I grew up in what many Anglicans and Catholics might call a “low church” tradition. From the minute I can remember going to a church as a child, our family was always part of a Baptist church (Southern). When you are part of a single Christian tradition for most of your life you don’t realize the varieties of religious expression that are part of the Christian community. While we are all certainly part of the universal Christian church, the practices and traditions are deeply rooted in different forms of community.
Low-church evangelicals do have “liturgies” (like the church I have historically been a part of), but they share little with the types of Anglican churches we attended on our Juniors Abroad trip. We have tried to provide our students with consistent opportunities to attend and experience “church” in a different context from what they are used to – services with no rock music, drums, electric guitars or even long sermons. To that end, we experienced morning prayers, Eucharist and Evensong. Participating in these services gave me a sense of appreciation – and I hope the students as well – for the rhythm and spirit of the liturgical experience. (One of our students, Nataly Islas, is a practicing Catholic, and she felt right at home in almost all of the services!).
I think most evangelicals (at least ones my age) would argue that our worship forms are superior because they are more authentic. Our services touch the heart and reject the “meaningless” repetition of phrases that are so common in Anglican worship – true enough in one context. But in gaining what we perceive is a “superior” heart-felt worship experience, we have also given up much. On our trip I think all us recognized how little we know of the church calendar. For centuries, the church has followed a ritual calendar that ensures that the disciples of Jesus hear and recognize the “whole” Gospel. We were in Winchester on Pentecost Sunday, for example, where the structure of the week was formed to recognize the coming of the Holy Spirit to the early church. The deep rhythms of the church year help disciples subordinate their own personal understanding to the movement of God in community over time.
Evensong was genuinely beautiful in form and in music. In Oxford, we attended Evensongs at Keble College, Exeter and Magdalen. At each the choirs performed superbly. But it was more than a performance. If one granted personal meaning to the words being said, then it reinforced Christian truths that are in much need of recognition. In both the Eucharist and Evensong services confession of sin was paramount, and there was clear recognition of a Savior for humans who were deeply flawed. In the worship time you were asked to get on your knees and confess before God your sins and to accept his forgiveness. I am sure that such repetition can be meaningless, but if taken to heart it is a constant reminder of our need for Jesus.
In the midst of the Eucharist service hearing the words, “This is my body which is broken for you” and having a human hand provide the Bread of Life, at least for me, was a deep reflection on Christ’s sacrifice. Recognizing that Christians have been partaking of the “Bread of Life” for thousands of years also provides a historical continuity, which is important to me. I am a disciple and follower of Christ in the footsteps of millions of people who have come before.
Finally, Christianity, at its very core, is believing in something. It is belief that leads to practice, but it is still belief. Hearing the Apostles’ Creed said in unison in each service warmed my own spirit and reminded me of the key concepts that the church has been committed to over time. Yes, I believe.
Liturgical worship can be beautiful, but the beauty of Evensong and the worship times in the Anglican Church were subordinate to being called into the presence of God and his followers in communal worship. For many of us “low-church” people it was spiritually powerful to meet Christ in a different form and community. Here ends the lesson!