Criticising worship

Posted on December 12, 2007


Andy Goodliff keeps an excellent blog; he recently posted an excerpt from Rob Warner on charismatic worship here. In the excerpt—and I haven’t read Warner’s book yet—a series of familiar criticisms are made with energy and verve (Warner writes well): charismatic worship engages in ‘a wilful disregard for reality’ in its promises of unswerving devotion and its expectations of revival; it creates an altered state of consciousness (‘the charismatic equivalent of clubbing’); it ‘commodifie[s]’ worship music, making it something ephemeral and disposable, and so ‘rupture[s]’ it from tradition.

I have a rule to propose, no doubt forlornly: no-one should presume to criticise any contemporary worship style who has not read the whole of, and sung a good part of, at least two hymnbooks published before 1900. The simple fact is that there are very few failures in charismatic worship that have not been endemic in the Christian tradition, but because we only know the best 1% (or less) of the eighteenth-century material, we end up thinking it was so much better. A reading of the first edition of Hymns for the Use of People Called Methodists (still more the many compositions that John Wesley would not let Charles publish!), Olney Hymns, Sacred Songs and Solos, or Watts’s Psalms of David Imitated… will rapidly correct the impression, still more a reading of those whose hymns have justly been forgotten by history. (In my fairly extensive collection of execrable charismatic lyrics, I still know nothing to rival choice examples of the father of Baptist hymnody, Benjamin Keach…)

But actually, even if we stick to those few songs of earlier ages that have come down to us, often fairly heavily edited, we can find greater excesses in most of these directions than is present in the general run of charismatic worship. To take just one example, for over-extravagant claims of devotion and spiritual experience, what about this? ‘Perfect submission, perfect delight, // Visions of rapture burst on my sight. // Angels desceding, bring from above, // Echoes of mercy, whispers of love. // This is my story, this is my song, // Praising my Saviour, all the day long…’

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