Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship

The thrust of this book, by Andrew Wilson, is pretty simple: the church should bring together in its worship the sacramental and liturgical, on the one hand, and the charismatic on the other.  Hence 'eucharismatic', the combination of eucharistic and charismatic.  But what does that mean, and what would it look like?  In six chapters (this is not a weighty tome), Wilson tries to show us, and to persuade us that this is not only a possibility but a necessity.

The first chapter is really just a brief portrait of what could be.  Imagine bringing together, not the weaknesses, but the strengths of traditional liturgical worship on the one hand and the experiential and expressive worship characteristic of the charismatic movement on the other.  "Imagine a service that includes healing testimonies and prayers of confession, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit, creeds that move the soul and rhythms that move the body.  Imagine young men seeing visions, old men dreaming dreams, sons and daughters prophesying, and all of them coming to the same Table and then going on their way rejoicing." (15)  Okay, I'm imagining it, and it sounds good (except the rhythms that move the body; I am not a person for whom rhythmic movement is ever a desirable thing).  How would we get there then?

As it turns out, via what seems like a detour, but is actually an essential part of the trip.  The second chapter lays out a theology of gift.  The basis of our worship is not anything we can bring, but is God's gift.  This chapter is beautiful in its own right.  All is grace.  And when it comes to corporate worship, this means we should receive with thankfulness everything that God has given us.  "Marginalizing a particular divine gift because it does not fit with our denominational tradition, if it is indeed a divine gift, should not be an option." (38)  Just so, although that 'if it is' seems pretty important; we'll come back to it.

The third chapter is about the only appropriate response to God's gifts: joy.  Wilson loses me a bit here.  Not in principle, of course: I am in favour of joy.  But a sentence like "In many church traditions, especially Western ones, we find it easier to lament than to rejoice" (41) does not chime with my experience at all - in fact, isn't the evangelical world filled with laments about how difficult we find it to lament?  But let that pass.  Oh, but then there is a bit of a snipe at Thine be the Glory for apparently featuring low and gloomy chords even when it's calling for us to sing with gladness.  Yep, you lost me.  Moving on.  Some good reflections on wine (46-49), I can feel myself rejoining the party.  And then the point: Christians are meant to be joyful, because of God's goodness and grace, and that joy can be expressed both eucharistically and charismatically.  I think I get this.  Wilson admits that we are all likely to find one way more natural, more in line with us (cf. my comments about rhythmic movement above), but that is a good reason why church should be both.  I get that.  Why do we put up with our current sorting hat approach to churches and denominations, with the reserved types going one way and the more emotional folk the other?  So look, I take the point of this chapter overall, but I have some questions about whether the expression of joy isn't somewhat restricted here.  I can sing joy in a minor key, even with low and gloomy chords.

The fourth chapter covers the specifically eucharistic element to being eucharismatic, and we're talking about more here than just an emphasis on sacraments.  Actually Wilson is arguing for being embedded in the Great Tradition.  After all, part of the gift we are given is the gift of being in the catholic church, the gift of our forebears in the faith and their thinking and their worship.  There is a useful table here (81-82) showing how different elements of the tradition - from the sacraments themselves to the church calendar - can benefit the church.  I'm already sold on all this, but if you're not you'll find the chapter interesting and perhaps challenging.  Much of the argument draws heavily on James Smith, and despite my reservations about some of his points I think it's all still broadly helpful.  This chapter also helpfully reflects on the fact that much of this stuff is just directly biblical; the emphasis on the sacraments and regular participation at the Table is right there in the NT.  So hurrah for being eucharistic.

Chapter five seeks to be equally persuasive on the charismatic front.  A lot of it is given over to a defence of the ongoing availability of the spiritual gifts mentioned in the NT.  I find the arguments persuasive, particularly as they are set here: in the context of a wider reflection on the spiritual experience that seems to be central to the Christian life as we see it unfold in the NT.  There is a handy discussion of angels and demons (96-100), which might not seem immediately relevant but is actually really helpful for establishing that we basically can't get around the supernatural, and the immanence and agency of the supernatural, in the Bible - and if we downplay it today, why is that?  I found this chapter really helpful in so far as it goes.  The big takeaway is that if you're not a convinced cessationist - and I'm not - then you should be actively pursuing spiritual gifts.  Okay, but...  Well, I'll come to that at the end.

Chapter six tries to draw it all together, with some useful tips on how we might lead our churches in the direction of eucharismatic worship.  It's mostly very good.  But here's where I get stuck with the whole project.  I can introduce my church to liturgy; I can plan the year around the church calendar; I can push for the great significance of the sacraments.  All these I have kept from my youth.  So look, we're covered for eucharistic.  But as far as I'm aware, there is no way of programming in the gifts of the Spirit.  I've grumbled about this before, I know.  But what to do about it?  Pray, of course.  But is that all?

So I guess I want a follow up book.  I want a book about what we do when we've been in church all our lives and we just haven't seen this stuff.  I want a book about how to be a eucharismatic church when nobody in the church seems to have the more miraculous gifts.  I did wonder also as I was reading whether there might have been some virtue in separating out things which Wilson joins up - for example, although I see how dealing with the sacraments embedded in a view of liturgy and catholicity is helpful, it might be more persuasive for some folk if we make the biblical case for a high view of sacraments without immediately drawing in elements of the Tradition which are less obviously biblical.  Similarly, unpicking general spiritual experience (not to mention exuberance and expressive worship) and the particularities of the gifts might have been helpful.  Maybe.

In the meantime, there's a lot I'll take away from this.  Joy - even if I'm not sure it has to look the way it's described here - needs to be a bigger part of our worship.  The presence of the Spirit in the here and now needs to be emphasised more.  More expectation.

It's a beautiful vision for church.  I'm sold.  If I could get there, I would.


  1. Sounds interesting, but the portmanteau is a bit clunky. I'm not a raging cessationist or anything, but it just makes me think of someone saying 'Ew! *Charismatic*...'

    1. On a more serious note, I was just wondering about something I think we've touched on before. Regardless of what you think of the charismatic gifts (and I probably think they work/ed differently to Andrew), it seems to me that the NT still calls for some kind of congregational participation even just at the level of reading out a self-chosen Bible verse or thought based on Scripture (1 Cor 14:26), which could be a step towards what you envision. Why do you think most non-Charismatic churches rule that out wholesale? Do you think it's seen as too much part of a Charismatic passage, or has it just become unquestioned custom, or something else?

    2. Well, my assumption is that the Corinthian church was small (see Meeks, 'First Urban Christians') which made such informality much more straightforward. Larger churches find it more difficult to do in their main gatherings, and so tend to move this element into homegroups or whatever. I don't think that's necessarily a terrible thing.

      On the other hand, there is definitely a culture of clericalism which survives the Reformation (e.g. all the discussion of spiritual gifts which I've found in the English Puritans is only about 'ministers'; no view of a gifted congregation per se). The charismatic movement kicks back against this, sometimes I think in helpful and sometimes in less helpful ways.

      One thing that is definitely worth bearing in mind is that in many of our congregations a lot of people don't want to participate in that way, and it will take a great deal of culture forming, teaching, and example setting before it could flourish.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Daniel, much appreciated as always.