One of the things that most attracted me to brave the grim winters of Scotland and persuaded me to leave behind my glorious Yorkshire homeland was hearing that the Logos Institute existed to equip and serve the Church. You might wonder, though, what difference a group of scholars sitting around, thinking about theology, and drinking copious amounts of (single origin V60 brewed) coffee can possibly make to an ordinary pew/chair (insert own Church seat preference here) filling Christian on a Sunday morning. How can simply thinking and writing even more theology help the Church to worship God and build his kingdom?
The best Analytic Theology is not merely an academic exercise in clarifying obscure concepts and arguing about theological issues which concern only an elite few. But rather, it seeks to bring together the best work in philosophy, theology and biblical studies in order to bring fresh understanding not only to what Christians believe, but also to what they do, and think. If what we do does not encourage, engage and challenge God’s Church, then it is in vain.
In my own research, I am interested in thinking about the acts of worship which Christians perform together in Churches all over the world. These groups actions all come under the umbrella of ‘liturgy’. For many, this term is off-putting—liturgy is something done in stuffy school assemblies or in your grandparents’ traditional Church. But ‘liturgy’ simply refers to acts of scripted group worship—if we stand together, sing together, listen together, sit in silence together, read together or even spontaneously respond to God together, then we are engaging in liturgy. Even the most informal Church worship has its own liturgy. And whilst habit and ritual can become stale and lifeless, without some habitual practice, a Church cannot function and sustain a community in worship.
I’ve grown up taking part in these acts of liturgy every week, but until recently, I hadn’t fully appreciated what it is we do when we engage in these acts of worship together. I’ve found that simply reflecting on the practices that have become second nature to me has had a profound impact on how I participate in and approach corporate worship. I want to offer two brief reflections, which might seem obvious to you, but which have transformed not only my theological thinking, but also my worship of God and my engagement in Church community.
First, liturgical worship is something we do. It’s very easy to think of worship as a kind of information transfer. When I ask someone how they found the service on Sunday, more often than not, their response will refer to the sermon— ‘the preacher was terrible, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying’, or, hopefully, ‘the preacher was excellent, I’d never thought of reading the passage like this before’. But this is to think of worship as primarily a means of learning. Such an approach ignores that worship is something that doesn’t just give us information or ways of thinking, but rather, it is something which involves bodily actions (whether that be crossing yourself, raising your hand in worship, kneeling, or even just the simple acts of sitting and standing), it engages our senses through sight, sound, touch, (and, in some traditions, even smell) and it engages our emotions and imagination.
All of this raises the question, if liturgy is not about coming to know information, then just what is it for? Philosophers often make the distinction between different kinds of knowing. Although we can think of knowing as simply a matter of learning facts (for instance, I know that Paris is in France), there are other kinds of knowing which are not merely about learning facts—I know how to drive a car, and how to brew an excellent cup of coffee, for instance. I learnt to drive whilst I was completing my PhD, and my instructor often found it amusing that as someone who was allegedly so good at thinking, I found it so difficult to reverse a car in the right direction, or to change gears without stalling. This attests to something philosophers have written a lot about: knowing how to do something is very different from knowing a fact. Knowing-how is something we get better at the more we do it, and something that sometimes happens best when we think about it least.
In thinking about how this applies to liturgy, Terence Cuneo (a philosopher at the University of Vermont), has suggested that participating in acts of liturgy is more like learning to ride a bike than learning that Paris is in France. That is, liturgy primarily gives us knowledge-how, rather than knowledge-that. Any relationship involves knowing not only facts about that person, but also knowing how to engage with them. This is something that takes time to cultivate; knowing how to comfort someone or make them laugh is something which we acquire through a repeated engagement with them over time. Reflecting on this can change how we approach acts of worship. Cuneo suggests that acts of liturgy are best thought of as acts which help us to engage God personally—by performing various actions, we learn to praise God, to bless God and to petition God. Rather than approaching church worship as students ready to learn facts, we can approach worship as those in relationship with God, using the simple acts of liturgy to engage with God, and, like any skill, this is something we can get better at the more we do it.
Secondly, liturgy is something we do together. It’s easy to think that Church worship is primarily about giving me a chance to worship God, but liturgical worship is something we do as a group. That’s not to say that my own spiritual discipline is unimportant, but that acts of corporate liturgy are importantly different to these personal practices. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the analogy of a body to explain the relationship between the Church and its members. The Church is made up of a diverse group of individuals with different needs, desires and abilities, and it’s in coming together as a group that we respond to God in worship, just as our different body parts act in unison when we move. This is why some kind of liturgical script is so important. While this doesn’t mean that we all need to use the Book of Common Prayer every week, to do something together requires some kind of script. Just as we wouldn’t expect an orchestra or a jazz band to perform a piece of music together with no score or without agreeing what key to improvise in, to worship together through liturgy, we need some way of coordinating our actions together. This might pose challenges for those of us who worship with little written script, we need to find ways to harmonize our worship as a collected body.
Thinking of liturgy as something we do together has given me a fresh perspective on what I do when I come along to church. Instead of thinking only about how I’m worshipping God, and how I can be encouraged by the service, I’ve started to take notice of how my actions are a part of a larger whole. It would be daunting and, frankly, impossible to tell a violin player to perform an orchestral symphony all by herself. Similarly, our actions in worship are not solitary actions, but are a part of something wider. My actions are not just joined with those who I sing and read alongside, but also, by the work of the Holy Spirit, my worship is joined with the whole Church, gathered throughout the world, and even beyond (the Church of England’s Common Worship, describes my worship as being alongside ‘angels and archangels and all the company of heaven’). I’ve found this to be a refreshing antidote to the individualism which pervades our culture. When we worship together, we are able to offer praise which is far richer, fuller and more diverse than anything we could achieve alone.
Dr. Joshua Cockayne is currently working on the philosophy of spiritual practice. He is writing about the role of the community in our knowledge and experience of God, our ability to engage with God and the way we understand the actions of the Church. He completed his PhD in 2016 in the Department of Philosophy at the University of York. His research focused on the spiritual life and the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. Prior to coming to St. Andrews, he worked as an associate lecturer in Philosophy at the University of York. He has published on Kierkegaard, the philosophy of spiritual practice and Christian spirituality. He was awarded the Religious Studies essay prize twice, in 2014 and 2015.