Sunday, 25 May 2014

Is your congregation's worship "metaphor-friendly" (or is worship a "metaphor-free zone" in your congregation)?

This morning I had an insight in church.

I wasn't leading worship.  I was attending a service as a worshipper, sitting in a pew.

It wasn't the congregation I serve as supply minister, or any other congregation of the Uniting Church.  It was an Anglican Church (or "Episcopalian" for my friends in the States), one of a handful of "Anglo-Catholic" parishes in what's become (in recent years) a rather evangelical diocese.  I enjoy attending this church whenever I'm not scheduled to lead worship elsewhere.

Anyway, at one point, I had an insight during the worship.

There were a number of phrases and comments in the liturgy and some of the hymns that I would either avoid using or spend a great deal of time and effort "unpacking".  There were references to the atonement in terms of "sacrifice".  There were references to Jesus "coming again".  There were references to "Adam".  If these references were associated with a service I was preparing to lead, I would expend a great deal of energy in "unpacking" them, in terms of "Now, we don't take these statements literally.  We regard them as metaphors.  Here's the meaning we can receive from them, even while we should never take them literally."  And if I didn't have the energy to unpack the metaphor, I'd look for ways to avoid using the metaphor.

In this setting, I didn't worry.  I knew the statements were metaphors.  I knew that the other worshippers present also regarded these statements as metaphors.  This church is not a fundamentalist congregation where the people held literally to a view of the atonement as a substitutionary blood sacrifice, or a literal "Second Coming", or a literal "Adam".  The metaphoric nature of these statements were obvious, and we all enjoyed the benefit of the metaphors.

My moment of insight was this:  Some churches are "metaphor-friendly" in their worship, while the worship in other churches is, necessarily, a "metaphor-free zone".

In some churches (particularly churches in an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic tradition, along with the more "catholic" sort of Anglican/Episcopalians and Lutherans - along with a very fortunate handful of churches in other traditions) worship is metaphoric.  Worshippers feel under no pressure to literalise the metaphoric dimension of what they see, hear, and experience in worship.  The worship of these churches is "metaphor-friendly".

Other churches have a different approach to worship.  They are in the classically "Protestant" strand of church life.  Many worshippers in these churches are cerebrally-oriented people for whom something is either literally true or literally false.  (And if something isn't easily categorised as either literally true or literally false, it's regarded as a problem to solve.)  In these churches, metaphors need to be either "unpacked" or avoided.  The worship of these churches would be a "metaphor-free zone".

Here are a few questions for you to help decide whether worship in your church is "metaphor-friendly" or if it's a "metaphor-free zone".

1.  Is the highlight of worship each week a celebration of the Eucharist / Lord's Supper / Mass / Holy Communion?  If yes, your worship could well be "metaphor-friendly".  Is the highlight of the service a sermon?  If yes, your worship is probably a "metaphor-free zone".

2.  Do the worship leaders in your church wear vestments (albs, stoles, etc.)?  This may point to a "metaphor-friendly" approach.  (The fancier the gear, the more potentially "metaphor-friendly".)  Do they wear "normal" clothing (either business suits, or casual clothing, or anything in between)?  This sounds like worship is a "metaphor-free zone".  (If the worship leaders wear either academic-inspired or legal-inspired robes, that sounds even more "metaphor-free" than normal clothing.)

3.  What about the music?  Is it inclined to the classics ("metaphor-friendly") or to pop ("metaphor-free").

4.  What about the physical worship space?  Are there some visual aids to devotion (stained-glass windows, icons, statues, candles ....), or it is a plainly Bapto-Quaker-Presbygational meeting house?  The more plain the worship space, the more "metaphor-free" you can expect the worship event to be.

There are two particular things to look for.
  • If a church uses incense, this just screams "METAPHOR-FRIENDLY!" at the worshippers.
  • If a church uses a data projector, it similarly screams "METAPHOR-FREE ZONE!"
And, if you ever happen to attend worship in a church where incense and a data projector are used in the same service, ... be confused .... be very confused.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.