I SOMETIMES wonder whether the Church of England corporately is afflicted by secret despair: a deep sadness felt in response to seemingly relentless overall decline, in churches, among others, where the eucharist is celebrated regularly and in good order. Another portion of that despair merges with frustration at the way in which numerically buoyant churches often sit light to liturgy.
Andrew Wilson’s short and compelling book argues that only when the Church rediscovers its charis, its “theology of gift”, will it truly thrive on authentic foundations; so those who might be termed “liturgicals” need to seek the work of the Holy Spirit more intentionally in their worship, while Charismatics need to re-engage with Catholic tradition and sacrament. He thus invites readers to imagine a world of “eucharismatic” worship, where the spiritual gifts of the New Testament Church coexist with liturgical order, in the context of regular holy communion.
Along the way, he is razor-sharp in his observations about the problems found in both church traditions. Charismatics are wary of ritual “for fear of cluttering up the program with anything that isn’t singing, preaching, or notices”; historically rooted churches “avoid asinine flippancy and replace it with frumpy austerity”. Wherever readers of this book may sit personally, they are likely to be challenged.
Wilson writes from within the Newfrontiers network, with a clear admiration for the liturgical foundations of Anglicanism. Indeed, his dream is arguably more easily realisable in a denominational context in which liturgical worship remains foundational, albeit flexibly so in the Common Worship era.
He longs for those who love set liturgy to recognise the dynamism and unpredictability of the worship of the Early Church, and the Charismatic emphasis of many historic theologians. He argues that St Augustine’s conversion, as recorded in his Confessions, recounts experiences “that will be familiar to charismatics the world over but might make more cautious readers a bit nervous”. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, and others are quoted in relation to their mystical experiences of divine encounter.
There is also a compelling argument for the counter-cultural value of sacramental worship: he regards the sacraments (by which he means baptism and holy communion) as “a wonderful antidote to the fuzzy, shallow Gnosticism that characterizes Western culture today . . . celebrating the sacraments draws us into a different and better story.”
It is worth noting that Wilson builds his argument on a high view of scriptural authority, and offers a warning that both eucharistic and Charismatic traditions can risk “a certain squishiness on the doctrine of Scripture”. For anyone seeking to reinvigorate corporate worship within a biblical framework, Spirit and Sacrament will challenge presuppositions and inspire a deeper engagement with New Testament accounts of Christian devotion.
The Revd Dr Christopher Landau is Postgraduate Pastor at St Aldate’s, Oxford, McDonald Chaplain to the Oxford Pastorate, and an honorary chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
Spirit and Sacrament: An invitation to eucharismatic worship
Church Times Bookshop £9