Non realist Worship - Paradox or Possibility?

Anne Ashworth is a poet and editor of the Quaker "Universalist"

Is this a familiar list? Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Intercession, Petition, Meditation, Dedication, Benediction

These, we were taught, were - more or less in that order - the essential ingredients of Christian worship. But with the exception of Meditation, they were all meant to be addressed to a transcendent deity (or committee of three). So what use or relevance have they now? And yet (in SoF company, I'm whispering this rather timidly) I miss them, you know!

How about a nonrealist re-view?

To begin by adoring that which is greater and finer than oneself surely remains the best approach to spirituality. Think of the centuries of aspiration, the notions of the good, the beautiful, the divine. Wasn't Dostoyevsky right:

"The marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could have entered the head of such a savage and vicious beast as man; so holy it is, so moving, so wise, and such a great honour it does to man."

Lift up your hearts indeed, for this is the creation and the inspiration of humankind. As Rilke expressed it, writing in the teens of our century:

"Was it not miracle? Angel, gaze, for it's we -
O mightiness, tell them that we were capable of it - my breath's
too short for this celebration. So, after all, we have not
failed to make use of the spaces, those
generous spaces, these our spaces."

Or Schleiermacher, as long ago as 1804:

"What we celebrate is nothing other than ourselves as whole beings".

But this is to take a merely humanist viewpoint. We celebrate also the oneness of the cosmos and the beauty of earth. Schleiermacher goes on:

"What else is humankind than the very spirit of earth, or life's coming to know itself in its eternal being and in its ever-changing process of becoming?"

Quantum physics, creation spirituality and ecofeminism have powerful insights to add to that nowadays. Our capacity for awe and wonder has been stretched to fresh horizons.

Christianity often laid undue stress on our failures and shortcomings. Too many Christian preachers whipped up frenzies of guilt (apparently only for the purpose of assuaging them), in the process doing considerable psychological damage. True, everyone knows that confession, where there is real reason for guilt, can bring release and healing. But it is not always good to confess to our friends, transferring our loads to their undeserving and equally fragile shoulders. The answer used to be confessional prayer, and perhaps there is no exact substitute for that.

However, listen to M.Scott Peck:

"In prayer I am checking out my life with my ideal observer."

How about that? Cupitt calls it The Eye of God. The medievals called it the Examen. We cast a cool objective eye over ourselves, deplore ourselves, laugh at ourselves, understand and forgive ourselves. We don't need a God or priest to forgive us. And if we seriously mean business - a requirement for all religious confession - we rise better people. It's a clearing of the decks before we turn to the rest of our list of worship ingredients.


Some SoFers have been heard to lament that what they miss most is saying "thank you". Understandable. But to revert to our view of Adoration, above - and in traditional worship and theology Thanksgiving was always closely connected to Adoration - new ways of looking at the world continue to make thankfulness possible. New scientific worldviews have reconnected us with ancient mystical traditions, of India and elsewhere: a sense of the oneness of things, of our participation in that primordial energy which creates, empowers and recycles. Within this perspective, thankfulness remains profoundly real. We may even find more to say thanks for! Jean Mambrino, writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer:

"The pilgrim is light of heart who passes by, who savours, each day, his little morsel of life, marvelling as he raises to his lips the rose of fresh spring water, amazed if anyone looks at or listens to him for a moment, blessing every innocent and wounded creature. He it is who divests himself in passing, who finds God when he has lost all."

Intercession and petition

In traditional worship, turning to God in Adoration, Confession and Thanksgiving was meant to lift the worshipper above the trivia of everyday living and beyond the petty self. Only then was it safe to move into petitionary mode, for the concerns of the world could now be viewed sub specie aeternitatis, their personal urgency cooled and the worshipper's perspective enlarged. It can still function like that. But to whom are we now to address our requests?

Some years ago I wrote an article provocatively headed "Prayer is talking to ourselves". In fact it was a plea for taking "prayer" seriously, if this is a mode whereby we can get in touch with those deeper parts of our psyche which are normally overlaid and hidden from us. Often the old Christian teaching was that we must be in part the answer to our own petitions, that we dare not make requests unless we are prepared to be "used" in the subsequent action needed. Moreover, ordinands and lay preachers were taught that intercessory prayer was largely a consciousness-raising exercise for the congregation, as for instance in the case of prayer for peace. So even in our most devoutly theist days, we all subconsciously knew that prayer was talking to ourselves. How, though, knowing this consciously, can we continue the exercise?

Under the headings of Adoration and Thanksgiving I have already referred to the oneness of creation. In Intercession we apply that knowledge to the specifics of human need. There is some (arguable) evidence that it is possible to plug in to a sort of energy grid, whereby we can indirectly affect the strength available to others. Intimates naturally draw upon each other's strength at a distance, circles of friends or relatives support one another. At the very least, knowing that someone is concerned enough to "pray" - to concentrate heart and mind upon one's need - is therapeutic for the sufferer. As for the worshippers, they are more likely to be stimulated to action if they have truly and profoundly engaged imaginatively with the needy.

In Petition for ourselves, or for the group we belong to or worship with, the thrust of selfishness should by this point in the liturgical list be lessened so that we can consider our own needs more soberly and fairly than we could in the heat of the day. Open to our better selves and to one another, we can assess and prioritise. Suddenly, asking seems silly, even demeaning. Hoping, resolving, deciding rise to the surface instead. Or if we are too low in spirit or strength for that, and in need of healing and help:

"This is the way healing work is done: go within; get quiet; become still until the peace that passes understanding descends. True spiritual healing is not something that takes place in the body or in one's affairs; it takes place in the consciousness of the individual as the soul is opened." (Joel Goldsmith)


Liturgies and traditions vary, of course, but the elements of Meditation occur usually at several points in a Christian service of worship. The Bible may be read, addresses or sermons given, comments may punctuate the hymns and prayers in which the divine is directly addressed. Theologically, these elements were supposed to be the congregation's chance to listen to God instead of talking to Him (yes, we need those old fashioned capital letters here, to indicate old thinking). So what is "Listening to God" for a nonrealist worshipper?

Meditation resumes its ordinary English meaning of thinking deeply. Is that all? Let us add, we take time (and silence, if possible) to search the deepest places of our selves, and listen to what the better part of our nature is telling us.

"Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth" adjures the Quaker Advice. What else is religion about?


And so the act of worship climaxes in the rededication of the worshipper, cleansed and empowered by this time, to God and God's will. In our case, the dedication is to the betterment of the world. But then, wasn't it always? What else were our vows to seek first the Kingdom? The ecofeminist writer Starhawk puts it like this:

"I am talking about choosing an attitude: choosing to take this living world, the people and the creatures on it, as the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, to see the world, the earth, and our lives as sacred."


But before the worshippers went their ways, a blessing was invoked. This was perhaps offered by the priest or minister, or voiced in unison by all. Either way, its function was that participants should carry away with them the benison of all that benign energy emanating from the group.

"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit..."

Drop the proper names, keep the common nouns. Grace, love and fellowship are precisely what the worshipping group generates, simply by being together in deep meditation and benign intention. These nouns are common in the better sense, emerging from corporate experience, holding our values in common. And as for priestly blessing, we are all priests blessing one another. As Arthur Grimble's South Sea islanders knew, we create our own benediction by stating it to each other.

"Blessings and peace are ours. Blessings and peace."

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