Alone and with Others

Sermon Two in the series 'A Worshipping Life'

Epiphanytide 2018


It's impossible to talk about the themes of Christian worship without turning to images and ways of talking that seem, well, pedestrian. But that problem isn't new; doing so even has positive scope. Years ago Evelyn Underhill, whom I quoted last week and whose words you can read (again) on the back page of your Newsletter, wrote about the spiritual life in homely terms like a house, 'the house of the soul'. Among her countless gems of insight is this observation:

It is true that God creates souls in a marvellous

liberty and variety. The ideals of the building-estate

tell us nothing about the Kingdom of Heaven. It is

true also, that the furnishing of our rooms and

cultivation of our garden is largely left to our personal

industry and good taste. Still, in a general way, we

must fall in with the city's plan; and consider, when

we hang some new and startling curtains, how they

will look from the street. However intense the personal

life of each soul may be, it has got out of proportion,

if it makes us forget our municipal obligations

and advantages; for our true significance is

more than personal, it is bound up with the fact

of our status as members of a supernatural society

...We must each maintain unimpaired our unique

relation with God; yet without forgetting our intimate

contact with the rest of the city, or the mesh of in-

visible life which binds all the inhabitants in one.[1]

There we have a key feature of a worshipping life, namely, that it's lived within two spheres: the private, and often solitary sphere, on the one hand, and the public and communal sphere, on the other.

Our era of 'soulfulness' perhaps represents the pendulum's swing far in the direction of private and solitary spiritual habits. After all, there are a multitude of people, and indeed a good many Christians, who rarely if ever cross the church threshold and join in publish worship. Spiritual life, even its ground in adoring worship, is like the 'flight of the alone to the Alone'.[2]

The strength of such a solitary spiritual life and private worship is that there's no place to hide; it's hard to avoid any hint of in-authenticity in what you're about. Why, Jesus encouraged just such a going apart by oneself. '"When you pray", he said, "go into some place apart--a closet, the pantry, a storeroom,[3] anywhere away from public attention" (Matt. 6.6). We know that Jesus himself did exactly that, though his places apart were often outside, up a hill, under cover of darkness.

Yet that isn't the whole picture of the worshipping Christian. After all, Jesus himself was disciplined and regular in his worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath,[4] and he seems always to have journeyed to Jerusalem for the great festivals of faith.[5] That's exactly what the last book of the Bible shows us in its vivid imagery of God's Kingdom: public worship which is so public that it's even cosmic in scope: the twenty-four elders, the four living creatures, the throng from tribes and nations....[6]

So the practice of Jesus and the witness of his followers are that the worshipping life is meant to be both private and public, both intensely our own, yet also with others.

How, then, are they related?

I mention 'polarities' of worship on the cover of the Newsletter. Tucked into the polarity of private worship and public worship is the polarity of freedom and order.[7] Order and freedom are features of worship among the first Christians, as the New Testament and early Christian tradition shows. Charismatic gifts occur along side worship that is, to use St Paul's words, 'decent and in order' (1 Cor. 14.40).

Our private worship is free indeed, and there are many ways to offer our free worship. Hopefully it includes strong currents of warmth and intimacy. In such private worship we can really be ourselves, whatever that means on a given occasion--as Archbishop William Temple once advised: 'Pray as you are, not as you are not'.

A Christian's private worship may be grounded in daily reading of the Bible. Remember John Keble's words:'...there is in the Bible a whole book of prayers, if we would but consider and use it as such'.[8] And we may have favourite prayers, psalms perhaps, that we like to use regularly, even daily.

All such prayer places us intentionally in God's presence and readies us for the 'gift of this new day'.[9] It's as important as 'the circulation of blood giving life and strength to the body'.[10]

Our private prayer also should prepare us for worship on Sundays and feast days. On the back page of the Newsletter there are two things to help that. The first is the Bible readings for the next Sunday. It's enormously helpful to read those before you hear them in church; begin your meditation on those readings before you hear them in public worship. Is there a theme or image or teaching that strikes you? attracts you? puts you off? baffles you? Live with those readings for some time before public worship begins.

The second is a prayer for use on Saturday evenings. It reminds us that each Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Christ and the first day of the new creation. It's a prayer of watching, of expectation for the Sunday to come.

Having said all that, yet not wishing to contradict myself, we need to say that no Christian, however solitary or isolated he or she may be physically or in temperament, ever prays alone.[11] Every Christian prays as 'a member of a great family',[12] the Body of Christ, 'the blessed company of all faithful people', as the Prayer Book memorably puts it.

Eucharistic worship is above all Christ's own prayer to the Father, his eternal self-offering present here and now, and into which we are called to share as members of Christ's Body through baptism.

That is among the most important truths to which our public, corporate worship, and chiefly the Eucharist, witnesses. For eucharistic worship draws our little, private worship into the sphere of adoration offered ceaselessly by the whole Church, seen and unseen, alive and dead, creaturely, human and cosmic. So it lifts our spiritual eyes to gaze on what our private worship might easily forget and neglect.

That's one reason why our public worship uses a different register of words; it draws upon sanctioned themes and images from the Bible and the Christian tradition. Eucharistic worship can touch, sometimes powerfully, deep wells of emotion within, yet heart-on-sleeve emotionalism is not the aim of public worship. The form and order of public worship nevertheless provide 'space' into which we can and may indeed bring our hearts, our desires, our secrets. We don't, in other words, need to leave ourselves at the door.

What might we bring with us into our public worship by way of intentional preparation?

There are four ways in which we can fruitfully come to the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday.

  • First, read the Bible readings, or at least the Gospel, beforehand.
  • Second, consider what prayers for yourself and for others you wish to offer up silently as part of our petition and intercession.
  • Third, consider what sins of omission or transgression you wish to lay before the throne of grace at the time of the General Confession. There's bound to be something!
  • Finally, bring particular reasons for thanksgiving to offer with the Great Thanksgiving, which is the climax of every Eucharist.

In Epiphanytide we ponder the theme of life's transformation by God's grace. I have no doubt that the healthy spiritual growth and transformation of every Christian hangs on working toward a proper balance of private and public worship. So I encourage you to seek that balance. With that balance we're immersed in the life of the Divine Society, 'nourished by its traditions, taught, humbled and upheld by its saints',[13] and over and within which Jesus Christ, as Bridegroom, Head and High-Priest, exercises his just a gentle rule.     Amen.


Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

The Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 21st 2018


[1] From The House of the Soul, excerpted in G. P. Mellick Belshaw, ed., Lent with Evelyn Underhill, 2nd ed. (London, 2004), p. 44.

[2] A Neo-platonic phrase from antiquity.

[3] His word tameion could mean such things (Harrington, Matthew, p. 94).

[4] See, for example, Luke 4.16. Plummer emphasizes that Jesus' 'custom' was to attend synagogue worship not to preach on every such occasion (St Luke [ICCS], p. 118).

[5] Especially the Passover; on the issue of Jesus' journeys to Jerusalem, see, for instance, Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John I-XII [Anchor], pp. 116-18.

[6] See Revelation 4-5, and 19.

[7] We speak commonly of the 'order of worship', meaning the shape and content of the worship; but 'order' it has a more basic meaning...

[8] From his Sermons for the Christian Year. Sundays after Trinity XIII (London: 1883-5), p. 485.

[9] In the opening collect of the daily offices in Common Worship: Daily Prayer; passim.

[10] Martin Thornton, Christian Proficiency, p. 17.

[11] See Martin Thornton, Christian Proficiency (London, 1956), p. 18.

[12] Evelyn Underhill quote on this week's Newsletter, p. 4.

[13] Ibid.