Thinking allowed

worship or performance

This week’s editorial at Anglicans Online ponders the question When is a service worship and when is it performance?.

Our friend enjoys the cleansing end-of-the-day, beginning-of-the-week feel to Compline on Sunday evenings. She, like us, views the services of the Daily Office as worshipful expressions of our beliefs and faith. Imagine her surprise when she sat down with the pew sheet: The second word on the inside cover was ‘performance’.

Compline as performance? She brought us the pew sheet. We read it through. Unfortunately, this time the sung service of Compline seemed to be replaced with a concert based on Compline. Soloists were named, a long biographical sketch of the conductor was included. No mention was made of the history or role of Compline in the worship life of our tradition. No mention of welcoming the congregation to a time of prayer. Perhaps we are being too picky. Perhaps it is enough the service is being offered no matter the circumstances.

We were left to ponder: When is a service worship and when is it performance? Does it matter? Should it matter?


  • James A says:

    Surely, Simon, liturgy IS a performance. The real dichotomy is not worship or performance, but worship or entertainment. If the question is framed like this, then yes it does matter; and it is the all-pervasive tendency to confuse worship with entertainment which is having such a corrosive impact on the quality of the C of E’s liturgy generally. Too many clergy do not understand what makes worship distinctive and an encounter with the living God is the last thing they expect.

  • James Morgan says:

    I have attended ‘Compline’ several times at a local Episcopal parish. The ‘congregation’ sat in pews, the ‘performers’ or ‘officiants’ stood in the rear of the church. No candles were lighted on the altar.
    At the absolution, the priest sitting in the pews did not participate. The absolution was chanted by one of the lay choristers (not very ‘liturgical’ eh?
    The singing was very nice, but no one in the pews responded in any way except sitting. When it was over, everyone just walked out.
    This was a great contrast to the many times I’ve attended Compline in a monastic setting where there was no ‘performance’ at all, just the last office of the day before sleep.

  • John Scrivener says:

    I agree with James A – there’s nothing wrong with using the word ‘perform’ of liturgy. The OED has a seventeenth-century example, referring to ‘four churches where divine service is performed but once a year’. Of course one ought to avoid contexts suggesting the more ‘theatrical’ end of the spectrum of meanings.
    Pope Benedict wrote that ‘wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy . . . it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared, and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment’.
    So I agree too that ‘entertainment’ is the relevant word, not least in a society in which the media convert everything into entertainment.

  • Geoff Jones says:

    I’ve just returned from Solesmes, the Benedictine Monastery near Le Mans in France. In their service booklet there’s also another wonderful quote by Benedict XVI about the misuse of the sign of peace and the need for an economical gesture which is primarily symbolic. It’s a wonderful antidote to the chaos which breaks out and disrupts the flow of the liturgy for 5 minutes in most English parish churches (Roman and Anglican). Again, it has become uprooted from its ancient roots and become another manifestation of a socially-orientated liturgy.

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