Recently I was in a group discussion in which the question was put forth “what was a time you experienced God’s love?” There were many great personal testimonies that were shared ranging from being cured from cancer to protection in a car crash to coming to know Christ amidst a family of unbelievers. What I would have said, had I added to the already-lengthy conversation, was that I see God’s love for me most clearly in the Eucharist. As I mentioned about a week ago, one of the many layers of Holy Communion is that it’s a “sign and pledge” of God’s love.
This unique attribution to the Eucharist, and Eucharistic worship more generally, places the service of Holy Communion at the center of Christian worship. There is no higher ore more pure act of worship than to latch on to the sacrifice of Christ by means of a Sacrament that Christ himself instituted and commanded us to continue.
This reality, dating back to the earliest Christian writings we have, flies in the face of the sentiment of many modern Christians who seem to equate worship with music. For sure, music is a powerful vehicle for worship and is very helpful for drawing our hearts into the act of worship along with our minds and bodies, but to place music at the top of the worship hierarchy is just plain wrong. Worship is beyond our feelings; it is an objective and real act in the presence (and by the power) of God.
So when we put these two things together: music and Communion, we have to be careful to remember these priorities. Music is a vehicle for worship; Communion is the highest act of worship. Therefore if we have both going on at the same time, music must be there to highlight, point to, assist, embellish, or enrich our Communion.
There are many ways that this can be done, such as picking songs that are about Communion or related topics or images or playing music that isn’t too loud so people can adore Christ in their own hearts and minds without being distracted by the music. There are also practical considerations to be brought in: the number of people receiving Communion and the size of the choir or band may also factor in on how music during Communion is realized. What most churches do, that I’ve seen so far, is have the choir or band receive Eucharist first and then go back to start the music while the congregation starts to receive the Body & Blood. That way there is a moment of silence for those who appreciate the silence, followed by a time of music for those who appreciate the music. In my church, the entire congregation receives in silence because I’m either administering the bread or the wine, and am unable to play music at the same time. So instead we sing a communion hymn after everyone has received.
Post-communion music is also pretty common. Everyone has received, the ministers are still putting everything away, so the congregation keeps singing. It even makes sense after one or two songs to move into a more generic sort of praise genre of songs. But at what point does that become too much? One recent worship experience I had involved a time of Communion that involved somewhere around 9 full songs! (I lost count, but it was around that number.) The congregation was large, so the first four made sense for filling in the time. But as it kept going, I got the feeling that the music itself was the primary intended worship experience. The Communion part was there because we’re Anglicans and that’s what we do, but the priority seemed to have been reversed: Communion was something to do while we were singing, rather than singing supporting the Communion. The Sacrament was “rightly administered” as the Articles of Religion demand, but the music drowned it out. We weren’t using the liturgy, we were using the liturgy – we followed the letter of the law but neglected the spirit of the law.
It was a very anticlimactic evening for those of us who were educated in Anglican liturgy. For this isn’t just a High Church vs. Low Church thing; all Anglicans once valued the Eucharist as the central act of worship. What we saw that evening was an invasion of modern evangelical (or charismatic) worship mentalities; a whole different spirituality was running the show that day. So that’s what I’m going to write about next: the basics of Anglican Spirituality.