Corporate Institutional Worship is a Means to an End, Not the End Itself

In Anglican Spirituality (ed. William Wolf), Harvey Guthrie gives an overview of some of the principal contours of what he understands Anglican spirituality to be. Anglicanism tends not to emphasize confessional (prizing correct belief) or experiential (prizing interior conversion experiences) frameworks so much as pragmatic (prizing corporate participation). As such, Guthrie argues that Anglican spirituality is primarily “corporate, liturgical, and sacramental”–to express spirituality in an Anglican context is to participate in liturgical, sacramental worship together with others in Eucharist services and other offices. Public, corporate worship tends to be valued over personal, interior, mystical spirituality.

I struggled with one particular passage:

[We should] be mindful that the Anglican tradition has its own characteristics, is basically corporate, liturgical, and sacramental rather than individualistic. In the Anglican tradition personal, individual devotion and spiritual direction are not central. They are not ends in and of themselves. Some system of personal meditation is not the center of spiritual life. Participate in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church is the center of the spiritual life.  (pg 11)

Being published in 1982, I’m guessing that Guthrie was writing in response to the New Age spirituality movements of the 1970s and the growing suspicion of the time toward institutions in general–political, economic, but also religious. I’m guessing that he’s trying to tell the Flower Children of the 1970s that “no, you still need church” or at least “if you’re going to be a New Age Flower Child, then that’s not completely compatible with being a good Anglican.” I may very well be misreading Guthrie’s intention here, of course, but the passage still rubbed me the wrong way.

This is because my experience with the conservative, hierarchical flavor of Christian ecclesiology tended to emphasize the importance of the institution and regular participation in the institution as the ultimate end of Christian life. It is only through the institution that salvation is possible and Christian character can be fully formed (or at least, formed more completely than in other contexts). I observed a lot of folks (not all, of course) who went to church because that’s what you do; it was a duty as much as an expression of worship. Over the years I found that my more core frameworks of spirituality were expressed through the institution as opposed to through a personal, unmediated relationship with God. I came to think of institutionalized religion has a “tool” or “vehicle” to help foster and facilitate spiritual growth and connection with God, but more often became ends and in and of themselves. I later learned that organizational systems scholars say, “Well yeah! That’s what organizations and systems do! They seek to perpetuate themselves and survive! This applies to businesses, nations, universities, AND religious institutions alike.”

Ultimately, I suppose I fundamentally disagree with Guthrie’s perspective on the normative goals of Anglican spirituality. As I understood his perspective, corporate worship is the goal of Anglican spirituality, with any “personal, individual devotion” either subordinate to that goal or superfluous to the goal. I have the opposite perspective–the objective of “corporate, liturgical, and sacramental” institutional worship experiences are to deepen and strengthen one’s individual relationship with God. To the extent that they do that, great! To the extent that they become ends in and of themselves, they can distract from the ultimate goal of Christian life, and risk become semi-idolatrous as well.

I look at this as well from a eschatological perspective. In the Resurrection of the dead to a New Heavens and New Earth, I doubt very much that there will be “church” in the way that we understand it. This is influenced by my interpretation of Revelation 21:22 (“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” NIV). There’s no temple in the New Jerusalem because there are no longer mediators needed to bridge the gap between us and God, which (I think) is the point of God’s ultimate plan for God’s creation. The goal, as I understand it, is eventual full reunification with God, and the church exists to help us with this goal.

To be clear, I am very, very, very grateful for the institution of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church. In my personal life, its structures and liturgies have been highly effective at helping me toward the goal of individual spiritual growth and deepening my relationship with God. I’m glad that it’s there! But participating in the corporate, liturgical, and sacramental life of the church is not, in my mind, the “end goal” of the cosmos. Therefore, I see Guthrie’s perspective as understandable but fundamentally misguided.

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