Sabbatical blog 3

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Sabb blog 3


I was brought up short by this cartoon from Traidcraft that I saw posted on Facebook this week.

In many ways I relate to it. So much of what we do in church can seem as just working hard to sustain the institution, and keeping us busy, so that we do not have the time to do the wider work of the kingdom.

But I also found it challenging given that much of the reading and thinking I am doing at this stage in my sabbatical is relating to worship, and music’s place within it, and made me wonder whether I am focusing on things that really matter in the light of the needs of the wider world.

At the same time I see that the Methodist Church is advertising for an Officer for Worship & Local Preachers to serve on the Connexional Team.

Reading the cartoon one way can imply that the things on the left hand side are not important, and the only the thing the church should be doing is thinking about poverty and doing something about it.

On the other hand the church can, and I believe should, be a community that through its worship, through its debates, and even through its committee meetings, enables us to respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit in a way that releases energy for the work of the kingdom.

In fact, it is my experience that it is in churches where worship really engages people, where things are done well, where people’s hearts and minds are opened to the glory of God and inspired by the person of Jesus, that there is a greater energy for reaching out to those in need.

However, I am struck that in Methodism we are not quite sure what worship is for. Is it primarily for teaching, for learning about the faith? Is it primarily about having a good time in fellowship with other Christians? Is it primarily about being aware of the glory of God and being moved to wonder, love and praise?

I sense we try and make it a mixture of all three, although I suspect in the Methodist tradition the third area is one that is honoured as much in the breach as in the observance.

I am constantly challenged by a remark made in a report to Conference a few years ago by Martyn Atkins when he was General Secretary, that Methodist worship too often neither reaches the heights, nor plumbs the depths.

In my sabbatical reading I have revisited some of the writing I have looked at over the years on the processes of religious ritual. Much of this comes from anthropologists looking at rituals in societies very different from ours, in Africa and Polynesia, and I am very conscious that the word ritual is an absolute no no to many Methodists in relation to worship. But all worship, however informal is ritual of a sort, patterned behaviour. Rituals have been described as those acts which make experiences meaningful for people, or acts which are involved in ‘creating and managing emotion and in creating integrated world-views in which experience and explanation, feeling and the naming of feelings, forge a focused way of life’.(Douglas J. Davies, in Emotion, Identity and Religion. OUP)

That is a bit of a mouthful, but actually it is what I believe we should be trying enable in worship. I suspect when we think about it, the idea that worship helps us to develop an integrated world-view, based on Scripture, the life of the Christian community and the needs of the wider world, is one that would hold common acceptance. I think it is what most of us who preach try to do, although we probably wouldn’t use that language, (certainly not from the pulpit!), and the idea that experience and explanation help forge a focused way of life, a way of life that is an expression of the Kingdom of God again is something that we hope our worship engenders. I may be wrong, but I suspect that where Methodism struggles is in any idea that worship should create and manage emotion, and that feeling and the naming of feelings are part of the process along with experience and explanation in helping us forge a focused way of life.

‘Creating and managing emotion’ is an emotive phrase because it opens the way to the dangers of emotionalism and the manipulation of people’s emotions in unhealthy ways. Yet if worship is to reach the heights and plumb the depths it needs to issue from our deepest selves which includes our emotions as well as our intellect.

It has always been one of the things I treasure most about the Methodist tradition that it holds head and heart together. Some of my favourite Charles Wesley hymns begin with a reference to the heart: e.g. ’O for a heart to praise my God’ , ‘My heart is full of Christ, and longs its glorious matter to declare’. But I also think that John’s statement that ‘An irrational religion is a false religion’ is also one that we always have to take seriously.

John’s own response to the ‘enthusiasm’ of many of his supporters which included what we would now probably call Charismatic outpourings, is interesting in that he always felt it needed to be examined rationally, and as to whether it had a useful and positive outcome.

In the writing on religious ritual, an important concept is that developed by Rudolph Otto in a book of 1959 called ‘The Idea of the Holy’. He talks about the importance of worship in arising from and celebrating the encounter with the ‘sacred’, an experience of the holiness of God, and uses the idea of the ‘numinous’, a transforming sense of ‘the other’. In some ways it is easier to see that aspect of worship in traditional High Church forms, in Cathedrals and the like, with beautiful buildings and soaring choral music. Although that is where sociologists of religion tend to place it, I would also argue that the repeated choruses of charismatic worship, can for certain groups of people, also engender ‘numinosity’.

The questions I am left with, are how our Methodist tradition of worship can help engage our whole being, our head and heart, with the wonder of God and inspire us on the way of the kingdom.

I believe music has a part to play in this, and so am currently reading up on the most recent thinking on the psychology of music, which has moved since I last read in that area from the role of music in relation to cognition, to its role in relation to emotions, which I find very helpful.

The other area that I want to explore is whether different social groups, and different personalities, ‘create and manage emotion and create integrated world-views in which experience and explanation, feeling and the naming of feelings, forge a focused way of life’ in different ways, and whether that means different ways of worshipping are appropriate for different social groups, (which I think most now grasp), and different personalities, (which I suspect is more contentious.)

In all this, I do not forget the cartoon above, for I believe that the pursuit of the holy, in our Methodist tradition helps to grow in holiness, and holiness in inseparable from a discipleship that deepens our relationship with God, and also is inspired by the Spirit to work for a kingdom of justice for all.



Sabbatical blog 3