Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Sensual Worship & Life As Worship

"O taste and see that the Lord is good".
Psalm 34:8

Recently I was asked to do a reading at my church, for this past Sunday, to mark the anniversary of our minister's first year as head of our congregation. It was suggested to me, and I readily agreed, that I focus my thoughts and comments on the role of our minister in introducing a strong focus on worship to our Sunday services. Despite panicking due to 'writers block" having descended on me, I managed, at the last moment, to compose a reading that was deeply appreciated by our wonderful minister and the congregation too.

This whole episode got me thinking about worship and the differences both between individual congregations, and between ourselves and other faiths. It is quite clear that there is no such thing as a one size fits all style of service. There are those that like the traditional, "word" focused hymn sandwich and there are others who prefer worship to be constructed around more contemporary styles of music, fostering a greater atmosphere of informality. Then there are those who feel much more connected to services which include all the senses, the smell of incense, the soft glow of candles, hauntingly beautiful music.

At my chapel we have a weekly service which is in the traditional hymn sandwich style. Most of the congregation enjoy that way of conducting service, I too thoroughly enjoy it. I love the calm and reverential atmosphere it creates, the link with tradition, and the strong Englishness about it just tickles me. However I personally also yearn for a more sensual form of worship, and happily I have strong reasons to believe that our congregation will hopefully be working this year at creating additional weekday services that will provide an alternative way to worship.

The Catholic church of my youth was filled with ritual, mystery, scents, sights and sounds that have left their imprint on my subconscious. I only need to smell frankincense and I am instantly transported to a place of reverence and mystery that exits beyond words. During the Reformation there were those who, in my view correctly, saw aspects of Catholic worship and doctrine as being either non-scriptural or even contrary to Biblical ethos and instruction, and sought to bring Christian worship and practice in line with what was to be found on the pages of the Old and New Testaments supported by reason and logic. In so doing they stripped churches of all their imagery and statues, and the worship itself of much of its ritual and symbolism and succeeded in making Christian places of worship similar to Jewish synagogues. Indeed some Protestants believed that their version of Christianity, stripped as it was of non-Biblical Catholic traditions, would prove irresistible to Jews, but of course they were mistaken. Because while the Synagogue was and is largely ritual free, Jewish life is certainly not.

Judaism unlike Christianity is a religion of Laws. Laws that introduce a plethora of rituals and observances that add sanctity to every part of daily life. From the weekly Sabbath observance with its joyful family meal filled with singing, to the festival days, each with their own symbols, foods and rites that closely follow and reflect the seasons in which they fall. When the Jewish Temple stood in all its grandeur in Jerusalem, public worship was powerfully evocative involving all the senses. From the ritual clothing of the priests, to the music and singing of the Levites. The scent of incense and of the roasting meat of sacrifices would have filled the air. Even after the destruction of the Temple, the Jews still worshipped God with the totality of their lives. From eating to love-making each act was suffused with the sacred and celebrated. Truly life as worship. Christianity on the other hand, lacking a similar code of daily observed laws, has largely been a religion whose major worship activity has taken place within the church building. When the Reformation removed sensuality and spectacle from church-life a vacuum was left. Fortunately the deeply embedded need that human beings have for rites and ceremony was filled by the widespread folk religion that was to be found and celebrated across the land. I believe I am correct in saying that many of our "ancient" folklore and folk customs are derived primarily from pre-Reformation Catholicism, that were banned from the church but were adapted and kept alive by the populous at large. Births and death, the turning of the wheel of the year, were all marked and celebrated with a riot of colour and enjoyment. People felt a deep connection to the Eternal, through the beauty and harshness of nature that surrounded them and which influenced their lives so profoundly. Acknowledgement and reverence of the Divine was interwoven into daily life, sometimes in ways that created deep opposition from the Church. People became deeply connected with their neighbours and to the place in which they lived, and the joys and griefs of life had many avenues of expression. Then on Sunday people would attend their chapels and churches and worship together in simple dignity. Such a combination worked well.

Over the past 200 years or so however, life has changed dramatically. The rural, agrarian life of the majority of people, and the deep bonds of community that such a life created, as well as much of the hardship and suffering, has almost entirely vanished. Technology and urbanisation have played their part in ensuring that traditional folk-religion, rooted in time and place, became increasingly distant from the hearts of people. Today there is almost no religious ritual left in daily life, and many people have never even heard of traditions such as Gooding Day, Candlemass, Michaelmas, Grotto Day, or Mischief Night. What ritual remains is primarily materialist in focus, such as the annual Christmas shopping, or Easter egg purchase! There is a huge deficit in widely-venerated spiritual observances, and so now perhaps more than ever there are real dangers for those churches whose only worship style fails to address the need for ritual in the heart of mankind. Mainstream Protestant Christianity, and to a certain extent Unitarian Christianity have become faiths somewhat disconnected from God's presence in nature and the symbolism/ritual by which we express our souls' deepest yearnings, although I am glad to see that the Unitarian Christian Association has been exploring other approaches, such as the beautiful and popular Taizé method.

One great strength of our Unitarian community is that we are not constrained by fixed ways of doing things. Our traditions are not set in stone. We have so much room to explore different, and life-affirming styles of worship, and I believe that even the smallest congregations can experiment, even if only once a month, with different forms of services.

Once again I bring an example from the life of John Pounds. In his time he was famous for taking the children in his care for long rambles on the South Downs behind Portsmouth. He would point out the flowers and trees, teaching the children (and even the adults) their Latin names and how to identify them. He would speak constantly of the goodness of God manifested in the marvels of creation, and his gratitude to his Maker was contagious. He taught the children that in appreciation and thanksgiving for the beauty that surrounds us in life (despite life's negatives many of which John Pounds had personally suffered) we should behave well and live good lives in service of our fellow man and the Eternal that unites us all.

Surely this worship, (which has to my mind many similarities with the ethos of Celtic Christianity) conducted on the grassy hills and forest groves, was as precious and sacred as any that can be conducted inside a chapel or church. Each has its place and now more than ever we must lift both types onto their proper pedestals.

God to enfold me, God to surround me,
God in my speaking, God in my thinking.
God in my sleeping, God in my waking,
God in my watching, God in my hoping.
God in my life, God in my lips,
God in my soul, God in my heart.
God in my sufficing, God in my slumber,
God in mine ever-living soul, God in mine eternity.

Carmina Gadelica.