Here I am to Worship

Again, crossposting a review for my Seminary class.  Thought it could stand some good ol’ Friendly input. 

When “Professor” Clark alluded to the fact that some of us were going off-roading with our elective reading choices, I think a bright flashing neon sign lit up above my head.  🙂 

After reading about liturgy and fighting commodification through liturgy, I thought it would be beneficial to explore the core elements of worship and its manifestations within differing traditions.  For the past few weeks I’ve been sitting with Evelyn Underhill’s book “Worship”.  I say that I’ve been sitting with it because, at least for this sleep-deprived reader, it’s not a quick read.  Underhill’s most known work “Mysticism” explores the wider topic of communion/experience/”yadah” with God; this follow-up looks at some more practical ways individuals and groups experience this.  Divided into two parts, the book first details the purpose and the elements of worship and then explores these principles and values in specific denominational expressions. 

“Worship is here considered in its deepest sense, as the response of man to the Eternal; and when we look at the many degrees and forms of this response, and the graded character of human religion, its slow ascent from primitive levels and tendency to carry with it the relics of the past, we need not be surprised that even within the Christian family there is much diversity in the expressive worship which is yet directed towards a single revelation of the Divine” (xxi).  This statement contains elements of the sentiment of Luke Bretherton’s picture of Deep Church drawing from the same well of tradition as well as Andrew Walker’s thoughts on Deep Church and paradosis:  “What is new about this retrieval is that it is a quest for something old, and its modus operandi is not a technique, but a turning back (epistrophe)” (50). 

While looking at the fundamental characteristics of worship, Underhill often details the extremes manifesting from the response to Reality (most often comparing the Anglican church and the Quaker meetings) sharing the strengths and weaknesses of each expression.  For example:  “Habit tends to routine and spiritual red-tape; the vice of the institutionalist.  Attention is apt to care for nothing but the experience of the moment and ignor the need of a stable practice, independent of personal fluctuations; the vice of the individualist.  Habit is a ritualist.  Attention is a pietist.  But it is the beautiful combination of order and spontaneity, docility and freedom, living humbly – and therefore fully and freely – within the agreed pattern of the cultus and not in defiance of it, which is the mark of genuine spiritual maturity and indeed the fine flower of a worshipping life” (22).  This almost reminded me of the characteristics of the modern (ritualist) and post-modern (pietist) movements.  As she moves on to describe early Christian worship, she notes that the earliest form of Charismatic expression was taken on by Hellenistic Christians who moved away from the Jewish models (180).  This seems similar to the modern/postmodern movement as well where the postmodern group is trying to follow a new expression of worship that seems so dissimilar to the previous standard.

Underhill gives some details not only about current worship, but the history of worship starting with the Hebrews and moving to the early church and the denominational splits.  Interestingly she noted in Jewish life that “it was surrounded by a number of small ritual observances; which can easily be dismissed as formal or superstitious, but were really directed – like the small external pieties of the ‘good Catholic’ – to the sanctifying of all the common events of everyday life, by a constant and humble remembrance of the claims of the Eternal God and His Law” (156).  Sounds a little bit like Bretherton’s “mundane holiness” to me where “in our day Christian disciplines and practices must act as antidotes to the attempt to shape our personhood through consumerism, technology, and the myriads to Pasnopticanlike institutions of the corporation state” (244). 

I spent more time looking at Underhill’s evaluation of Quaker/Free Churches than the other denominations because this is the tradition I come from.  I have been a bit disheartened reading “Consuming Religion” with Miller’s thesis that liturgy fights commodification of religion.  One of the main characteristics of the Friends is the lack of symbol/ritual/liturgy of the high church.  In the preface to George Fox’s “Journal”, William Penn notes, “The bent and stress of their ministry was conversion to God, regeneration and holiness, not schemes of doctrines and verbal creeds or new forms of worship, but a leaving off in religion the superfluous and reducing the ceremonious and formal part, and pressing earnestly the substantial, the necessary and profitable part, as all upon a serious reflection must and do acknowledge.”  After hearing this most of my life, it’s easy for me to assume that Quakers are anti-ligurgy.  Miller quotes Terrance Tilley:  “The significance or meaning of the doctrine of the Real Presence can be paraphrased or summarized theologically, but it cannot be fully understood except when it is connected with the ritual practices of the community that holds the doctrine” (202).  Tilley was speaking of the Eucharist, but his reference to the “Real Presence” seems to mesh with some of Underhill’s thoughts:  “It points past all signs and symbols to the Invisible Holy, trusts the immanent presence with men of the Invisible Holy, and perpetually reminds us of the awe and humility, the pause, the hush, the deliberate break with succession, with which man should approach the great experience of communion with teh living God:  ‘not hurrying into the exercise of these things, so soon as teh bell rings, as other Christians do'” (237).  Perhaps there’s more liturgy involved than I had previously thought, but it simply looks different.  But what does that look like today within the differing branches of Quakerism with some being evangelical and some not, some being programmed and some not? 

I’m uncertain as to what to do with this book.  It seems very black and white, all or nothing.  Underhill describes strengths and weaknesses, but it’s either the best of the strengths or the worst of the weaknesses – not a lot of inbetween or what happens with the introduction of shallow bricolage.  It reminds me of the difference between analyzing something in the lab under ideal conditions versus using it in the real world with unknown variables.  Her explanations of symbols and sacraments were incredibly helpful (they are a means of God sharing Truth with us).  I greatly appreciated the pointing out of similarities of truth and purpose and principles within the traditions:  she detailed the similarities without making them the “same” – showing the beauty of each characteristic or expression, like a family portrait.  Perhaps as I chat with others we can take some time to gaze deeper at our latest family pictures – the good and the bad, the modern and the postmodern, the institutional and the emerging, and see the beauty of each grandparent and parent and child and wait in anticipation of the generations to come.

One thought on “Here I am to Worship

  1. Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C])

    It’s been a few years since I read Underhill’s Mysticism. My impression was that she had a fairly narrow view of what religious experience might be — everything she reported on, either was communion-with-God in the Catholic-contemplative mode, or was represented as being such even when it was not. Since, in fact, George Fox’s Quakerism was every bit as much about experiencing God in the conscience (experiencing God as the Teacher of what is right and wrong), as it was about experiencing God as a Presence to be communed with, half of Fox’s Quaker “mysticism” got left clean out of her report.

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