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Modern Medieval Worship

good advice comes 
from unexpected places.

      The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were an era of tremendous achievements in art throughout Europe.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Italy.  Paintings, frescoes, and sculptures from that time still stand today as unsurpassed examples of beauty formed by the hand of man.  People of that time grew up in a world where visual art, including complex symbolism and representations, were widely understood.  A carving of a torch on the wall of the church was the Garden of Gethsemane.  The stylized lily of the fleur-de-lis was as much in honor of the Holy Trinity as it was the French monarchy.
       In Sunday worship, also, there was a great deal of emphasis on the beauty of the visual arts.  Church buildings were adorned in so many obvious and subtle depictions, in both painting and stonework, that a modern observer needs a very knowledgeable guide to see the rich complexity.  As Kieckhefer points out, it is literally a "theology in stone."
       Knowing this may help us understand one of the great oddities of Christian worship in that era.  Ordinary laypeople did not seem to do much of anything at all during worship.  
Most church buildings still did not provide pews in the Nave (the portion of the sanctuary for the laity).  People would just stand around during Mass.  An ornately decorated chancel screen, often made of wood or stone, wholly separated all of the clergy from the laity.  The complex polyphonic singing, often casting more than one Latin text directly over another in a delightful but wholly undecipherable celebration of the highest expressions of musical art, were simply heard, not sung.
       Only the elevation of the host, when the priest lifts the round loaf of bread high above his head in the litany of the Eucharist, was the one key event of worship be easily visible to all the laity.  To make sure people were prepared for this high moment, since they usually could not hear much of the Mass, a bell was loudly rung.  At this, all the murmuring of prayers among the laity would stop and everyone would gaze over the top of the screen for that great moment of worship.
       If someone, as often happened, would shout out, "Heave it higher, Sir Priest," that was not seen as impious.  The people wanted to worship.  And worship, to many of them, meant looking at worship.  They did not sing.  They could not understand most of what was said.  Most laypeople would go years without actually taking Communion.  All of this was because they had wholly absorbed the idea that, for the non-professionals, worship was something you watched, not something you actually did.
       This is called Ocular worship.  Worship to be watched, rather than worship to be done.
       The people understood that, on the eastern side of the chancel screen, scripture was being read, prayers were being spoken, songs of praise were being sung, and the Eucharist was being distributed and shared.  They knew, in its truest sense, this was Christian worship.  In fact, only the portion of the room on the eastward (clergy) side of the chancel screen was properly called the sanctuary.  True worship was what the clergy did and what the laity watched.
       Well, as you may have heard, a certain German college professor (always trust them to rock the boat) in Wittenberg decided he wasn't going to indulge the bishop or play ball with the Cardinals.  For Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and all leading reformers one of the things these Protestants were protesting was the idea that worship did not actively involve the laity.  The whole church, not just the full time professionals, was where the worship of God was to be carried out.  For all of their differences, all the various streams of the Reformation shared an absolute rejection that ordinary Christians should think in terms of Ocular worship.
       So, when we gather this Sunday, we do not have chancel screens blocking our vision.  (By the way, the very short wooden wall that used to be right in front of the first pew in traditional church buildings is a direct descendant of this screen).  We affirm the priesthood of all believers is demonstrated in the worship of the whole church.
       Increasingly, however, many people seem content to listen to spectacular praise music, to listen to Sunday morning drama, and then to listen to a masterfully crafted sermon.  Worship has become, for a number of people, primarily an act of extended listening.  Many are quite content to let the gifted, the trained, the practiced on stage do most of the actual work of worship.  Their role is to be present and to listen to it all.
       It is interesting many like to call the room where we worship an auditorium.  Some may say this is because of our aversion to anything that sounds as Catholic or old fashioned as the word sanctuary.  But, it can be easily argued, that auditorium is a better word because it simply fits what most people are doing to do inside that room: an auditorium is a place for listening.
       And, just like in the Ocular worship of centuries ago, this has elevated the importance of talent and effort and overall professionalism in those we listen to.  The church leaders back in those great centuries didn't let anybody just come in and paint.  The best worship ministers do not let just anybody join a worship team.  Many openly let people who are not members of the church join a worship team.  But, when it comes to standards of musical excellence, there is much less flexibility.   Submit a recording for evaluation.  Come for a formal audition.  All very professional.
      None of this is the result of negative intentions.  And, just like the Ocular worship of the late middle ages, there will be many who can speak positive things in its defense.  We need top speakers and top musicians if we hope to win today's seekers.  And, of course, we want to give God excellence.
       But, the undeniable fact is that for many ordinary believers Sunday worship is listening to what the talented and well-rehearsed people on stage are doing.  As if to drive this point home, we bring up bright theatrical lighting on the large stage area and bring the house lights down.  Everyone knows what that means.  It's not necessarily bad.  Like all great theater, what happens might move and inspire and education and uplift the audience.  But, also, like all great theater, whether or not it is a memorable experience depends on the ability and preparation of those on stage, rather than the makeup of those in the audience.  In other words, they did what they did and we watched and listened.
       So, it is almost like we traded in an Ocularium for an Auditorium.  Worship as watching thrown out,  worship as listening brought in.  In both of those models, worship becomes primarily what the upfront people do and what the ordinary believers experiences while they do it. 
       Sometimes things seem to come full circle.  I would like to close with some words of wisdom.  These come from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, one of the major products hammered out in Vatican II.  In that tradition, the expression sacred liturgy refers to what most of us would call Sunday worship.  Considering the battles of the Reformation, and some of the current challenges Evangelical churches are facing, it might be said that history is not without a sense of irony:

....that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people" (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
     In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.

good advice comes 
from unexpected places.

1 comment:

Joshua Hoover said...

Another great post Tom. History does tend to repeat itself, huh?

On a somewhat related note. I was thinking of one of your previous posts on worship while listening to this White Horse Inn episode over the weekend: