Katrina DowlingMusic1 Comment

This is a strange aspect of music ministry. In two separate occasions within a week, people looked to me, as music director of the local church, to confirm whether certain behaviours among the congregation show ‘disrespect’ in corporate worship.

Honestly, I had no official line to give, despite the fact that, if I lead a choir, I will give members a code of conduct; but that’s the prerogative of a choir director and doesn’t relate to comportment in the congregation as a whole. So I became curious about what the church’s teaching is, and discovered that there’s nothing explicit, but that I could read into the spirit behind some of our guidelines and teaching.[1] Here’s what I found…

No guidelines on specific behaviours

The Uniting Church in Australia provides ethical guidelines for members and adherents, and these guidelines say that we are expected to treat people with respect, but it doesn’t mention treating worship, worship accoutrements, or God’s presence with respect. Beyond saying that we are expected to be courteous and let people know that they are safe, the guidelines don’t prescribe exactly how to behave in order to be courteous.

There’s also a code of conduct for lay leaders, which adds to the guidelines for members some practices we are expected to do, such as studying Scripture and praying alone and together;  but neither of these codes deal with ‘conduct’ in the sense of how you comport yourself in corporate worship.

Church traditions are expected to be changing, not fixed

The history of this church seems to stress that tradition is a living thing rather than a static thing to be preserved unchanging – its traditions live by means of renewal as well as preservation. The attitude is influenced by “the notion of ‘receptive ecumenism’ where churches are encouraged, in relationship to each other, to move from defensiveness to appreciation of gifts kept by other traditions which have been lost or obscured in one’s own.”[2] If we have living traditions, then we might retain many longstanding practices, but we can’t rely solely on how things have been done in the past to teach us how to do things today.

Guidelines on liturgy are only minimally prescriptive

Because the church doesn’t tell us how to behave when we are worshipping together, I looked at what the guidelines for liturgy might suggest. Firstly, although the services of worship set out in Uniting in Worship are normative and include clear directions on what must and should be part of liturgy, “this does not mean, of course, that the services in Uniting in Worship are intended to be used rigidly and without imagination. All worship should be geared to the particular situation of the congregation, be it large or small, urban or rural.”[3] So the local context is expected to influence how we do worship.

Secondly, our particular expressions of liturgy (which would include the way in which we comport ourselves) are given secondary importance in worship, because the church believes that “aids to worship are signposts for christian pilgrims, not the goal of their journey. Only the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can bring human words and works to life, enabling us to be true worshippers who worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”[4]

Diversity is valued

The diversity of the Uniting Church is acknowledged:

The liturgical life of the Uniting Church is impossible to summarise. Its diversity encompasses a growing appreciation of the seasons of the Church year and of the Revised Common Lectionary, along with a commitment to liturgical freedom and, in some places, the exercise of continual novelty and an avoidance of written material.[5]

Diversity is supported and encouraged, as, for example, in Uniting in Worship, where, alongside an expectation of thoughtful and proper inclusion of all that’s needed for full entry into worship, there is the encouragement to treat the liturgies in the book more as a directory than as a book of common prayer.

Formal, middle and informal attitudes are all embraced

The Uniting Church provides for us to use a mix of formal to informal behaviours in terms of the language we use in liturgy. The preface of Uniting in Worship 2 discusses three ‘registers of language’ (note: “in speaking of registers of language, we do not imply registers of theology”).[6]

The liturgies in Uniting in Worship 2 use two registers of language – high “conveys a sense of dignity and the transcendence of God”; middle, through “a wider and warmer range of imagery… facilitates the connection between the Church’s corporate worship and our service of worship of God in everyday life”. Because it is a written book, it does not feature the oral tradition of low register language, which is “more colloquial and conversational… to speak to immediate situations, and to particular groups of people,” but it allows for liturgies to be conducted in informal language as well.[7] For me, this is the closest the church gets to saying what specific behaviours in worship are considered either appropriate or disrespectful; it seems to suggest that not only is a range of attitudes from formal to informal acceptable, but maybe also that we would be wise to use all of them to some extent, depending on our context, in order to experience the fullness of worship.

Conclusion… local cultures and church culture

Reading the spirit behind all of these guidelines, I think that, in general, the Uniting Church in Australia is more interested in enabling people to worship within their various cultural idioms than in establishing a unified church culture and enculturating people into it. It also seems that the church sees comportment (behaviour) as residing in the sphere of culture, making it a matter of local agreement, rather than theology, which would have made it something for the church to comment upon.

That leaves us with the task of agreeing in the local community on our expectations of our behaviour in worship: when to arrive and leave, when to move or be still, when to speak or be silent, what to wear, what posture to adopt, and so on… and the task of making it known so that we won’t be uneasy about whether we’re doing the right thing in this context. Further – and this is difficult to navigate for someone who needs to teach a choir or band to conform to expected behaviours for the good of the whole community – I’m reminded of Richard Foster’s warning against evaluating ourselves by our outward behaviours and against controlling others in their outward behaviours:

Jesus teaches that we must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). Yet we need to see that their righteousness was no small thing. They were committed to following God in a way that many of us are not prepared to do. One factor, however, was always central to their righteousness: externalism. Their righteousness consisted in control over externals, often including the manipulation of others. The extent to which we have gone beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees is seen in how much our lives demonstrate the internal work of God upon the heart. …

If we are to progress in the spiritual walk so that the Disciplines are a blessing and not a curse, we must come to the place in our lives where we can lay down the everlasting burden of always needing to manage others.[8]

Please leave a comment if you can refine the understanding offered here of how Uniting Church traditions relate to ‘respectful’ and ‘disrespectful’ behaviour, or if you’d like to add a perspective from a different tradition.

[1] Disclaimer: I’m not speaking on behalf of the church here, but showing how I, as a layperson, understand what the church makes available for me to learn from.

[2] Robert Gribben, “Living Traditions in the Uniting Church,” in Being and Doing Church, A Uniting Church Perspective, ed. Christopher C. Walker (Adelaide: Mediacom, 2015), 4, https://assembly.uca.org.au/cudw/resources/item/1667-living-traditions-in-uniting-church.

[3] Preface to Uniting in Worship (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1988), 8.

[4] Preface to Uniting in Worship (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1988), 11.

[5] Preface to Uniting in Worship 2 (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2000), 9.

[6] Preface to Uniting in Worship 2 (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2000), 9.

[7] Preface to Uniting in Worship 2 (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2000), 9-10.

[8] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Study guide edn. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), 9-10.

One Comment on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”

  1. A particularly thoughtful, warm and erudite explanation that sits very nicely with both what I think and with the inclusiveness of the Uniting Church expressed at the congregation of St Luke’s.

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