Thinking allowed

The Eucharistic Assembly

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.

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