Faith in Focus

The Traditional and the Familiar in Worship:Some Contemporary Personal Reflections

By Dr. Sally Davey


Why is it that so many of us become so passionate about the subject of worship; and more particularly, what we do when we worship?   I cannot think of a denomination which does not have ongoing discussions over who should participate (from the front), what should be sung, what role (if any) preaching should play; and so on.  One reason, I am certain, is that in the worship of God we like to be creatures of habit; and so whatever we have become accustomed to from an early age becomes dear and personal to us.  We like to worship God each Sunday with words, music and ways of doing things that we know well.  Now, before some of you add:  “but I like fresh, contemporary, daring words and music - I’m tired of all that old traditional stuff!”, let me suggest that maybe this occurs to you precisely because all that fresh, contemporary daring stuff is just what you have listened to for hours, days and years on your radio, through your stereo and mile after mile in your car.  It is familiar, comfortable and (yes) traditional, through habitual use, to you!!  It is true that what we choose to make our habits will become our preference; and even our idea of what should be.  Historians tell us that Christians through the ages have counted it a very precious thing to grow up with good habits of worship to God.  Others remind us that what is ingrained in our hearts through constant use will inspire our unconscious thoughts as well as our conscious ones.  If it be God-honouring, who knows what blessing it may be when the day of trial comes?

Let me explain further.  I grew up in the Church of England; and was privileged to become familiar with the Book of Common Prayer (1662) before it was largely replaced by the 1970 New Zealand Liturgy.  As you are probably aware, Anglican worship consists of written prayers with written responses (said out loud by the congregation); as well as the singing of psalms and hymns, preaching and the sacraments.  So, each week people follow the service, using the same words, from their prayer book.  Thus the words that are said and sung, through constant use, become familiar, very familiar, and indeed memorised, by regular churchgoers.  Now, the beauty in all this is that the words Cranmer originally wrote are doctrinally rich, profound words, closely drawn from Scripture, and worthy of being memorised.  Much of the liturgy actually is Scripture, and because it is repeated often, it has been stored up in the hearts of Anglicans for centuries.  For instance, the weekly reminder to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, who is in heaven” has been an inspiration to live openly as a Christian, especially in times of difficulty, so that others may glorify God the Father.  The prayers of confession are articulate, graceful statements of true teaching. For example, in Evensong Anglicans confess:  “we have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep, and there is no health in us”.  Such prayer, if taken to heart by frequent use, is an inestimable blessing.  Memorised truths become an almost unconscious prompt to righteous responses.

Another part of the Prayer Book heritage has been the regular singing of psalms to chants.*  The boarding school I attended had a chaplain with considerable musical talents - and a way with teenagers, I consider, in reflection!  In the 1970s, it certainly was not the  coolest thing you ever did, to sing the psalms to 17th and 18th century English chant tunes.  (Our baby boomer music diet fed us the immediately appealing but unnourishing fare of  Neil Diamond and John Denver).  However, chapel services had us chanting psalms daily, and we grew to love this form of singing.    Musically, Anglican psalm chants are rich and rewarding; and entirely appropriate to the words they were intended to carry.  But the best thing of all was that we were singing the actual words of Scripture; and what we were memorising was worth memorising.  To this day I still remember parts of psalms and even whole psalms because of these chants.  Well, I am not advocating the use of the Book of Common Prayer in our worship services.  My point is simply that good worship practices which are true, noble, and the very best which we have to offer to God are those which will in turn teach us what is true and sound and wholesome, from our childhood up.  We can be pleased to use them, loving them dearly as we use them again and again, and as they become ingrained in our hearts.

That was not the end of the story for me, however.  I was in my late teens when I came to faith in Christ; and at that time, the charismatic movement was new, exciting, and fast-growing.  Charismatic friends led me to Christ, and for some years I had a thorough exposure to charismatic worship.  Why did I go that way?  I had become a Christian, and the church (denomination) I had grown up in was liberal.  It did not teach the truth, and I did not know at that time that there were any churches other than liberal and charismatic (the important thing, it seemed to me, at 18, was to worship in a place where the Scriptures were actually believed).  Indeed, today, these two types of church still dominate the New Zealand spiritual landscape. 

The emphasis in charismatic worship, it appeared to me, was on the novel, the spontaneous, and the daring.  It was considered spiritually brave, or taking a stand for God, to try new things which might make you seem ridiculous in the sight of other people.   However, at the same time there was something hypnoptically comfortable for people in knowing they could come to worship and expect the same sorts of things to happen.  They came knowing they would sing songs which were catchy, easy to learn, and would probably be memorised in one morning service.  They knew that they would always get the same sorts of feelings from singing those songs, an uplifting, emotionally-sensitised feeling toward God (that is why some songs are called “anointed” by people who move in these circles); and they would feel sorry for people who did not get to worship in that way.  Other aspects of worship also followed a familiar pattern.  There was always a series of especially emotionally-charged songs which led into a time of hand-raising and people murmuring quietly “in tongues.”  Increasingly, though, I was aware that there was a discordant gap between the informality and, yes, sensuality of this type of worship, and the desire for knowledge and truth which I thought Christians ought to have.  Christians, I was sure, needed a deeper understanding of solid, unchanging truths if they were to deal with the serious difficulties which they face in a sinful world.  It somehow wasn’t enough to have a flush of excitement during Sunday services.

It was through my university studies that I was introduced to the Puritans, and became captivated by their courageous stand for the purity of worship; driven as it was by their deep and attractive consciousness of personal sin. Their example certainly gave me second thoughts about how I prayed to God, and about singing the seventeen words of “This is the Day” seven times over!  On heading for graduate study in the U.S. I determined to learn a lot more about the Puritans and their understanding of the Christian faith.  This, as it happened, was not just to be through my studies.  I also had the opportunity to spend three years at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and there was introduced to the Reformed faith, and to the Presbyterian tradition of worship; which has common roots with the Puritan tradition.  There I learned about the primary importance of preaching, and the value of solemn, reverent, well-articulated and considered extemporary prayer led by sound men in the faith.  There was also considerable care given to the choice of hymns.  The Presbyterian and Puritan tradition has always emphasised the primacy of preaching, and there is concern that nothing should distract the congregation’s attention from it.  Often, there are two or three hymns only; and  through history faithful Presbyterians have tried to avoid all liturgical forms which excessively gratify the senses or threaten to become mere entertainment (beautiful choral interludes, unnecessary church decoration, extravagant ministerial dress, etc). There is also a deliberate effort to regard only Sundays as “special” days (ie there is no observance of church calendars), lest the people confuse comfortable traditions with the plain truth.  This, of course, has been in contradistinction to Anglican, and some continental reformed traditions.

Fifteen years of worshipping in conservative Presbyterian churches gave me a lasting appreciation of these things.  I certainly learned a great deal about Who we worship, and why and how.  But in a sense, there was more to learn; and since we have become part of the Reformed churches we have increasingly appreciated the part fine hymn and psalm singing plays in Christian worship.  They do much to teach us truth and store it up in our hearts.  The repeating of the historic creeds of the Christian church, and the use of responsive readings and forms for prayers have also helped revive my respect for and increase my understanding of the beauty, order and scriptural origins of the Book of Common Prayer.  It has simply reminded us that churches with a reformational heritage have traditions of worship which honour God, and which nourish us, as believers, in the faith.  And, in common with each other (despite regional variations in patterns of worship practice) their way of worshipping God is driven by scriptural truth; and by recognition of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness. 

All these experiences went a long way in explaining to me why Puritans, Presbyterians, Continental Reformers and Anglicans share a great deal in their practice of worship.  It also reinforced in my mind the value of continuing patterns of worship which have come down to us from our rich reformational heritage.  Forms of worship and fine, theologically-profound hymns which have been tested by generations of faithful churches, go far to teach us how to worship God.  They also, through continued use,  store up for us in our hearts truths which will enable us to stand fast when the storm winds of trial test us.  We should be grateful for what we have received when we hear, sing and repeat words which our churches have used to worship God through the centuries.  After all we, no less than they, need to learn these truths.

*              Chanting psalms is simply singing them in original Hebrew poetic form [ in their English translation], to a melodic formula - as opposed to singing them in modified, western verse form to tunes with regular rhythms (as with the metrical psalms).  The rhythm of chanting reflects the irregular stresses of speech rather than the regular rhythm of 3/4 time, etc.  Some have called chanting “intensified speech”, since it easily allows for stresses on the significant words in a sentence, proper punctuation, etc.  Psalm chants are not limited to plainchant, or Gregorian chant. Protestant psalm chants (as practised primarily in Lutheran and Anglican worship) are not Gregorian, and are significantly different in content and style to those sung in the Roman Catholic tradition. They are suitable for congregational singing.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised May 2000 / Copyright 2000