Some friends of ours live on a boat on the River Thames.
That statement in itself would have made me laugh a few years ago. Having grown up on the Mersey, the Thames always seemed like a poor substitute for a good, working northern river. Living in London for the last ten years has changed my view considerably (the South Bank is just fantastic at any time of year), but in my experience the Thames ended at Vauxhall.
This afternoon we drove over early because the sun came out sooner than expected and life slowed down remarkably. Our friends drove their boat-home down the river from Surbiton to Hampton Court where we went for a walk before returning in time for dinner on the river. It was beautiful, relaxing and felt like an unexpected gift in a rather frantic life.
The last time I went to Hampton Court Palace was also the first time I had been there. That time I went because a couple of foreign vistors wanted to see it. I did my best to swot up on the history and tried hard to think of something good to say about King Henry VIII who developed the place built originally in 1514 for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. But, what I remember most from the day was a sign outside the chapel.
It was on a tripod and said simply: ‘This is a working chapel’. Fair enough – there was some scaffold and a few blokes looking as if they were trying to look busy. (I’d seen another sign outside a college chapel that read: ‘WORK IN PROGRESS’ – equally aposite) But, it struck me that the sign accurately described the activity for which the chapel existed in the first place: worship.
The Greek word from which we derive our word ‘liturgy’ – leitourgia – means ‘work’. I often feel a terrible tension these days between the need for worship to be ‘accessible’ – without compromising the reality that worship is testing, demanding, exercising – and ‘transcendent’.
I grew up in the bad old days when worship leaders or clergy would begin a church service with the injunction that we should leave outside all the cares, activities, concerns and worries of our lives in order to let us worship God without distraction. Our minds were to be free of the clutter of life in order to enable us to gaze on God (or something similarly questionable). It was as if God could not cope with the stuff that clutters our lives and minds and memories.
But, what sort of worship is it that separates us off from the real stuff of our lives? Worship surely involves bringing all that stuff into the place where we come face to face with God and one another – looking at it in the light of God’s presence and transforming light. So, worship demands something from the worshipper, expects a price to be paid for the experience. It is not an easy activity designed for the convenience of consumers who want everything in life to be smooth and easily accessed. We all know that valuable things are costly.
Worship of God, an encounter with the Creator, Sustainer, Lover and Healer of the world is not a thing to be treated loosely or lightly. An engagement in worship or reflection will come at personal cost and will demand that the worshipper be exposed, challenged and transformed by the experience.
This is not trendy stuff. A convenience society of powerful consumers is not patient with anything that makes you work or wait. Shouldn’t religion be easy and accessible, we ask? Well, God is a realist and never sells people illusions. Jesus told his friends that if they wanted to follow him they would have to pick up a cross and carry it – in other words, it might cost them their life in one way or another.
I guess the chapel can only be described as ‘working’ if those in it move from being tourists or consumers of ‘worship experiences’ to people ready to do business with God – or have God do business with them.