Worshipping the God of the Gospel
a dream for evangelical worship
by Chris Cocksworth
An address given at the Evangelical Worship Consultation, Ridley Hall, Cambridge organised by the Liturgical Commission, 15th September 2008
I would like to begin my dreaming further back – with the actual identity Anglican Evangelicalism, not simply its worship.
My dream is that Anglican evangelicalism will:
· realize its potential
· fulfill its calling
· inhabit its character
· (to put it more theologically) that it will receive all that God has for it in Christ through the Spirit.
I happen to believe that this shape of Christian faith that has been given to Anglican evangelicalism is a deeply true, authentic and satisfying way of living the faith. Moreover, I am convinced that it is deeply attractive and could, if configured properly, capture the imagination of the people of our age, and win their hearts.
I have tried to write up that dream in a book, Holding Together: Gospel, Church and Spirit (London, Canterbury Press, 2008). Its title is my longing for Anglican evangelicalism: that here, in this form of Christian Faith, Gospel, Church and Spirit will be held together.
Or, to put it another way, my conviction about Anglican evangelicalism is that it is ideally, perhaps uniquely, poised to be a meeting point for the creative connection between the deep themes of Christian faith, the fundamental gifts of God to his people, each of which has been emphasized by one of the classic traditions of the Church.
· One: Gospel – by definition the great virtue of evangelicalism: the defining feature of evangelicalism: the euangelion, the gospel of God’s abundant grace in Jesus Christ and, consequentially, the dynamic spiritual authority of scripture as the testimony of the gospel, the word through which Jesus, the word of God’s grace, is made known.
· Two: Church – by definition the great virtue of the catholic tradition because catholic - kata holos- means according to the whole, an existence lived with and accountable to others. Fellowship is of the gospel. It is the work of God in creation and in redemption: it is not good to be alone, God formed a people, Jesus gathered disciples, Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi, my relationship with Jesus brings me into relationship with you.
· Three: Spirit – by definition the great virtue of the charismatic tradition. The Spirit is the gift – the charismaton – giver. The Spirit is the one in whom and by whom the word of the gospel comes to us: God breathes his Word and creation comes into being, God overshadows Mary and Jesus is made flesh, by the Spirit we come to know Jesus as Lord, through the Spirit gifts of ministry and worship and mission equip the church.
Anglican evangelicalism is a tradition that traces itself back to the gospel reform of the church according to scripture that took place in the C16 within the English Church. The tool for the reform of the Church’s life was the liturgy of the Church, its life of worship.
Anglican evangelicalism, therefore, is not a new form of the church. It is a reform of the church that can be traced back to the first flowering of the gospel in these lands. The tradition of worship that Anglican evangelicalism inherits is an ancient tradition, that has been passed on, sometimes faithfully and sometimes less faithfully, sometimes losing its shape and needing to be reformed, but still an ancient, historically rooted tradition that is held in common with Christians today and yesterday (and, hopefully, tomorrow). It is common prayer.
Anglican evangelicalism is placed by God in a living tradition of the Holy Spirit, an ongoing work of the Spirit, that can be tangibly traced to the origins of the Spirit’s work in England and is continually and creatively responding to the changing features of English life with the abiding realities of God’s good news in Jesus Christ.
In summary, I am saying that Anglican evangelicalism is wonderfully placed – perhaps, as I have said, uniquely placed - to not only know Jesus as the truth (the gospel of God, according to the scriptures) but also to live in his way through living and moving and our having our being in his body the Church; and in so doing to be enlivened, inspired, enthused by his life through the breath of his Spirit in his body.
And no where more so than its worship.
Well what does this mean in terms of practice?
It means attending to three dimensions.
A. Evangelical worship is called to make the gospel known
It is to be a demonstration and celebration of the gospel; an enactment and experience of the gospel.
It is to tell the gospel so that the gospel can be heard and believed.
It is to show the gospel so that it can be seen and felt.
And this hearing and believing, this seeing and feeling of the gospel through worship is to lead to following and living – to the faithful life of the missionary disciple, the member of the messianic community of Jesus.
Clearly the telling of the gospel involves good preaching and effective public reading of scripture. Both of those are indisputable in scripture and non-negotiable in Anglican worship. We should be able to take it for granted that they will be at their most excellent in evangelical worship. Unfortunately that is not always the case in my experience at least. Particularly when it comes to the reading of scripture in worship I am regularly shamed by the attention it is given in other traditions compared with evangelicalism. And although evangelicals do generally have a commendably high regard for preaching, the predilection for attractive themes and relevant topics, can reduce evangelical preaching to a talk on a subject supported by scriptural texts, rather than the exposition of scripture itself.
Much more could be said but I want to take a lead from Colossians 3.16-17 and widen out the reference to telling the gospel. The Colossians are exhorted to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly, by teaching each other in all wisdom, and with gratitude in their hearts, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.
The implication here is that the word of Christ takes deep and rich hold of us as we gather together and do what Christians do together. That includes singing, of course. One of the purposes of sung worship is so that the word of Christ, the word of grace, the word of the gospel can dwell in us richly. (More of that later.) But there are other ways as well. Some are verbal and some are non-verbal.
· We pray scriptures through psalms and other liturgical texts.
· We proclaim the scriptural faith through the church’s creeds.
· We use scriptural texts given for worship – eg the grace and blessings.
· We share the scriptural experience through testimony.
· We spread out the scriptural story through the church’s calendar and we focus on particular stages of the story in particular seasons.
· We enact the salvation of which scripture speaks through the actions and sacraments that Jesus gave to us.
· We see the scriptural faith in the scripturally given symbols of the faith.
This is my dream for evangelical worship: that we will take all these gifts that God has given us to tell the scriptural story so that people will begin to live in that story (inhabit it), and tell that story to others.
B. Evangelical worship is called to tell and show the gospel in and through the life of the church.
This gospel is the ‘faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3). I’d like to make three points in this connection.
For few years now I have had a flirtation with the Syrian Orthodox Church. This began when I visited Damascus and joined with the Syrian Church on Palm Sunday. It was a powerful experience being where Ananias and Paul worshipped and hearing the Lord’s Prayer sung in Syrian, a dialect of Aramaic, Jesus’ own tongue.
Christians now worship all over the world, of course, and in many languages, but this faith once entrusted to the saints is passed on in part by texts that were once for all entrusted to the saints: the Lord’s Prayer, the Grace, Songs in Revelation; and it goes back further, into the faith inherited by the apostles – the psalms, the Holy, Holy, Holy, the Aaronic blessing and so on.
My dream for evangelical worship is that our wonderfully gifted song writers will provide contemporary expressions and settings of these Spirit-given texts in charismatic voice.
One of the most moving experiences of the Lambeth Conference for me was attending a Eucharist each day prepared by a different Province. There were common shapes to the liturgy, and common meaning to the words, even if in many cases the actual language – Korean, Swahili, Portuguese etc - was beyond me, and there were common actions. It was wide and deep experience of catholicity – of being with other members of the one body of Christ.
My dream for evangelical worship is that our song writers will write more songs that can be used in the common shapes of worship, and that planners of worship will use songs of worship in the ebb and flow of a service rather than just as a block.
(3) Celebration of the actions of the gospel in the life of the church
I could talk till Christmas on this theme. I simply want to say at this point that if we neglect the actions of Christ in baptism and the Lord’s Supper we are disobedient to Jesus and unfaithful to the bible, and we betray the gospel.
Baptism is the Spirit-given sign of coming to faith in Christ and the means of entering fully into the life of his people. The Lord’s Supper is the Spirit-given sign and means of growing into the full stature of Christ.
My dream for evangelical worship is that we will use them and love them because Jesus uses them and loves us through them. And my dream is for song writers to write songs that relate to the sacraments and can be used when they are celebrated.
C. Evangelical worship is called to tell and show the gospel in the life of the church through the powerful working of the Spirit.
Beyond underlining the need for our worship to be enlivened and inspired by the Spirit – a calling that requires a continual invocation and expectation of the Spirit, I want to make three points briefly.
1 Worship is to be responsive and open to the movement of the Spirit.
A positive approach to the use of liturgy does not mean being bound by the book, it does not mean being straitjacketed by liturgy. The deep evangelical instinct for room to manoeuvre in worship is a godly thing. Since C17 evangelicalism has brought varying degrees of pressure on the Church of England to loosen up its worship. In the latter part of C20 this joined forces with shifts in liturgical scholarship and major cultural changes. The result is an official approach to liturgy – embodied in Common Worship – that is a wonderful gift to evangelicals, especially to evangelical charismatics.
My dream for evangelical worship is that it will grasp this opportunity – that it will take hold of this freedom in the liturgical freedom or, better, that it will take hold of this liturgical tradition as a framework for freedom.
2 Worship that will embrace the use of spiritual gifts
Properly used, there is nothing un-Anglican about the use of spiritual gifts in worship. They are part of the ancient apostolic liturgical tradition which has been passed on to us.
My dream for evangelical worship is that we will see these gifts being used in the normal course of worship in a culturally appropriate form.
3 Worship – this sort of worship – will require Spirit-inspired leaders of worship
My dream for evangelical worship is that this ministry will not just be devolved to the leader of musical worship, but that there will be inspired presiders of worship who can work creatively with musicians and every other ministry to respond to the movement of the Spirit in the planning and leading of worship.
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