My husband and I went along to a service commemorating Jesus’ passion yesterday. It was at our local Roman Catholic church, a place we’ve both been before, albeit not regularly. Whilst not a service you can ‘look forward’ to, or particularly enjoy, we both expected to have a time to think, to pray and to remember the events of the first Good Friday 2,000 years ago. Both of us have a broad ecumenical outlook, having worshipped in Roman Catholic churches, in Anglican churches, with ecumenical groups, in LGBT-specific worship spaces and in Presbyterian congregations – in short, we are between us familiar and comfortable with many worship styles. And since this church had the afternoon service we’d been looking for, and wasn’t too far to travel, it seemed like a logical choice.
Nothing about the Good Friday service we attended was remotely unusual. It followed the same pattern as services would have followed in Roman Catholic churches across the country and further afield. But somehow, something felt wrong about it but neither of us could identify what the problem was, at least not at first. But then it struck us – it felt to us like we were part of a performance of something from rote memory, like we were taking part in a series of actions not backed up by thoughtful consideration – in short, something that we followed along with, without the solemnity or prayerfulness we had hoped for. This realisation led us to a wider discussion about worship and our reaction to it.
We wondered at first if it was us – were we becoming sceptics, were we losing our faith, were we losing our ability to appreciate many forms of worship in a spirit of ecumenism? Were we over-thinking things, becoming too academic, too analytical, too keen to assess what we saw in one denomination in terms of what we knew from another? Were we becoming too judgemental about the way people choose to worship or the way that denominations choose to interpret the instruction that we should worship corporately?
Both of us were struck that the veneration of the cross, (which, for those who aren’t familiar, involves kissing the feet of, or bowing to, a statue of Jesus on a crucifix), felt very like idolatry – we initially wondered if people were in fact worshipping the statue rather than venerating it. But this led us to realise that we couldn’t really figure out what the difference was between veneration and worship anyway. Do Christians need to be like language scholars, unpicking the nuances of linguistics in order to understand the two words, the two concepts? How do you venerate something, how do you worship something, and how can you tell between the two?
Likewise when the priest and deacon prostrated themselves (lay down on the floor) in front of the altar at the start of the service, and when other congregation members entered the church and made the sign of the cross or knelt and bowed to the altar before sitting down. Was this veneration or worship or something else? What were they addressing their actions towards– a bare altar, an empty tabernacle, a space on the wall where a cross usually hung? If the ritual stripping and covering of the church on the evening of Holy Thursday has any meaning at all, then the building is just a building at that point on Good Friday, and therefore those sorts of ritual actions, especially when directed towards a particular place within that building, were surely meaningless?
And communion itself? Is it the actual body and blood of Christ, transformed by holy mysteries or consubstantiation or transubstantiation or however you explain it? Or is it a commemoration and remembrance of the last supper, a simple but powerful re-enactment of the actions of Christ on the night before his death? There are so many questions about communion, primarily, concerning why different denominations, and sometimes even different people within the same denomination, have such different understandings of it. They can’t all be right, surely? So who has it correct and who doesn’t? Or is it impossible for a human approach to ever explain it properly?
Perhaps we are getting wiser, more experienced and more knowledgeable as years pass. Perhaps our faith will change and strengthen as we explore the answers to these questions. Perhaps need to give some time to working out which denomination our faith sits in most comfortably. Perhaps we need to broaden our worship experiences in order to remove any denominational bias we have. Perhaps we need to go on retreat, or go to a centre of pilgrimage (like Taize or Lindisfarne) to recharge our spiritual batteries. Perhaps we need to read the Bible more closely or use guides and information books to help us to understand more clearly what we are reading. Perhaps we need to pray and worship more intently or more frequently. Perhaps we need to remember that Jesus himself gave very little instruction about how His church was to organise and run itself and that the vast majority of the rules, rituals, festivals, etc. that we observe, and the denominations that exist and that argue about said rules, rituals, etc., were formed and formulated through human decisions and human opinions.
Or perhaps we need to stop fussing and thinking, and just aim for simplicity and peace. Perhaps we need to be quiet and listen, and try, slowly and carefully, to discern where God is leading us. And perhaps rather than analysing too deeply we should just follow where He leads, wherever that may be.