Final reflections on UK worship experiences

In late August – early September 2011 I spent a month in England exploring contextual worship and community, art and spirituality. During this time I blogged about my experiences of worship in transitional contexts. This included 3 days at the Greenbelt Christian Art, Justice and Spirituality Festival, where the worship events I went to were entirely of temporary construction. For most of the rest of the trip there were events where I was a minority transitory worshipper – a visitor. But then there were also big cathedrals where the majority of the congregation were transitory – a cohort of pilgrims. A semiotic understanding of liturgy is absolutely critical to understanding worship in transitional contexts.

What made worship work in a transitory context?

There are two elements I think need to be satisfied in a ‘successful’ Christian worship event. First, the Mysterious God of the Universe is Revealed – thinking here of Karl Barth’s understanding that we know nothing at all about God unless God in God’s Self makes the initiative in Revelation. The Word of God therefore must be recognisably presented in some way. The second criteria for a ‘successful’ Christian worship is that there must be genuine connection with human souls – thinking here in rather generic terms of a psycho-dynamic definition of soul as the centre of a human person. The place within the human person where the Spirit indwells and the Self is known. I noticed three things that made a difference to the success of the worship event, thus defined.

Even when the congregation was temporary, relationality is still essential. Establishing the ground rules for the relationships of a crowd are critical to the creation of a ‘safe place’ for worshippers. Deep engagement with one’s soul is not possible in the presence of others if this relationality is not in place. This is often down to careful management of the ‘welcome’. In every event I was greeted by a person whose role was to direct me from being a stranger at the door to a member of the community gathering for worship. I needed enough instructions to be able to know what was expected, these expectations needed to be confirmed by the unspoken relational dynamics once I had entered the room. I needed a moment of genuine connection where I was ‘seen’ and acknowledged as a person by the warmth of a person’s smile, eye contact or hand shake. Two examples stand out and in both cases I very quickly fell into deep prayerfulness at the start of the liturgy. The first was at Moot which started with coffee and informal chat. The second was at Holy Trinity Brompton where I was smiled at and spoken to by 4 people directing my path along a complicated route to the front door.

Further to this, the transitional context draws attention to the nature of the congregation as a liturgical symbol. When Lathrop talks about the ‘Things’ of worship he conceives of the congregation in this way – people are one of the ‘things’ required for worship to take place. As such, establishing the nature and structure of the congregational relationships becomes an exercise in semiotics – giving meaning to the symbol. The relationships need defining in order for us to play our part – are we participants or spectators; are we fellow human beings adrift in a meaningless universe or are we fellow Christians with a shared experience and understanding of God.

A second element I noticed, which was particularly important for those transitional worship contexts with a temporary community, is the need to concentrate on the transcendent. What unites a diffuse group of people together? For worship – they come to engage with God, either consciously or unconsciously. Even when a person is seeking the divine unconsciously, by focusing on the human dynamic of a community in worship, it is the intrusion of the Divine which makes such experiences powerful. Hence, for worship in a transitional context to be effective, it must give special attention to God in the liturgy, over and above the human elements. The Sunday Communion Service at Greenbelt was a particular example of this not happening adequately. St Paul’s Cathedral on the other hand did it very successfully by working with the power of it’s architecture.

In Bernard Lonergan’s conversion theology, he distinguishes between different levels or forms of conversion within the human person – intellectual, moral and religious. We may be convinced or converted by rationality, and then at a deeper level become motivated to change our behaviour, but it is at the very deepest level of human consciousness that religious conversion takes place – the experience of transcending one’s self into something beyond, bigger, mysterious and wonderful. Lonergan describes this process using the analogy of falling in love. A Being-in-Love is someone who has encountered themselves in an Other. In transitional worship there is no time for a slowly evolving romance, where the worshipper and God might spend time getting to know each other (intellectual conversion) and gradually spend more and more time doing things together (moral conversion). If there is to be transformative engagement with God it must be love at first sight!

Finally, during my UK trip I paid special attention to the place of art and beauty in creating tranformative moments. It seemed to me that those two words may helpfully point to different aesthetic experiences. In general, beauty seems to have the effect on the human soul of comforting, calming and soothing. Art often takes a role of confronting, questioning, challenging. In the context of worship, both are useful. Beauty creates a safe space where God may be encountered, where worshippers are invited to relax into the moment and become vulnerable. Art on the other hand, is powerful to communicate something about the Transcendent God or God’s challenge for our lives – often an experience that is not comfortable. Art takes us beyond the everyday, even in the very act of engaging with the everyday and ordinary.

When DeClerk discusses the adage lex orandi:lex credendi he comments that application of this as avatar becomes problematic in a time of transition. The symoblic nature of liturgy means that its meaning always requires application, and as Hughes emphasises, human beings can only make meaning from those meanings that are available to them. When worship takes place in a transitional context, the possibility of multiple interpretations of the liturgy is high. In the current cultural epoch of post-modernism (itself a transitional culture) this ambiguity or plurality to meaning is embraced. Theologically this is seen as reclaiming the mystery of God who cannot be contained in any single human construct or any single definition of the Revealed Word of God. Again here is the importance of understanding semiotic meaning in transitional contexts – it is essential for both a theological and a psycho-spiritual understanding of what is happening in the liturgy. Hence, because of their semiotic capacity, art and beauty have become essential elements in liturgy for post-modern Christians – be that forms of ‘alternative worship’ or recovery of ancient practices.


De Clerck, Paul ‘“Lex orandi, lex credendi”: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage.’ In Studia Liturgia 24 (1994) 178-200.

Hardy, Daniel W. ‘Karl Barth.’ In The Modern Theologians (3rd Ed) (Massachussets; Blackwell, 2005)

Hughes, G. ‘Liturgical Theology.’ In Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 219-254.

Lathrop, G. W. ‘Things.’ In Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1993) 87-115.

Lonergan, Bernard Method in Theology (London; Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973)

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