Friday, 14 January 2011

Ritual and rich worship

OK... confession time (not that any of this will be a surprise to many of you!)...

... I love 'high' liturgical worship. In terms of worship, coming to St Cuthbert's has been a wonderful experience. I know of no other C of S congregation where worship is so 'high' (there may be others out there, but I have not come across them). Truth be told, when I have a Sunday off I will naturally gravitate to an Episcopal Church rather than another C of S. And this is not recent. Jane and I have tended towards Piscy Churches since we were students.

I am not saying that there is not a place for contemporary styles of worship (and I have done my fair share of that and appreciated it and promoted it.... about which more in another post sometime I reckon!). Nor am I in any sense advocating starchy, stuffy formality and rigidity.

But worship where there are processions and organs and choirs and candles and responses etc I find much more engaging than worship delivered from 'up front' by a minister, preacher, 'worship leader', praise band etc etc.

But it is even more fundamental than that. It is to do with worship that is rooted in the ancient traditions of the church, where the creeds of the centuries are recited, and the liturgical patterns that have sustained Christian worshippers for two millennia still inform worship patterns and forms today.

For me there is something in all this that speaks of the awesome greatness of God... of his transcendence and glory.

This is not to do with music styles (and in St C's we use the full breadth of CH4 and more besides in terms of Taize and Iona stuff and I do not take undue issue with Kendrick or Townsend - except sometimes! But we do sing them!)

It is not to do with being 'formal' or 'prescribed'.

For me, it has to do with worship that reflects the greatness and glory of God and which stands in the tradition of the church catholic.

But one thing intrigues me... in St C's folks turn east to recite the Creed (fine with me), we have candles (great as far as I am concerned), there are even one or two people who can be seen crossing themselves (no... really!) none of which things are in any sense at all problems for me. But one would be hard-pushed to say that these were 'biblical' (which is not to suggest that they are UNbiblical!

But I suspect that many - even in St C's - would draw the line at incense... which is really odd as it IS biblical!

Can anyone explain?


  1. Re the creed, candles and crossings (still at the alliterations, I see!):The explanation may be something as simple as habit and import from other traditions, someone sees others turning east and follows~like the good sheep they are. I wonder what would happen if you introduced incense?? May also become habit, then tradition etc,etc!

    Interesting about the 'High' worship experience too. I only ever feel the MAJESTY of God in such places as St Cuthbert's or St John's in Perth, so is that (for me) something to do with the combination of the worship style and the aesthetics of the place? For instance, I don't think it is just the style of worship because I never feel like that in any of the Chapel's I have attended over the years and I don't feel the awesomeness of God by just being present in the buildings of St C's or St J's, but a combination of 'High' worship and the surroundings I am in help create that sense of Majesty of God for me.


  2. I suspect that for many people, the problem is that they don’t really understand the purpose and meaning behind the symbols in use, and that is why they reject them. I would include candles, vestments, turning east for the creed, along with incense, in this list of symbols - although it is perhaps particularly true of the use of incense ? It may even be that people are right to do so, because should any of us be doing or using anything in worship that we don’t understand ?!

    For me, it has only been as I have researched and come to understand something of the symbolism and significance behind these things, that I have also started to appreciate and value many of them, and the ways that they can enrich and enhance worship – including the use of incense in worship. (Thanks here go to David who is very patient with my many questions !)

    I suspect that if more people fully understood the rich symbolism and significance, they too would value the way these symbols can enhance worship, and while inevitably, not everyone would find all of them helpful, there would at least be a greater level of understanding ! In my experience, even for those who don’t themselves find the symbols helpful, their increased understanding enables them to become more tolerant of the things that others find helpful.

    However, although I suspect we probably have a way to go before we can introduce incense to Sunday morning worship at St Cuthbert’s – perhaps a first step is to explain it to people ? (Sermon series on symbols anyone ?!)

    . . . until then, I find attending an occasional service at Old St Paul’s most beneficial – and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone with incense-cravings ! :)

  3. I used to go to an anglo catholic church (St Michael and All Saints at Tollcross), where there was so much incense that you could barely see what was going on at the front! I loved it – all of it – and for me it was about engaging all five of the senses, as well as (or sometimes instead of!) the intellect, which is what all those words are aimed at.

    Our sense of smell is most closely linked to our emotions – just think how a smell from childhood can take you right back to a particular moment, and make you feel what you felt then. Whenever I walk into a church that smells of incense I can feel my breathing and heart rate slowing (presumably a Pavlovian response?) – it makes it very easy for me to get into the kind of stillness that helps me to pray.

    It also seems to me that incense is a kind of liturgical Marmite – people either love it or hate it – there’s no middle ground, which may be why it’s so hard to introduce it.

    And of course, in practical terms, it’s not great for the choir to sing enveloped in a cloud of smoke, and it’s definitely a problem for anyone with a cough...!

  4. Now, I don't think I have ever before heard incense likened to Marmite! But the news is that there WILL be incense in St C's on Wednesday and possibly Sunday evening! Oooohh!!!!

  5. And to think I missed all the incense because I wasn't well :-( .

    Ruth, meant to say thanks for your comments. (Old St Paul's is also my refuge of choice when I feel I need an injection of smells and bells!)

    The only thing I am not sure I entirely agree with is that people would appreciate the likes of incense were they to understand the symbolism. I am not sure that the appreciation of (or aversion to) such things is intellectual. I suspect it is a more instinctive reaction. Truth be told I liked incense before I knew its significance and meaning!

    Where I think the awareness of the symbolism comes in is in justifying it to others who may never feel the same liking for it, but who can hardly complain when one points out the biblical basis!

  6. Hi David,

    I’ve been thinking g about your comments, and it’s very interesting, because for me, the understanding is, well it’s everything really! Without that, incense is just smelly smoke – a pleasant smell, granted, but – so what ?! :)

    For me, it’s only with the understanding that e.g., we might see the rising smoke as our prayers rising to God, or that the sweet aroma could be our worship - that we hope will be a fragrant offering and pleasing to God, or that we might understand the clouds of smoke as the presence of God “filling the temple”, or that as we are “censed” by the smoke we are being purified or blessed, and so on, it’s the understanding that enables the incense to add another dimension to worship – but maybe that’s just me – I need to understand things !

    . . .and if you were happy just enjoying the smelly smoke – then that’s great too !

    Clearly incense appeals to people on all sorts of different levels – marvellous stuff isn’t it ! :)

  7. How do the members of St. Cuthbert's turn East when they recite the Creed? Isn't St. Cuthbert's already facing East? :D

  8. Indeed Douglas, St C's faces east and most of the congregation do too... except for the choir, the ministers and the elders when there is communion. It is the choir, ministers (and elders) who do the turning and facing when reciting the Creed. Intriguing really!