Evensong at Westminster

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More chronicles from my just-finished trip to Uganda.  During our layover in London, our little group attended the evensong service at Westminster Abbey.  We wanted to worship, since it was the Lord's Day, and our flight schedule did not permit attendance at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Westminster Chapel, St. Helen's-Bishopgate or any of the other more evangelical options.  So the 3:30 evensong was ideal.  Sadly, my reflections are somewhat dimmed by jet lag, but at least I didn't fall asleep (unlike some of my fellow-travelers).  The visit produced these reflections:

It was my first time inside Westminster Abbey, and although we were not there for a tour it was pretty neat.  I got a glimpse at Elizabeth I's chapel and several other noteworthys (such as the Isaac Newton tomb made so famous by Dan Brown). 

Of course the music was beautiful beyond description.  Among the pieces were the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, which were exceptional.  In a service like this, much of the worship consists in meditating on the music as it is sung by others.  Being the Puritan offspring that I am, I wouldn't want to worship like this all the time.  But you can see what the attraction is and I did my best to enter into it.  The sermon was a brief exposition of the OT Scripture reading and was completely moralistic, not to my surprise.

Along with the music, the freight of the worship service was carried by the liturgy, which of course was straight Cranmer.  It was tremendously redemptive in focus and extremely rich.  It strikes me that this liturgically-loaded service has a great strength and a great weakness.  The strength is that 450 years after it was written, the liturgy still presents a robust and rich gospel message, dialogically worked out in the presence of God.  I very much enjoyed (I know that is the wrong way to say it, but it was the truth) the liturgy and was greatly blessed in worshiping God.  But the negative side is that it seems that perhaps the majority of people are able to participate in the liturgy without really imbibing or participating in the gospel thus presented. 

In this way, the worship at Westminster Abbey reminded me of the organized Christmas caroling that was traditional in the Philadelphia neighborhood where which we used to live.  The carols sung by a crowd largely consisting of non-Christians included just about every Christian doctrine imaginable, all beautifully and poetically rendered.  People sang about original sin, penal substitutionary atonement, and the incarnation of the divine Son.  "Veiled in flesh the godhead see / hail the incarnate deity!"  Yet none of them thought about these things in the least -- they were just lovely religious words.  This was the very impression I got from the wonderful liturgy in Westminster Abbey.  I loved it and was greatly blessed, just as I loved and was blessed by the Christmas caroling.  But as for leading the bulk of the participants into a true relationship with God, it seems not to be very effective.  For that reason, and for all the interest I had in participating in such a worship service, I really would have preferred a good sermon about the grace of God in Christ.

Posted February 28, 2007 @ 1:42 PM by Rick Phillips
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