This excellent piece was written not by me, but by David Mills, who retains all rights in it. Knew I had a copy of this somewhere! This was written back in the mid-90s, but it is at least as true now as it was then. I used to have it on my old website, with the permission of the author, and I hope I am not straining that permission too far by re-posting it here…
A DEFENSE OF TRADITIONAL WORSHIP
By David Mills
THE CONCERT ended with everyone singing an old hymn, swaying gently from side to side, many holding hands with the strangers beside them. Someone turned out the lights, and people began holding up lit matches, as a feeling of brotherhood descended, it seemed, on everyone in the hall. Out in the parking lot a few minutes later, many of them were fighting, stealing, and selling drugs to small children.
It was a rock concert ending in the then-popular style. It taught me, a new Christian, that feelings of worship were easily aroused and often almost completely transitory and insincere, in the sense that they did not reflect any change in the will, or any desire in the worshipers to turn from their wickedness and live. Such feelings may be spiritual, but they are not always Christian.
People are easily moved but not easily changed. The most elevated feelings are no guide whatsoever to the formative value of an experience. To be changed people need to be made to see the world and to act in certain ways and not in others, and this is the reason that Christians ought to worship traditionally, that is, in formal, ordered, regular, heavily textual liturgies designed by a central authority in its historical tradition.
This claim does not apply to “seeker services” and the like, intended to reach the lost. It applies to the regular worship of those who have committed themselves to Christ, the Church, and the local community, in which they commit by word and action their minds and hearts to God. Formative worship is, like tithing and the other disciplines of the Christian life, for those who want to be transformed into the image of Christ and are willing to pay the price.
A jarring claim
For many reasons, not least the obvious holiness of many people who intensely dislike such worship, an argument for the superiority of traditional worship and (by implication) against the modern alternatives has to be prudential. The superiority of traditional worship is more than a matter of taste but less than a matter of principle. It will tend to make most people, most of the time, and especially most people over time, more Christ-like than the alternatives.
The claim jars, even so qualified. It is trying to be told by someone older (a late thirty-something) that you ought to want what he wants, but every generation will have trouble apprehending and practicing some crucial aspect of the Faith its culture or circumstances have obscured, as those people raised on too much candy and cake have trouble eating well, even as their aging waistlines begin to expand, or as those who were spoiled as children cannot delay gratification and run up enormous bills on their credit cards.
It is likely, I’m afraid, that a generation raised so much on television and educated by people who valued self-expression more than the gaining of knowledge and the disciplining of the passions, will be handicapped in worshiping traditionally — as some older people raised in a segregated culture of the fifties will have trouble accepting people of other races in their church. (Its culture and circumstances will help it see some aspects of the faith better than other generations, of course.)
In other words, it is not enough to say of traditional worship that one cannot use it or that it is culturally inaccessible. The Christian faith itself is not always culturally accessible. It assumes some maturity in the faith and maturity is not easily or quickly gained, and not gained without submission to a tradition and authority whose value is not always clear.
Much of the Bible itself is not culturally available at first, or without much study. Jesus had to explain his parables even to His disciples, and the books of Daniel and Revelation do not yield their secrets without some knowledge, gained only by study, of apocalyptic literature. St. Paul famously baffled even St. Peter. If the source and authority of our faith is such, so might be the expression of that faith in worship.
Worship is handed on
My argument is the simple one that believers are best formed through traditional worship because it is “traditioned” or handed on and therefore is wiser than worship designed anew or created on the spot, even if it seems more relevant and to better meet the worshipers’ felt needs. Traditional worship is the product of a long historical refinement, in which learned and holy people constantly refined a living tradition begun in the worship of the synagogue, itself founded in God’s revelation, and in which to some extent they responded to the experience of worshiping people. It is wiser than anything we could invent ourselves.
This claim is a bold one, best judged for oneself in practice. (As are most other Christian practices; for example, the need for daily devotions, calls to which sound like simple moralism till one discovers for oneself the joy and the need of beginning the day in intimate talk with the Lord.) I think it could be proved by argument, but in the space at hand it is best demonstrated by example.
Let me give just one. A few years ago I attended a conference held by Christian intellectuals who were both deeply grounded in their traditions — most were ordained and had doctorates in theology — and serious about bringing the Gospel to a changing culture. They had thought through the nature of worship in such a society. One of their services (only one, which is significant in itself) included a confession of sins, which ran:
Caring and compassionate Creator, we enter this place set apart for your worship, knowing that we have failed to see you in other places. We have ignored your beauty around us, in earth and sky, in plants and creatures, in the people who surround us. We have chosen to live more by our fears than by our faith, to be weighted down by what we do not have, rather than rejoicing in your gifts to us. In these moments together, draw us so close that we cannot help but know everyday that you are with us, wherever we go. Enlarge our capacity to serve, so we may see you in all whom we meet. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Compare this with the confession in the modern service of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
As I wrote in Touchstone, the first “is regretful rather than repentant. . . . The image it brings to mind is the shy, bespectacled little boy who just has to be encouraged by a warm voice and a soft hug to step up to the plate and swing for the fences, not (as seems to be the case) wild screeching children covered with filth and flinging filth on everyone within reach.” It was produced by people whose understanding of the Gospel one would naturally trust, but who, when creating a liturgy on their own, made up something so sentimental and banal and empty of distinctively Christian content. Prudence requires us to acknowledge that though we might not create something inadequate in this way, left on our own we are likely to do something equally silly and to be equally blind to our error.
I know “X-er” services often include corporate confessions with a much greater and sharper sense of sin than this one. They are not attracted to the sentimental, optimistic liberalism that still beguiles some of their elders and produces such confessions. Nevertheless, outside an historical liturgy, a confession made up from scratch will still express the wisdom and inspiration of the author, which is unlikely to be as great as that of the tradition, however holy the author may be.
In contrast, the Prayer Book’s confession is more explicitly, and therefore formatively, Christian. (And this is the modern Prayer Book, mind you; the older one is better at this.) It declares that we have sinned, not just failed; describes in outline the various ways we have sinned, thus giving us a form for reviewing our own lives and bringing to light particular sins we could otherwise ignore or repress; explicitly asks for God’s mercy and pleads Jesus’ work on our behalf, thereby acknowledging both our need for forgiveness and the only grounds on which we can ask it; and declares the effects of our being forgiven. This confession is not only truer, it is deeper; it gives the worshiper more guidance and helps him realize more deeply the nature and extent of his sinfulness and of God’s grace.
The problem with the form
The objection may still be raised that even if its content is more reliably profound, the form of traditional worship is still inaccessible to modern men and women. I don’t think this true, or if true, true because they have not been taught what it means. Traditional worship is or should be accessible even to modern men and women because it simply takes normal and natural human actions and directs them to the worship of God. Once this principle is grasped (consciously or intuitively), the traditional form is no longer alien but natural.
The instinct for regular and ordered worship is one [common to all humans], which is why the most informal worship takes on a set form if it is repeated more than two or three times. My argument is simply that this being so, we ought to rely on the wisdom of the tradition to ensure that the liturgy — for liturgy there will be — is the best it can be.
The use of gestures is a good example of this principle. Everyone, for example, traditional or informal, stands to sing. We stand for the same reason we leap to our feet at a game-winning home run or a wonderful violin solo: because standing is the natural posture for praise. It is what we do naturally when we truly feel the goodness of an action. Traditional worship simply plays out this principle more completely. Take kneeling, which puts off if not offends many people, and does not seem to be natural because we never otherwise kneel in the course of our lives. In the worship of the western Church, one traditionally kneels to confess one’s sins and to receive the Eucharist.
The natural symbolism of the first is obvious: we have offended against God, we have by our choice hurt someone we love, and we cannot look him in the eye. We tend to stare at the ground and shuffle our feet; in more expressive cultures, people actually drop to the ground before the person they’ve offended. Traditional worship simply asks us to similarly enact and embody our repentance to God.
We kneel at the Eucharist (during the Eucharistic prayer and at the altar rail) because we are asking God for a great gift of which we know ourselves to be unworthy, and one embodies this by asking on one’s knees. I don’t, myself, understand how anyone who believes that “This is my Body” can comfortably stand up like a traveler ordering a cheeseburger in a highway cafeteria. There is a cultural analogue even for this, in a man’s dropping to his knee to propose marriage to his beloved. He does not kneel because he’s asking her forgiveness, nor because he’s begging her to accept him. He kneels at her feet because he is asking for a great gift (a woman’s life) of which he knows himself to be unworthy. It would not be right, somehow, to do so while standing above her, or even sitting beside her. Such a gift should be asked for, even if it will surely be granted, from below.
The same is true even with the elaborate texts of traditional liturgies, supposedly so off-putting to people used to pictures and soundbites. People who truly know the truth will want to repeat that knowledge, in the way children love repeating the alphabet when they first learn it, or adults repeat beloved hymns or poems, or the adolescent boy in love for the first time may be heard besottedly repeating his girlfriend’s name over and over. And such knowledge as we have of the Gospel is only well-conveyed — conveyed completely and precisely — by a multiplication of words.
This in fact is what is done in the worship of Heaven, when the ecstatic heavenly chorus has to throw out word after word to praise the Lord: “Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever” (Revelation 7:12). If we speak of our God in few words, our concision may be less a matter of our being relevant to a sound-bitten culture as our being less excited by the good news and too complacent to want to repeat it — and such a failure will be shown equally in our failure to evangelize.
The same, I think, holds true for the order, formality, and regularity of traditional worship. They may at first seem unhelpfully rigid or because they are fixed and borrowed seem to be insincere, but they express some deep human instinct. In the end, God delights not in burnt offerings or in beautiful and wise liturgies, but “a broken and a contrite heart” He will not despise. Yet he whose heart has been broken will crave the help of his brothers and sisters from every age to grow more like the Lord whose body was broken for him.
Mr. Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, where he edits Mission & Ministry. He is the editor of The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans, 1998) is also a senior editor of Touchstone and the American correspondent for the English magazine New Directions. “A Defense of Traditional Worship” appeared in Re:Generation Quarterly and is reprinted here with permission.