Earlier this year I attended a deanery confirmation service. In his address the retired assistant bishop who was presiding posed the congregation a question. He asked us to consider what we should do if we wanted to see the face of God. After considering various possibilities he suggested we turn our heads to left and right — to see the face of God in our neighbours.
Each of us is made in the image of God; each of us is a child of God. We meet together as the people of God — a subset of God’s people who recognize that role and are able to be in that particular place at that particular time. The assembly, the community, is transformed by the act of worship, transformed by recognizing the image of God, not just in our fellow worshippers on that occasion, but by recognizing that the image of God can be found in each human being.
What then does it mean that each is made in the image of God? It means a number of things, among them that each person has value, each person is of worth, as an end in themself, and not as a means to some other end. That applies both to the ‘me’ and to the ‘others’: each person needs to remember that they are made in the image of God, and that everyone else is also made in the image of God. And it applies regardless of whether the other person recognizes it.
These are the people who come together regularly Sunday by Sunday, or perhaps occasionally; these are the people who together constitute the eucharistic assembly. They come in faith and hope in order to worship and celebrate together, responding to Jesus’s call to sinners and outcasts to sit with him at God’s table. Week by week, together they constitute the ‘church’ in that place, the local ‘ecclesia’. They come together as the children of God, the people of God, made in God’s image. They are nourished, doubly so, by the Word of God. And they go out as the Body of Christ. They come together as individuals, children, people. They are transformed by worship into one corporate group, one body.
They do not gather just to watch or listen to a show or a performance, to a great preacher, or a wonderful choir, or an inspiring concert. They do not come to participate from the sidelines like a football crowd cheering their team on. The liturgy is not some spectator sport or piece of theatre. Nor, equally, do they come to make private individual devotions, a private relationship between each worshipper and their God.
Instead, each member of the assembly is important and has a role to play in what the assembly does as a whole; each person is an active participant in the corporate worshipping group — because each is made in the image of God. The action of each member of the assembly, that common purpose, constitutes them as the assembly, and that person as a member of it. Within the assembly different people have different roles. Some may read, some may lead intercessions, others may lead singing or play musical instruments, someone will preside and others assist, someone will preach. Others will participate by joining in various responses, hymns and songs. Each of these (and other) roles is a ministry, an act of service to the assembly, an act that facilitates and enables the worship of the whole assembly to take place. Some of these roles will have formal appointment, and others will be by informal agreement of the assembly. Either way, they perform their roles within the context of, and with the explicit or implicit agreement of the assembly. Some of these roles help to constitute the assembly itself, in particular the role of president or presider.
Together all these people, convened for this purpose, form the eucharistic assembly, the local church, the ecclesia. The adoption by the early Christians of the word ‘ecclesia’ to describe their assembly indicates both their past and their future. The ecclesia (Greek: εκκλησία) was the term used in ancient Greek city-states for the democratic decision-making gathering of the city’s free-born men. When Christians began to use the term such semi-democratic city-states were already long gone. The word indicates perhaps the Christian intention of a free gathering of equals. But a gathering transformed from just free-born males to include Roman citizens and non-citizens, slaves as well as the free, poor as well as rich, female as well as male. This was a revolutionary ecclesia representing the people living in God’s kingdom. Truly, the eucharistic assembly, the ecclesia, was a transforming act.
In the same way, we gather today as a revolutionary gathering of all sorts and conditions, the people of God, sharing in God’s love. Recognition of this plays a part in the transformation of the worshipping community.
We are transformed by our worship in many ways; the one that will be focussed on here is how we are transformed by recognizing in each other the image of God. As the bishop said, we can look to left and right and see the image of God in our immediate neighbours. In most churches we will not generally see the faces of our fellow worshippers during the service, but there too we will find the image of God.
This is an ideal: it has to be recognized that not all our services live up to this ideal, not all those who attend are ready or able to participate in this way, and not all our buildings make it easy. We shall explore in future posts how the assembly can address these limitations, how the assembly gives legitimacy to its ministers, how the local assembly is part of a wider assembly across the world. In many situations, a simple explanation to the members of the assembly, both clergy and laity, may be enough for them to begin to realize their vocation, their ministry, as part of the assembly which comes together to worship and to hear and be present with, and be transformed by, the Word of God.