When I became an Anglican (from a background of a different church tradition), I was at first quite puzzled by the choice of Scripture passages that Anglican (that is, Church of England) services kept coming back to—the Benedictus (Luke 1.68–79) in Morning Prayer, the Magnificat (Luke 1.46–55) in Evening Prayer, and the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2.29–32) at night. For one thing, all these come from one gospel and one section of that gospel. For another, if you were going to repeat a small number of passages again and again, are there not other passages you would choose first? How about the hymn to love in 1 Cor 13? Or the summary of the gospel in 1 Cor 15? Or the ‘Christ hymn’ of Paul in Phil 2? Or John’s magisterial prologue in John 1? (Of course, most of these do find their way into Anglican liturgy in the form of credal affirmations or canticles.)
It took some time for me to realise the importance of the passages from Luke as programmatic summaries of what God was doing in Jesus: fulfilling the hopes of his people Israel in bringing forgiveness, true liberation and peace (the Benedictus); enacting the Great Reversal of God’s grace over against human pride, following the pattern of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel (the Magnificat); and bringing to completion God’s plan not just for Israel but for the whole world, in anticipation of Jesus’ followers being his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (the Nunc Dimittis).
The other passage that puzzled me was the choice of Psalm 95 (also known by its opening words in Latin, pointing back to the influence of the Vulgate translation), the Venite, and its alternative Ps 100, the Jubilate. But it has slowly dawned on me that Ps 95 offers a comprehensive account of what worship involves.
1. Invitational: ‘Come…’
The repeated refrain of invitation, ‘come let us worship’, has been picked up in both modern (‘Come, now is the time to worship’) and traditional (‘Come let us join our cheerful song’) hymnody. But its importance here reflects the essential direction of travel in the worship encounter. Although there is a consistent theme of the worshipper as the one who seeks (for example in the thirst of Ps 42, the metaphorically interpreted desire of the Song of Songs, Jesus’ teaching on persistence in prayer in Luke 11, and those who seek Jesus throughout the Fourth Gospel), the primary note in Scripture is of God seeking us, rather than the other way around.
It begins with God seeking Adam and Eve in the garden in Gen 3.9, and ends not with us ‘going to heaven when we die’ but the New Jerusalem coming from heaven to earth in Rev 21.2. In between it is expressed in God choosing his people, not they him (Deut 7.7), in his tender longing for his people as they go astray (Hos 11.8), in his seeking and saving the lost (Luke 15, Luke 19.10). Whether faith came to us naturally out of our curiosity, or as a surprise when we were least expecting it, the underlying theological reality is that our worship is a result of God’s initiative, and not ours.
In the antiphon of divine-human encounter, it is God who issues the call and we who offer our response.
2. Corporate: ‘…let us…’
There are plenty of individual psalms, in which the psalmist expresses personal faith, seeking, frustration and questioning of God—faith is at all stages a personal reality. Yet, throughout Scripture, the relationship of God with his people is first and foremost expressed corporately, and the personal flows from this. This is especially clear in the corporate regulations for worship in the Pentateuch, but continues to be evident in the corporate descriptions of life and worship in Acts and the Pauline letters.
Personal experience is rooted in corporate practice, flows from it and is nourished by it. The psalmist anticipates that his personal longing expressed in Ps 42.1 would be met in the corporate experience of Ps 42.4. A similar prioritising of the corporate in our families might reduce the loss of faith in the teenage years; and encouraging corporate rather than relentlessly personal devotions might enable us to engage more effectively with the non-book cultures around us. English used to distinguish between the singular ‘thou’ and the plural ‘ye’, but since we have shifted to the ambiguous ‘you’, we lose our awareness of this essentially corporate nature of faith (though it can be regained by reading in another language that retains such distinctions).
3. Physical: ‘…shout aloud…bow down…’
There is no mistaking the physical nature of worship that is envisaged here at every stage. The first invitation is to ‘shout’, and the Hebrew term is used both of the cry that calls the people to war and of the great belly-roar of triumph over one’s enemies when victory is won. It suggests a kind of visceral roar of celebration, and makes us wonder why the frisson of physical experience that we find on the football terraces Saturday by Saturday isn’t also present in our worship Sunday by Sunday. Though the presence of God might at times lead us to awed silence, most often it will call on all our physical skills of music-making, and involve physical actions of ‘bowing down’ and ‘kneeling’. One of the great recoveries of the charismatic renewal movement was the importance of bodily experience and expression in worship, and this should be a feature of all Christian worship.
I was particularly struck by this physical element last week when attending an in-person service (when did we ever anticipate having to make this kind of qualification?!). Because we could not sing together (even though there is no evidence that singing presents any risk of infection), we listened to singing from the front—and it was beautiful. Listening to a real person singing in your physical presence is quite different from listening to something on the radio, the computer or the television; as John Leach has pointed out, there are multiple physical, bodily aspects to the experience of singing.
And so these opening three points about worship offer a particularly poignant challenge to our current situation, since they all depend on understanding ourselves not as brains (or souls, or spirits) on sticks, as it were, as though our bodily reality was merely incidental—but as body-soul unities, in which our bodily coming together corporately, to express our worship to God in gesture, is a physical expression of spiritual truth.
4. Theological: ‘The Lord is a great King above all gods…’
There is, in the first half of this psalm, a constant interplay between large theological claims and exultant affective response. There are three massive theological ideas around which the response of worship orbits; in reverse order: God as creator; God as the only true god; and God as the saviour of his people.
Recognising that Yahweh is ‘our maker’ focusses on the creature/creator divide, and the fragility of human existence in contrast to the power of God. But the theme also includes God’s sovereignty over the created world; it is worth noting the binary contrasts (depths/peaks, sea/land) which both function as merisms that take two extremes to include everything in between, and also reflect the theme of separation in the creation account of Gen 1.
Recognising God as king makes explicit an idea which is implicit in the earlier parts of Scripture but which become increasingly visible in the period of the monarchy and reaches its full flourishing in the preaching of Jesus of the coming ‘kingdom of God’. Although here expressed in henotheistic terms (God amongst the gods), the contrast easily moves into the absolute monotheism that we find in Isaiah (‘There are no other gods beside me’, Is 45.5; compare the similar movement in 1 Cor 8.4–6). In the NT, the kingdom of God is contrasted with the kingdom of this world, and the two are in eschatological contrast. And in a world of competing spiritual powers, it is the God of Israel who saves his people.
There is no divide here between understanding and affective response, between thinking, feeling and acting. Worship is rooted in theological understanding, and theological understanding inevitably leads to a response of worship.
5. Dialectical: ‘extol…bow down…hear his voice…’
The first half of the psalm includes some striking contrasts which we might have missed because of our familiarity. The first note is one of celebration, exalting in the salvation that he brings to his people and rejoicing in his mighty power. If this feels like a move upwards, then the contrast comes in the move downwards, bowing in humility and awe in verse 6. Both the upward movement and the downward are essential in worship—God is the source of our joy, but God is no mere celestial chum with whom we party.
What is most fascinating is the way that these two movements are aligned. We mighty expect a response of awe to God’s power—but in fact this leads to celebration, since the psalmist is convinced that God is for his people and (essential) on their side. What leads to wonder is the fact that this mighty God, in all his power of creation, salvation and defeat of his enemies, a God not to be trifled with, is the tender shepherd of his people, one who knows their needs and meets them with his provision. This God is not vulnerable instead of being mighty; he is both, and the wonder comes in the holding together of the two convictions.
6. Repentant: ‘Do not harden your hearts…’
The second major dialectical tension in the psalm is one that Anglican liturgy can barely cope with, and only manages by making the ending of the psalm optional in liturgical recitation. There is the sharpest of contrasts in the unfettering joy and commitment expressed in the first half, and the stern warning of judgement that awaits us if we do not repent and belief in the second. It is the kind of contrast we also struggle with in the teaching of Jesus, when reports of calamity provoke Jesus’ response: ‘Unless you repent, you too will perish!’ (Luke 13.3, 5). Not exactly gentle Jesus, meek and mild and inclusive.
But this tension points to the reality of respectable Christian leaders who end up being abusive, congregations with good biblical teaching who are oblivious to the world around them, and all of us as we come to God with distinctly mixed motives. Worship services which focus on celebration and find the downbeat of confession of sin too stark a contrast with the upbeat of feeling good about God ignore this tension at their peril. The language of the BCP in describing sin as an intolerable burden to miserable sinners needs to be recovered.
7. Canonical: ‘…as your ancestors did…’
The psalm begins with a hint at the story of God’s dealings with his people in the mention of the ‘rock of salvation’, but this story become clearly (and uncomfortably) explicit in the second half. Worship of God by the people of God is rooted in the particularity of God’s dealings with his people and their response to him. Indeed, some psalms, like Ps 136, are entirely structured around the story of our experience of God as his people. The general refrain ‘His love endures forever’, which on its own is in danger of becoming a theological slogan, only makes sense when understood in the light of the particulars of God’s action.
In a similar way, it is striking that Paul assumes that the story of God’s dealings with his people Israel has become the story that now belongs to the mixed Jewish-gentile group of followers of Jesus in Corinth, so that they are all inheritors of this canonical story of faith (1 Cor 10.6). Reading Scripture when we meet, and thus locating ourselves in this story, is not something that leads to worship—it is a constituent part of the worship itself. Christian worship will understand Jesus as the climax and fulfilment of this story—but it will not ignore the earlier episodes.
G K Chesterton commented (in Orthodoxy):
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
For our Christian worship, ‘the dead’ are the saints who have gone before us, in whose footsteps we follow.
Responding to God’s initiative, confessing our sins, celebrating in song, locating ourselves in the story of God’s people, reflecting on theology, living with tensions and contrasts, and expressing all this in bodily action as we meet together—all these are essential parts of our worship as we meet together. If any of them is missing, God is reduced, our worship is diminished and we are the less for it. (Previously published in a shorter form in 2018.)