Project Canterbury

Public Worship Today: Hopes and Hindrances
by Percy Dearmer, D.D.

London: Published for the Anglican Evangelical Group Movement
by the SPCK, no date.

PUTTING aside, for reasons of space, the more obvious theological and psychological arguments, let us assume that public worship as well as private is good for people. In modern times it has seemed also to be natural to man; but we must remember that in pagan antiquity the temple was the shrine of the god to which people went individually with their offerings, as they still do in Hindu and Buddhist countries, and that the idea of congregational worship is due to Christianity adapting the method of the synagogue, and thus substituting meeting-houses for temples, because it is a religion of fellowship, being social as well as individual. It is a good and beautiful thing for the inhabitants of a place to gather together once a week in a true and untainted worship, and it is a benefit to the individual as well as an enhancement of the social life of the community.


Now, the alternative to public worship is not a Sunday spent in the pursuit of reason and virtue, but a little more lounging, chatting, and newspapers, or such occupations as golf, which, however excellent in themselves, are somewhat narrow for the basis of man's one free day. Gregariousness is one of the fundamental instincts which will not be denied; and, if people do not meet for church-going, they will get together for other purposes, some excellent, some silly, some harmful, and they will miss that which would have given a higher tone to all their other Sunday gatherings. As Mr. Hardwick has recently reminded us in his "Institutional Religion," the alternative to a church is not a bland secularism, but superstition. The Churches possess much stored experience and expert knowledge; and when people give up going to church the atavisms creep out, and there spread new religions which are often not new at all, and are for the most part strangely ignorant and unphilosophical, even when they are coiled round some idea that is true; while those who do not join any of these develop a private religion of their own with its special ignorances, prejudices, and fetishes. The average parson may be sometimes bigoted and obscurantist; but at worst he is not a warlock.

At the very lowest, then, institutional religion saves us from worse things, since man is incurably religious. If all our churches were closed, masses of men would drift into fetishism and superstition; for, as Sir James Fraser has reminded us, under the feet of mankind, and covered by only a thin crust, are the fears, cruelties, and delusions of primitive man, ready at all times to flare up into their ancient predominance.


The parish worship is therefore, at the lowest estimate, a safeguard and a standard. What is its present strength, and what are its prospects? The London newspapers are apt to assume-though the provincial Press knows better-that our churches are "empty." Now, even if it were the fact that congregations are small, it would still be true that our churches are of immense value, since even an average of only ten in every place of worship would mean something like a million people (not counting the children) who arc helped every week, and are, one hopes, of good influence on others. And there arc two further considerations. A vast number of folk go to church only seldom-at Christmas, perhaps, or a harvest festival-while many are like Thomas Hardy, who regularly went to church three times a year. There is, in fact, only a minority that is quite out of touch with all worship-a small minority if we include such occasional services as those for baptism and marriage. In a free country, where men are no longer threatened with severe penalties in the next world for non-attendance at public worship, there is a very large population of occasional churchgoers, and it is a population of excellent quality, to which our services mean a great deal. The second consideration is that even those who never go to church arc by no means uninfluenced by the churches, are often well-disposed to them, and are generally in some kind of touch with them.

But I do not believe that our churches are either empty or emptying. This is generally said by journalists who never go to church themselves, and have thus no means of judging. The London papers get their ideas from the diocese of London, where many churches (not in the suburbs) have extremely poor congregations. But the population of this chaotic area has shifted, and churches are thick in some districts where the population is thin. (By contrast, in Paris there is only one church to every eighty thousand people.) London is exceptional; and into it drift many clergymen whose services are of unusual types and whose good-natured parishioners go their own way. For the rest, wherever I go and wherever I enquire, I find that churches are well attended, and not seldom crowded, while I have heard from more than one archdeacon that in his district there is already a marked improvement.

The truth is, I believe, that there is plenty of church-going, though less than in the last generation (in London perhaps a third of what it was), less still than a hundred years ago, when it was hardly respectable to stay away without excuse. But people nowadays have no guilty feeling about staying away; they do not as a. rule attend unless they like the services.

And there are two other points:

1. The old-fashioned type of service has lost its hold, and for this reason the Free Churches are markedly losing ground.

2. Certain influential classes have given up regular church-going, here as on the Continent; and this is very serious indeed. We must free our services from phrases which are below our real beliefs about God, and avoid preaching obsolete ideas. Unless the dislike of scientists and artists to our services is met, the more intelligent of the younger generation will follow; for they believe, and rightly, in scientific writers, and the artist (who nowadays uses mainly not the poem but the novel as his medium) is always the leader of the bright and young. Moreover, it is important to realize that in these times artists and writers of all sorts are one community in constant social intercourse, with a common opinion about most things within their different departments. If, for instance, the scientific writers say that an idea is absurd, the architects or painters, who meet them in social intercourse, will probably say so too; and an adverse musical verdict will be familiar talk among the poets or novelists; while a popular writer will not praise anything that is despised by the specialists in any branch of art or literature.

Thus it is that today, when writers are making havoc of tradition, when even popular conservatism is liberal in religious matters, when every religious practice and idea is being evalued by a jury of writers and artists, the public worship of the Church must stand or fall on its merits. Our churches are not empty; there seems to be some improvement; but whether they will be empty or not thirty years hence depends upon the clergy and their lay coadjutors of today.


This is therefore an era of opportunity, hope, and danger. It is pre-eminently a time when we have to think steadily. In order to think, we have to clear away our prejudices; each party has had its own, and all have been wrong-not only because the intellectual basis was wrong (which is of the first importance, but not my subject in this essay), but also because all arose in a time when there was no philosophy of aesthetic, no system, indeed, of values at all.

We can understand, with our modern philosophy, that a religion which is defective in the Supreme Values is to that extent idolatrous, because it worships something less than God; not only is an immoral worship idolatrous, but a worship also that is unfaithful to the values of truth or beauty. If a parish church is to proclaim the true God, it must stand for righteousness, both individual and social; for truth in the inmost parts, and therefore for freedom of thought, study, and discussion; and for beauty. But, as the nineteenth century, for all its marvellous advances in other directions, did for the first time in human history make the world ugly, this matter of beauty is one of peculiar difficulty, and we shall need special care and pains, and the constant help of the artists, to get straight again. We cannot, in fact, get beauty by mere custom and tradition, as was once the case, and this for the reason that tradition went wrong a hundred years ago,, and something squalid and perverse was put in its place. A great age of the intellectual arts, poetry and prose, brought chaos in those arts that reach the mind through the eye and the ear, and these are the arts prominently involved in public worship.

Now the remarkable thing is that today the people again want beauty-witness the constant discussion of ways of preserving the countryside and improving our debased cities-as well as the other values. They cannot put it into words; or, if they can, they are shy about it and talk about "the amenities" when they mean beauty pure and simple. They do not know precisely what they want; they cannot describe what they miss in our churches; but when they get it (as they do, for instance, both in the place and the services, at Westminster Abbey) they are happy. Nearly always the services of a parish church are spoilt by one serious fault or another-most often in music, where the waste products of what was most depressing and debased in our musical decline between 1860 and igoo are wreathed about verse which has no pretension to be poetry-or indeed very often to be true. The Intelligentsia know all this quite well, and ignore the Church as a result; but the average man cannot explain his distress; he can only say in his inarticulate way that "church" gives him "the hump," or that he has "no use" for it. He is quite right. The services of the many churches which still wallow in the old hymn-books give me the "hump" also, and I can see no reason why I or anyone else should attend services which merely depress me by a false presentment of divine things.

I believe that all our application of psychology to public worship comes in the end to this empyrical fact. People need-indeed, they want, even when they do not consciously ask for-all the Supreme Values in their worship, including the value of beauty. Some care more for righteousness, some for truth; but nearly all according to their lights wish, though often unconsciously, that these shall be clothed and expressed in appropriate terms of beauty:

Truth never changes,
And Beauty's her dress;
And Good never changes,
Which these two express.

It is the parson's duty to see that his parishioners are offered all three.

If he does not, can he complain when people go out into the hills from whence perhaps cometh their help, and find an escape into the Infinite from the debased architecture and ornaments of their parish church, in places where they are surrounded by the colours and the jewels of the Supreme Artist? For, as Bacon says, "God Almighty first planted a garden"; and God knows our need of beauty.


But here arises the difficulty. When the clergy began to preach a full righteousness-social righteousness, the duty to our neighbour, as well as personal rectitude-they were confronted by the disapproval of the old-fashioned folk who remained in the churches, which those who cared for social reform had long given up in disgust. The very men who could have helped them were outside. It is the same today with art, though here it is not so bad, because no misuse could take away the greatest art that England has produced-the immortal prose of our Bible and Prayer Book-or quite destroy all the character of our ancient churches, or prevent our cathedrals from retaining at least in their anthems some of that English music which was once the foremost in Europe. But in the average church it was, and still often is, bad enough-the elocution and the singing, the architecture and ornaments dingily proclaiming the sham romance of a misunderstood medievalism, as if the worship of God consisted in an unsuccessful attempt to resurrect a long-dead past. And the fashion corrupted all the Churches, from that of Rome to the modest Little Bethel which might well have avoided it. Art always expresses; and there was something strangely faithless and repellent about the mentality which spoke in these spurious forms. Most poignantly it howled at the world in the hymns that it produced. And here comes the difficulty of your hymn-hardened congregation.

From any church which has flouted in the interest of a supposed orthodoxy the accepted discoveries of science and criticism, your truth-lovers will have evaporated; from any church which does not face the duties of social and international righteousness, the ethically sincere will have evaporated; from any church which depraves beauty and offers clumsy verse instead of poetry, the artist, musicians, and literary men in the district will have evaporated. A new parson is appointed. He finds that the representative men of his parish have given up going to church, and a "Rump" is in possession. That has often happened, and in one form or another is still not uncommon. But we have won the battle for truth and the battle for goodness; honesty and enlightenment are no longer suppressed in our Church or in the Free Churches of Britain; we have won the ethical battle too, and the Churches of England and America are foremost in the work of social and international reform. And we are winning the battle of beauty also: in countless parishes victory is near at hand, and those of us who are a little battered by the long conflict are beginning to feel that we are at least no longer suspected, or treated as if we were guilty of something rather disreputable. In theory, and increasingly in practice, the existence of the Supreme Values is recognized and the implications are accepted of the most certain thing we know about God-that he cares intensely for beauty.

To sum up. The church that draws the best men in the parish, and through them the others, will always be the church that embodies the values of goodness, truth, and beauty. There are difficulties where our predecessors have alienated such men and the remaining congregation is patient of much that is bad; but human nature retains its true spiritual appetites, and what is right always wins response. When all of us patently proclaim the Supreme Values there will be no more talk about "emptying"; for every church will be a magnet. And we can afford to be hopeful because such great improvement has already taken place. The principle has been won, and the practice is following.


And now, after this rough sketch of the position, the rest may be suggested in a few sentences.

Public worship is an art, and no art is easy, because the average man, not being an expert in the art, will probably make some mistake which vitiates the general result. The facile blunder of imitating the Church of Rome is an example of this; patient and silent though Englishmen are, and content for the most part to stay away or "go elsewhere" without openly complaining, the resentment is very deep. There are some things which the people hate in their very bones. If it were not for the action of wise men of all schools of thought, who are recovering the Prayer Book standard, the Church of England would sink to the position of a small fantastic sect, with no influence on the nation-and, of course, disestablished.

Any art, then, is difficult; and the difficulty in this art (as indeed in every other art) can only be removed by two things, tradition and authority. With the help of these the average man who is not a specialist can go ahead successfully. But tradition was broken and the people estranged by the ill-considered experiments of many Victorian "ritualists," and this not so much through the fault of these admirable men as through the failure of the authorities to collect, understand, and propagate sound learning about art and liturgies, which they regarded as beneath their notice. Authority went by the board as well as tradition. Hence the chaos and failure. We cannot restore the Church to her ancient position in the hearts of the people without linking up with the people's religious tradition, and preserving that of the Prayer Book.

But the essence of every art is "tact," a sense of equilibrium, a knack of reconciliation, the ability to strike the few right notes and avoid the many possible discords, to draw the right expressive line and avoid the hundred possible deviations on either side. Thus authority does not mean lack of freedom, and freedom does not mean license. All artists know this: in every art the power of authority is enormous, but it confesses fallibility, grows, and changes; while, on the other hand, the freedom of the individual, if abused, makes him a failure. For weakness, aesthetic as well as ethical, follows the flouting of authority. But authority itself must be wise, loyal, informed, and dynamic.

So also with tradition. It does not require us to stick in the past; properly used, it avoids the vices of antiquarianism and immobile conservatism as much as that of reckless innovation. The parson has, for instance, to respect the accustomed hours of services and their relative positions, and if he makes much change he will only take a few women with him, leaving the men behind and most of the normal women. But, if he is considerate and sympathetic, he can improve the quality of the services-and of the sermons!-with the hearty goodwill of the people.


The people definitely want more brightness in life (though they do not want it associated with more dogma, especially not with medieval or papist dogma). In other words-though they would not put it that way-their aesthetic needs are recovered from the reaction of puritanism, and are expanded again to the degree normal in human beings (their phrase is "brighter London," or whatever the subject may be) while at the same time they are not untouched by all that modern knowledge which has made so much theological theorizing obsolete. But tradition always dominates any successful change, and the country, while it wants more colour and movement in the old-fashioned and much-loved service, more processions and more vestments, does not like, and never will like, fussiness and genuflections, or vestments which are belaced and befrilled or in any way elaborate; and they desire at the ordinary Mattins and Evensong the customary English robes, surplice, hood, and scarf, ample and dignified. Again I point to our cathedral churches, which are the great asset of the English Church today, intensely loved by the people, and expressing that which is best and strongest in the nation; and since cathedrals are not all quite equally good, I again point to Westminster Abbey, as Bishop Ryle made it, with the sound knowledge of the sacrist, Dr. Jocelyn Perkins, to help him, and as it is so nobly maintained by the present Dean. And I note two significant facts: (i) In all the disputes about the proposed sacristy, no one raised a word of protest against the abundance of copes, frontals, and other "ritualistic" ornaments which made the sacristy necessary. (2) There is a complete elimination of party spirit, and both sides are satisfied. But this does not at all mean that the ordinary parish church ought to be as ornate as the Abbey can be on special occasions. The normal church needs simplicity-such, indeed, as the Abbey uses at ordinary times. This you may say is but common sense. Yes; but the average man cannot be expected to show common sense about everything, including every department of art. Art is, in fact, applied common sense; but it needs the trained specialist to apply such wisdom; and tradition and authority are the means by which the knowledge and skill of the specialist are disseminated.

Now in every art-in literature, for instance-the practitioner works with a great store of accurate knowledge behind him; the rudiments of this store (grammar and a vocabulary, for instance) he has passed into his subconscious habits, from the rest his style is formed, and he works by selecting serviceable and significant material. In the art of public worship it is the same. The practitioner needs to have behind him a mass of detail, but the quality of his work will depend upon his selection of the right elements-those which are important and significant. I myself have good reason to know the difficulty, for I have written about ceremonial; and the dilemma always is, that if you give full detail there will be people who think that it is necessary to adopt all the minutiae (and more than all) with meticulous care, while if you do not (and even when you do!) you will have to write unending letters, at your own expense, to people who want to know more. The detail is necessary, just as it is in music, where the smallest jar may spoil everything; and without it there is no means of discouraging eccentricity and fuss; for you have to be able to say: "This is the utmost to which even an elaborate service may lawfully go; anything more plunges into the region of the unprincipled and the unwholesome." The tedious compilation of detail is necessary-this is the science of it; but the art consists, as always, in selection, and in the case of the normal church especially such elements must be selected as give the result of a virile and quiet simplicity. But the simplicity must be neither slovenly nor bleak.

Thus, without bathing in the Abana and Pharpar of psychology and metaphysics, and taking for granted the deep religious purpose of public worship, we say simply that it is an art, with the same principles as the other arts. And we conclude that the neglected method we need is that of guidance in every diocese on a basis of sound learning, apart altogether from party considerations, and conference among clergy and laity; so that from the soil of our accumulated knowledge, and shaped in the splendour of our Prayer Book and of our supreme English hymnody, unmatched in the history of mankind, an art may grow that will again win the love of our great nation, an art not wholly unworthy of the Supreme Artificer, "the First Author of beauty," whom, if we would avoid idolatry, we must worship as he is, and worthily.

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