What follows is an attempt to work out two ideas that appeared to my mind to stand in conflict with one another. I’m still not doing huge amounts of reading to ground any of this historically or exegetically. Nonetheless, I still think it will prove useful to continue to thrash out what exactly are the questions that more detailed work will attempt to answer later.
One of the most influential spiritual experiences that I have had has been within services from the Book of Common Prayer. The spiritual dynamic of these services involves the rehearsal, and by God’s grace actual participation in, the basis of an individual’s relationship to God the Father, through Jesus Christ – and in particular his sacrificial death for our sins, brought to us in God’s word by the power of the Holy Spirit. Approach, Confession, Absolution, followed by the enjoyment of peace with God in prayer and the hearing of his word or reception of Christ in the sacrament. All this is enjoyed with fellow travellers by one’s side but one’s own dealing with God are personal and private. This allows time to reflect and be honest before God in way in which we, almost certainly, would struggle with others.
Communion as the defining symbol of worship
Strangely enough, I’m not going to explore the Anglican Eucharist here. In NYNO. I’m starting from the standpoint that the central act of ‘worship’ is not music but rather, in it’s barest form, meeting together in Christ. Doing this, sitting by one another, acknowledging one another as siblings in Christ, receiving from one another and giving to one another the necessities of community life is more important than singing songs. Doing this reminds us of the one who makes us a people, who makes us one body through the gift of his own.
The Personal or the Communal?
I’m going to assume that the personal aspect of Christianity remains essential and that my experiences of Common Prayer were not merely emotional misdirection. But if we wanted to preserve this, what would a liturgy look like that incorporated this into a meeting in which communion/community was central?
At the heart of these issues may be the fear that other people – perhaps the laity – are unable to mediate Christ to me in the way that the Anglican service might.
Where is the grace in community?
Perhaps the way to resolve these doubts will be to clarify the relationship of word and sacrament to community. There is a temptation to think that word and sacrament must precede – in some sense – community because word and sacrament are places of grace, places where Christ comes to us and constitutes us as his, individually and corporately. And yet, if we go back again to the words of 1 Cor 12, surely the body is a place of grace. If only we could recognise it!
There must be different levels on which this can be discussed. There is a theological level of logic which might attempt to describe the precedence of one to another. There’s also a practical and liturgical level: we as a community need to be reminded that we are constituted so in Christ. When will this occur? Who will do this for us? Presumably this is the role of Christian leadership, of preaching, of eldership. And, it may well also be the role of the Lord’s Supper.
God can speak as and when he likes and his grace can be mediated by each one of us sinful and broken people. But we all need to be brought to Christ, need to be met by him whenever we meet. We need the word, and we need the sacrament, because we need Christ. This is logically and theologically true and liturgically sensible. But when we have heard and recognised that we are constituted as God’s people – how do we respond to this. Do we then put the kettle on and bring out the new baked bread? And where – if at all – does music come back into the picture?