One of the most striking features of the contemporary Christian scene is embarrassment. Many of the leading traditional institutions of the faith seem embarrassed by the gospel. One example is the current debate within the Catholic Church concerning communion for politicians who support abortion, most obviously President Joe Biden. But if many of the calls for “dialogue” on this matter seem to reflect an unwillingness to pay the price of public scorn for maintaining the good name of Christ, then a recent statement from the Church of England’s education office speaks to a more acute embarrassment and to a fundamental confusion about the nature of Christian worship.
The statement, titled “Inclusive, Invitational, Inspiring: A Statement of Entitlement and Expectation,” is a guidance document regarding worship in Church of England schools. The confusion soon becomes evident: “Worship is collective in that it involves meeting, exploring, questioning, and responding to others and, for some, to God.” It is clear that the authors do not understand the difference between worship and a discussion group. The latter has its place in the church’s work. It is right and proper for the church to listen to the serious questions of both Christians and of those outside the church and to give them thoughtful and engaging answers. But to confuse discussion with worship is to misunderstand what worship is: God’s people collectively meeting with God on God’s terms.
In the one New Testament passage that discusses how an unbeliever or outsider will react when inadvertently entering a Christian worship service, the apostle Paul says the following: “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:24–25). In short, the outsider will not find himself presented with a roundtable discussion concerning the meaning of life or even a TED Talk on how he needs to find his own path to happiness. No. He will be struck down by the sheer convicting power of what he encounters.
This stands in dramatic contrast to what would appear to be the real concern behind the Church of England’s statement: inclusivity. In a paragraph of impressive incoherence, the document's ambition is clear:
Parents, pupils and adults can expect to encounter worship that is consistently invitational. There should be no compulsion to “do anything.” Rather, worship should provide the opportunity to engage whilst allowing the freedom of those of different faiths and those who profess no religious faith to be present and to engage with integrity. The metaphor of “warm fires and open doors” captures this idea. The warmth of the fire derives from the clarity and authenticity of the Christian message at its heart. There is no value to an encounter with a watered down, lowest common denominator version of faith. Importantly the door is open, all are welcome to come in and sit as near or as far away from the fire as they feel comfortable. Pupils and adults should always only be invited to pray if they wish to do so and should be invited to pray in their own way. Prayer should always be accompanied by the option to reflect.
While I agree that there is nothing to be gained from an encounter with a watered-down version of the Christian faith, I do not know how a robust statement of faith can find expression in worship that allows those of other faiths and those of no faith to “engage with integrity.” And if we are looking for New Testament metaphors that draw on images of combustion when describing worship, the letter to the Hebrews offers us a fine one: “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28–29).
And that, of course, brings us to the document's core problem: It is trying to marry Christian worship to the spirit of this present age. The New Testament authors saw worship as a response to a holy God, an act that is rendered problematic by humanity’s sin and is thus possible only through the work of God himself in Christ. In other words, the gospel at its very core is, in a way, exclusive—something about which early Christians felt no embarrassment. Their God was awesome in the sense that an earthquake or a thunderstorm is awesome. Our modern age wants God to be awesome in the sense of a favorite teen girl band.
The document contains other ridiculous statements. The idea that the service should involve pupils in planning, leading, and evaluation is characteristic of an age that worships the alleged wisdom of youth and that has also made worship juvenile. Proper worship initiates us into the glorious contemplation of a holy and transcendent God. And while I agree that worship should “meet the needs of all, wherever they may be on their journey of faith and belief,” it can only do so when it first calls us all to account with a biblical definition of those needs: our need to be reconciled to God on his terms, not ours. Worship that is merely relevant to the felt needs of the hour is always irrelevant to the real needs of eternity.
This document is assisted catechetical suicide, Anglican-style—one that in its squirming embarrassment about Christian exclusivity buries the gospel under a pile of inclusive blather, and squanders the great heritage of Anglican liturgy and hymnody.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
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