Twenty years ago, the renowned scripture scholar, Raymond Brown, gave a series of lectures to an ecumenical audience on how the various New Testament writers understood the church that Jesus left us. At one stage, reflecting on how the Evangelist, John, understood the church, he made a comment to this effect:
Those parishes and worshipping communities that most stress good theology and proper liturgy as a healthy corrective to privatized and devotional spirituality, often find, to their surprise and consternation, that they are losing parishioners to religious groups that stress a personal relationship to Jesus, that is, groups that come out of old-style Roman Catholic devotions or out of Protestant, “Born-again”, fundamentalism. Mainline pastors argue that this is not a healthy development and state, correctly, that liturgical worship should be the central piece to any ecclesiology and spirituality. But they are also learning, hard, that communal worship alone, even when done with the greatest attention to proper ritual and good aesthetics, can lack something, namely, an accompanying personal spirituality. Jesus needs a personal face and those conducting liturgy must help the community to know that face, otherwise liturgy alone leaves the community wanting for something.
Brown goes on to suggest that mainline Christians sometimes speak of “Born-again Christians” pejoratively, suggesting that their stress on a privatized, salvific relationship to Jesus is not healthy. However, Brown suggests that the Evangelist, John, might ask the mainline churches (and our liturgists and theologians) to be a little more sympathetic towards our devotionally-oriented and “Born-again” siblings because, for John, church membership alone is not a sufficient goal and liturgy is adequate only when it also helps effect a personal, affective relationship to Jesus.
A little theology and a little liturgy can be a dangerous thing. Fortunately, the deeper wells in both teach that, while gathering in liturgy is central, Jesus must also touch each of us in a deep, personal way. Thus, for instance, suppose, as a priest, I say this: “My spirituality and prayer is the spirituality and prayer of the church. Liturgy and the divine office are enough, I’ve no need for private, devotional-type prayer, either for myself or to encourage it for others.”
The danger in that is that I can easily end up a pure functionary, someone who perhaps celebrates liturgy well aesthetically, offers solid scriptural reflections on the word of God, and has some skills in community-building. But I will lack the power – that “authority” that people saw in Jesus – to lead people to Christ because my own soul is insufficiently engaged in that very process. The same holds true for everyone else involved in conducting liturgy.
There’s a principle in psychology which says that I can only educe love out of others if I, myself, have first experienced it. The same is true for liturgy and spirituality: I can only help effect a personal relationship to God in someone else if I have, first, experienced this myself – good ritual, beautiful aesthetics, sound theology, and “ex opere operato” notwithstanding.
Annie Dillard, in one of her early books, makes this comment: Sharing why she worshipped in a fundamentalistic, sectarian church (when her natural temperament was towards Roman Catholicism or high- Church Protestantism) she simply says: I go to that particular church because I like the minister. He actually believes what he preaches and when he says a prayer he really means it. Implied in that, sadly, is the comment that, in our high churches, that is not always so evident of those reading the word, leading the prayers, conducting the music, and doing the preaching.
I want to say this sympathetically, as Brown did, and yet not mute its challenge: For those of us who are “High Church”, either by temperament or denomination, it’s too easy to look at the devotional stream within Roman Catholicism or the “Low Church” tradition within Protestantism and see it simply as “Jesus and I” spirituality, as excessively privatized, as seeking the wrong kind of security, as spiritually immature, as theological and liturgical backwater, and as deflecting people from the real centre, worship in liturgy. In making such an assessment, partially, we are dangerously wrong, at least according to one New Testament writer.
In John’s gospel, ecclesiology and liturgy are subservient to the person of Jesus and a personal relationship to him. To teach this, John presents the image of “the beloved disciple”, one who has a special intimacy with Jesus. For John, this intimacy outweighs everything else, including special service in the church. Thus, at the last supper, Peter, the head of the apostles, may not even talk directly to Jesus, but has to channel his question through the one who has this special intimacy with Jesus. In John, everything is second to this particular relationship.
If this is true, and it is, then we who are “high church” have something to learn from our “low church” and more devotionally- oriented siblings: Jesus is our personal saviour!