Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
In the 1960s, serving as a minister to youth, I screened a passion play done by English young people in the dress of the day, using popular music of the era. It had been written and produced by Ernest Marvin, a minister of what was then the Presbyterian Church of England. Mr. Marvin’s unconventional youth ministry is evidence of a passionate desire to communicate the gospel in a way that speaks to contemporary culture, and the courage to break new ground. To this point, Marvin’s story is similar to that of Bill Hybels, pastor of the Willow Creek Community Church, whose innovative approach to youth ministry led to “seeker services.” However, the trajectories of the ministries of the two men soon diverged. Hybels conceived a congregation that appeared to invent its own tradition from scratch; Marvin understood his ministry to be rooted in and accountable to the Reformed tradition and the ecumenical church.
Marvin became Church of Scotland Chaplain and Joint United Reformed Chaplain at Cambridge University, where he was also pastor of St. Columba’s. His book is not an appeal for congregations to tailor their worship for seekers, as though the Lord’s Day assembly is primarily an evangelistic tool, although he believes that “We overlook at our peril the evangelical and missionary potential which is latent within the liturgy. This is why it is so vital to get it ‘right’. . .” (p. 26).
To many of us, it is a matter for astonishment that the Reformed churches, that claim to place such a high value on thoughtful, biblical theology seem not to notice how much is at stake in what they do (or fail to do) on Sunday mornings. Marvin underlines the danger when “we fail to recognize how important liturgical form is in giving shape to faith” (p. 34). “Much present day worship seems to have only a tenuous hold on our foundational faith-narrative. . .” as it is embodied in the ordo of Word and Sacrament (p. 164).
Marvin is not a cheerleader for keeping things the same. Quite the contrary. He laments the clergy-centered, cerebral model of worship that was standard during his childhood and early ministry. He is not surprised when people find themselves bored with this kind of liturgy, but neither is it a great improvement when the church “dumbs down” the liturgy while perpetuating its cerebral nature and its clergy-centeredness.
Shaping Up is not a treatise for scholars. It is, rather, a winsomely written appeal to ministers and others who may influence the worship life of congregations. Marvin argues that the Great Tradition critiques the narrow traditions that emerged under circumstances specific to particular times and conditions. For example, the practice of infrequent Communion in the Scottish church may be traced to the fact of a great scarcity of ordained ministers after the Reformation rather than to a universal principle. Liberation “from much smaller and stifling tradition is precisely to be found in becoming more traditional” (p. 18). The liturgical insights of the 16th century reformers and the ecumenical church provide us with a “treasure, our peculiar witness to a world long since bored with itself and manipulated by its worst and noisiest elements” (p. 28).
Along with a number of others, Marvin adds his voice to those calling for a rediscovery of Sacrament, and particularly, as Calvin desired, a weekly reunion of the sacramental Word and the sacramental Table. He lifts up the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist, which is why Eucharist and Lord’s Day are meant to go together. Of course, as others have pointed out, it would be folly to move toward weekly Eucharist if we intend to do Eucharist as we have grown accustomed. The author warns against a primarily penitential approach to the Lord’s Supper. In a section on eucharistic prayer, Marvin laments the focus on “Last Supper” that results from over-emphasizing the Words of Institution rather than lifting up the theme of resurrection meal (e.g., Luke 24, John 21). The accent properly belongs on the act of giving thanks. Eucharistic prayer expresses the whole gospel in brief, narrative form, and does so doxologically.
This volume, lavishly printed on slick paper, with a Foreword by Brian Gerrish, is a persuasive and practical plea for Reformed churches to align their worship with their theological priorities.
Ronald P. Byars
(Note: This book is available through the United Reformed Church. It can be found at their website at http://books.urc2.org.uk/item.asp?ItemID=1043&CategoryID=71.)
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING/SUMMER 2007, VOL. 7, #1.
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