A Useable Past?

Cover of A Useable Past?

Published December 2013, A Useable Past? Belief, Worship and Song in Reformation Context gathers together lectures commissioned by the Chalmers Trust to mark the 450th anniversary, in 2010, of the Reformation in Scotland. They survey three characteristic expressions of the life of the Church today and ask how true they remain to the principles and practice of our sixteenth century forebears.

Ian Hazlett explores how the Church has formulated the beliefs it holds to, particularly the Confessions of Faith prepared and used in Scotland before the Westminster Confession. He notes the tension between holding to this definitive Confession and at the same time enabling modification in changing circumstances, and comments on how this is being played out in the present day.

In connection with anniversary celebrations of the Scottish Reformation (2010) and of Calvin (2009), the Edinburgh theologian, David Fergusson, aptly remarked: "At a time of rapid change and secularisation, we need to be recalled to our rich heritage lest we assume that the future is one in which we must forget the past, tear up the script and start all over again." Accordingly, while the pre-Westminster Scottish confessions have obviously long been ‘history’, they still might have a residual usefulness in the sense at least of recalling where the Church of Scotland came from. Relegation to history does not have to mean despatching to cellars of oblivion or the ivory towers of academia. In circumstances wholly alien to and more immediately threatening than ours, they did aspire to coherence and universality, and strove to exhibit Christian truths, however roughly cast on straitened circumstances. For all their contingent markings, one can acknowledge that the underlying concerns, motivations and spirit of the authors, if not all their utterances, have relevance to congenital human quandaries. Vast expansions in human knowledge, in the understanding of history, in biblical studies and doctrinal criticism in the interim may qualify, but do not negate that. In looking at those faith symbols, one can learn not only about the mentality of the authors but also something about ourselves, possibly. 

Doug Gay asks if the Common Order for worship established at the Reformation can survive the onslaught of the varied practices now accepted as the norm by congregations across the board. He offers ten salutary warnings which will be found challenging to all ‘sides’ in the debate about contemporary worship.  

The end result of this brief attempt to construct a story about worship in the Church of Scotland is, for me, a serious question about the meaning of common order. What is it? And does it

exist? Is Common Order a normative pattern for worship in the Church of Scotland – and, if so, who says it is normative? Would it be just as legitimate and more fruitful to simply ask: which

order is most common, which forms are most commonly used? As we look at the present and look to the future, say to the next ten or twenty years of worship practice in the Church of Scotland, I suggest we will go on wrestling with the divided liturgical mind of the Kirk. In particular, we will continue to see these two dynamics at work – of ecumenical convergence

and evangelical distinctiveness. And we will continue to see enthusiasts on both sides look at one another sometimes with distaste and other times with real incomprehension. … In fact, both of these trends in worship practice within the Kirk can be seen to be driven by similar concerns – a desire to go beyond the dull and plain formula of minister-centred worship on the Westminster Directory model. Increasingly, the Church of Scotland is tired of the age of liturgical austerity – there is a hunger for more variety, colour and experiential engagement. Both our streams offer this, but do so in very different ways. And both are vulnerable to criticism – the ‘catholic’ strand is vulnerable to accusations of elitism and irrelevance; the charismatic evangelical strand to accusations of banality and superficiality. 

Douglas Galbraith suggests that current approaches to the assessment of the suitability of new music for worship are often divisive, and looks to understandings of the Church, both that of the Reformers and that being developed in contemporary ecumenical dialogue, to provide a basis from which people of different preferences can have a productive conversation.

It is important, given the debate in the churches today, to say at this point that a judgement is not being made on particular styles or idioms of music and their suitability for liturgical use.

Here too, a ‘mixed economy’ can be appropriate. Rather, a critique is being offered to help establish whether the music employed in the liturgy is ‘all that music can be’. Musicologists like Victor Zuckerkandl, in seeking the essence of music, employ the term ‘transcendence’. Rejecting the divide between material and spiritual, he contrasts the world of the person and the world to which the person relates. These two ‘worlds’ are not over against each other but within each other; and music enables access to the depth of both. This kind of assessment can be applied to music and found present whether it is a Byrd mass, a Genevan psalm tune or, say, ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess. The music that is part of our liturgy must be capable of such boundary-crossing. It may warmly embrace, but at the same time it must be such as leaves room for Christ to move freely among those who make up the body. It is music capable of directing our thoughts through and beyond our belonging together to our being one in Christ; music which has a numinous or transcendent quality at the same time as recognising our need for each other; music which – after, within or in spite of the human contribution that has been made – mediates the divine. 

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