, or in “new” or “contemporary” forms: informal in style, with band-led music.

Similarly, church-plants tend to eschew traditional in favour of contemporary worship, and other parishes often mirror the same distinction, having some services that are described as “formal” or “traditional”, and others “informal”, “contemporary”, or “modern”.

I would like to question this sharp — and, so far as I can see, non-theological — distinction. Since “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,” and since we worship a God whose beauty, as St Augustine says, is “ever ancient, ever new”, surely all church life, including our worshipping life, should reflect this.

 

ALL Christian worship must be contemporary, because all of us are called to celebrate and proclaim the faith afresh in each generation in ways that will attract and convert; all of us are called to worship and witness to the God who, in Christ, makes all things new. Most important, it is here and now that we are called to encounter Jesus Christ: “Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

All Christian worship is inherited and traditional because the Church professes the ancient faith, rooted in the story of Israel and in the writings of the New Testament. As Anglicans, we owe a particular debt to the first five centuries in which early Christian writers and preachers expounded and clarified many central aspects of the faith. Every prayer or hymn or song arises out of the tradition of the Church at some level, even if some reflect this more fully than others.

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All Christian worship is oriented towards the future: the eschatological angle that the distinction between the traditional and the contemporary ignores, but which every celebration of the eucharist explicitly recalls. Every form of worship, whether inherited or contemporary, should point not primarily to the past or to the present, but forward, beyond itself, to the life of the Kingdom. Indeed, some of the most ancient forms of worship, such as that of the Orthodox Churches, most profoundly exhibit this eschatological dimension.

It could further be argued that many of the most exciting developments in Christian worship take place precisely when the Church stops thinking in terms of “traditional forms and new forms”.

As an example, we might look to the Victorian hymn-writer John Mason Neale, who reclaimed ancient hymns from the early Church and recast these treasures in poetry and music that would make them accessible to contemporary Christians. Many of his hymns, of course, continue to be sung today.

Similarly, after the death of Brother Roger Schütz (1915-2005), his obituarists remarked that he achieved what he did at Taizé by insisting on a traditional set of demands: the centrality of the daily office, the daily eucharist, and extended periods of silence. But the community famously developed a form of music and liturgical life that recast material from the scriptures and other traditional sources in a way that young people could appropriate and take to their hearts. The result was that they continue to come flocking to Taizé from all over the world.

A similar insight comes from the World Youth Days in the Roman Catholic Church, held in different locations every two or three years. At these, young people, while holding faithfully to their liturgical life as Roman Catholics, are enlivened by the gifts of Charismatic renewal.

 

MY HOPE, then, is that such clunky distinctions as “traditional” and “contemporary”, “formal” and “informal”, and so on, might give way to some more subtle questions that we might ask ourselves in what currently feels like a liturgical crisis in the Church of England.

These might include: what are the liturgical forms that best represent and pass on the fullness of the ancient Christian faith in as attractive a manner as possible? Which forms of worship, at a deep-down level, are most capable of holding us in the presence of Christ — and, as a by-product, shaping us into his likeness? In what forms of worship may we be most confident that God’s grace is being poured out through the Holy Spirit?

And may I finally make what will seem a quirky suggestion: that consideration might be given to spending some money from the Strategic Development Fund on raising up a new J. M. Neale, who would able to recast the musical and liturgical treasures of the ancient faith in contemporary forms, so as to help bring us into what promises to be a challenging, but, ultimately, God-given future.

 

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.

 

Features, pages 19-21.

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