[Or, an apology for true liturgy: wherein is defended the common good against the calumnies of those who despise it, and the free-worshippers vindicated from the imputation of being defensors of freedom.]
Public worship, also called liturgy, is not individual action that other people can see, any more than public property is one person’s property that other people may use. But just as public property belongs to the people as a whole, and a republic is not for anyone to treat as the plaything of his private interests, public worship is the action of the whole people. G.W.O. Addleshaw refers in The High Church Tradition to Herbert Thorndike’s defence of the principle of uniformity:
He contends that prayers of the minister’s own choice or composition, however moving and homely they may be, can never compensate his congregation for being deprived of the liturgy. Such prayers are not the prayer of the Church but the private devotions of the minister in which the congregation are allowed to share. They can never adequately represent the needs of the Church; in fact the only thing which they represent is the minister’s own spiritual experience. Instead of being allowed to sink themselves in the age-long prayer of the Corpus Christi, the faithful have inflicted on them the minister’s own personality. They are at his mercy; he can impose on them any religious or political eccentricity which at the moment has captured his interest or enthusiasm; the service can degenerate into an act of intercession for what he thinks desirable in Church and State.
Restraint, restraint is in order. That one is commissioned to direct a certain part of God’s worship does not constitute authority to do as one pleases. The worship of God is no time to ‘share’ one’s individual experiences as if everyone must reflect the same. Edification in public worship, even in a sermon – some might say especially in a sermon – is to have a particular end in view, not just a diffuse desire to project one’s own experience into the public view. (This is also a reason that those who have chosen the hymns shouldn’t talk about why they’ve chosen those particular hymns or how these hymns spoke to them personally: the distraction is far too great for truly public worship to be respected or long preserved.) Public worship, after all, serves the public good, not a private end.
Together with the breakdown of public worship is the breakdown of the public good, and finally the breakdown of public order. (This is perhaps what we see in the ‘Barack Obama (or George Bush) is not my president’ phenomenon.) For in the breakdown of public space each person retreats into his own space and makes that the world, which all others must serve. Hence the buffet of belief, in which all do fashion their own idols, unable to submit to the authority of a real God. I do recognize the need for worship varied according to the customs and temperaments of each place (which is why there are multiple rites around the world), but the knees of the believer should bend to the God of all, not to private tastes or changing fashions. By the same logic that bends worship to the tastes of the worshippers do liberals bend morality and justice to their tastes. Must all be sacrificed on this altar, that we may live free of all connexion to any covenant and any common good? Must we live like savages, giving nothing to a life that transcends our individual lives?
The aversion to a common, public worship is the same aversion by which marriages are put away. This aversion will degrade humanity to a condition lower than that of brute beasts: even lions have a public good, for which they live together, but we, we will lose even that dignity if we insist that having our own way is our dignity. Then, other people (not society, for there is no society) are there to validate our own desires; the multitude is not a polis, but a stage on which to perform our pornographic lusts. This is not public, it is exhibitionist. Then we lose both society and solitude, having exchanged it for a world in which tools exist and no friends; those we call friends we will tool into private uses, and those we call wives we will tool into private benefits. Already the public treasury is a fund for everyone’s private plunder. What other corruptions will not follow?
Far better that worship and governance be done according to the accumulated wisdom of the Church, with innovation rare and change based on good and edifying precedent. The roots of the Church are deep in history, but if we neglect to draw from them, what we’ll have is idiosyncratic experience made into law and private opinion made into dogma. To ignore the common nature of public worship is to exchange civilization, and indeed the well-being of the Church on earth, for chaos and tyranny. And the public good of the Church is defined by a single common experience: the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, recorded without error in the Scriptures and witnessed by the Church through the ages, the gospel that now transforms us all. Christians, embrace your spiritual inheritance on earth; do not mistake novelty for The Fire of the Holy Spirit. God will always radically oppose sin, because he stands in eternal enmity with all evil; no other change is necessary, except as a matter of common translation, for God is the same yesterday, today and for ever.
You see this in the sermons of John Donne. Like many preachers today, he does draw from his own experience of God – how could he not? for he speaks of himself when he speaks of the human condition: ‘Fevers upon wilful distempers of drink and surfeits, consumptions upon intemperances and licentiousness, madness upon misplacing or overbending our natural faculties, proceed from ourselves, and so as that ourselves are in the plot, and we are not only passive, but active too, to our own destruction.’ Yet after all, what you have is not the anecdotes of John Donne but the dogged grace of the Lord Almighty:
I doubt not of mine own salvation, and in whom can I have so much occasion of doubt, as in myself? When I come to heaven, shall I be able to say to any there, Lord! how got you hither? Was any man less likely to come thither then I?
Then, in bearing witness of Jesus and Jesus only, having lost ourselves in the fixed and certain story of his grace, we all who believe will also find ourselves as we really are, precious and irreplaceable in God’s sight. Acknowledging the sin we have in common, and paying common homage to the Head who saves us all, the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee. Each finding his dignity and worth in the love of God, each will become most fully himself, most fully able to be himself in the one Body. And surely only the oppressors of Church and man can object to this liberty.