To Zoom or not to Zoom.
Those of you who have been using the Zoom app to get together in worship may have noticed that I am conspicuous by my absence. There are two reasons for this, one trivial, the other not so trivial. The trivial reason is that I'm not really set up for Zoom – I have no webcam and my little iPad really has too small a screen to be useful. I have, though, looked at online services as an alternative to engaging with the Zoom system. In this I discovered something about myself which, since I do not regard myself as especially unique, may well apply to others, perhaps even yourself and this is the non-trivial reason why I have not participated in the Zoom services. For many, online worship has been an invaluable way of compensating for not being part of a congregation joining in the liturgy.
The computer screen has acted as a window into the wider community of worshippers. It has allowed a sense of togetherness; been a bulwark against isolation; and given some purpose to the lock-down situation. But that is not the case for me and maybe lots of others as well. You see, what I found out was that, for me, the screen did not act as a window opening me up to the wider community. In my case it acted quite the other way, being more like a mirror which more than anything else reflected me back on myself. So it served to emphasise my isolation and separateness. As a result my devotions have been solitary. I hasten to reassure you that I was not behaving like a hermit; my son and his family share the house with me so you could hardly class me as an anchorite.
Nevertheless since both my son and daughter-in-law were both able to continue at work I was often alone in the house. In that state of separation I resorted to a Church of England app, which I have used for some time before all this viral business afflicted us, called Daily Prayer. It provides a complete liturgy for Morning, Evening and Night Prayer with the readings for each day in the liturgical year; it's very useful for private prayer and I can recommend it. Now here's the thing; using this app made me realise how much of worship, as expressed in the liturgy, is full of words. Just like our usual Sunday service it is words, words, words from beginning to end. Think about it: opening greeting and response, hymn, confession, Gloria, readings, hymn, sermon, intercessions, hymn, Eucharistic prayer, communion hymn, blessing and dismissal and a final hymn: words, followed by yet more words.
I watched a performance of Hamlet one evening and was forcibly struck by a short passage in the play. You may recall that Claudius is the villain of the piece. He has murdered his brother, who was the King in order to seize the throne and, to consolidate his claim has contrived to take the late King's wife, Gertrude, to wife. A point comes when he is forced to recognise the evil he has done, “O, my offence is rank! It smells to heaven.” and tries to pray for forgiveness but to no avail because as he himself realises that he cannot face the consequences. At the end he gives up with the bitter words, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Now perhaps you see why I made that detour into Shakespeare. It's all about that quotation about words and a liturgy replete with words. If we take on board Shakespeare's view that “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” then we may recognise a danger in our liturgical verbosity. In Matthew's Gospel (chapter 6), Jesus' students ask him to teach them how to pray. The outcome is the Lord's prayer but before giving this to the students Jesus has this to say, “when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Many words – sound familiar? So what is the danger?
Well, words can get in the way of thoughts especially if those words are familiar and our liturgy is full of familiar words, the Lord's prayer being not the least among them. The problem then is how to connect our thoughts to the words for if we fail to do that then those “words without thoughts never to heaven go”. It's an especial danger with regard to hymns. It is all to easy to get caught up in the enjoyment of a favourite hymn that we miss the significance of the words we are singing. Now please don't think that I'm trying to get at you for enjoying a good sing. I just want you to take on board the notion that unless we are actively engaged with the words we sing (or those words we simply say for that matter) then we lose the point of the whole exercise.
Hymns are prayers set to music and, like all prayers, unless we engage with what the words say and allow ourselves to be challenged and perhaps changed by them we miss a unique opportunity. Here we come back to where I started with the window and mirror idea. One of the greatest issues we have is the purpose of worship. Is it to be a window to the world around us, a world that desperately needs a spiritual dimension, even you might say, a cosmic dimension? Or is it in danger of acting like a mirror reflecting us back on ourselves, doing no more than reaffirming what we already believe and providing comfort and reassurance for our own satisfaction? Are we sometimes in danger of forgetting that we worship in a Parish church? If that means anything it means that the Parish is of more importance than the worshippers inside the Parish church and of course it applies to the wider world also.
Do our words fly up but our thoughts remain below? Is worship a window or a mirror? Now, there's another reason why I've taken this line. As we creep out of lock-down and perhaps approach meeting together in the flesh as a people of God we need to be aware that, at least for a time, our liturgy is going to a bit different. For starters we will still need to observe safe practices with hygiene, distancing, we may not be joining in with the words of the liturgy and so on. Further, the Communion may not be what we have been accustomed to. For many the most disappointing aspect is that there will be no hymn-singing.
Please do not be discouraged or think that this is going to diminish the deep meaning of our worship. If there is any truth in what I have been saying then we have a unique opportunity to adopt (for a while) a different kind of worship. A chance to experiment with fewer words; more time to contemplate the significance of what words we do use; an opportunity to learn a more listening attitude. So all this has not been a lecture ticking anyone off for being less than saintly. It has been intended as a confident look to the future where we can be sure that our God is waiting for us, as he always has been. I believe that the Chinese pictogram for 'danger' also stands for 'opportunity'. The hymn reminds us that “God is working his purpose out”. Yes, even in the midst of this difficult time the light of the Spirit, the Comforter (remember that means 'strengthener') has not gone out. It is still there as a lamp to our feet, light upon our path. Therefore, be of good cheer!