If I was looking through the windows of some churches, particularly those of the Roman Catholic faith, I would feel very intimidated by the pomp and ceremony on display there. Apart from not knowing the norms and values of the people within, or what sort of welcome I would receive, I would probably find all the robes, religious relics and some of the acts of worship far too bizarre for my personal taste.
In the past, the church was a very strong influencer on people’s lives and congregations lived in awe and fear. The masses would hang on to every word spoken and questioning faith or rebuking anything a priest said would be tantamount to heresy! Nowadays people are not prepared to be so subservient and many church congregations have dwindled apart from the new people’s churches and gospel worship establishments which are on the increase.
Fortunately I go to a church where the vicars are very down-to-earth, friendly and approachable and everyone is made to feel valued. While they follow the traditional Christian conventions and wear their collars during the services, there is no “holier than thou” or condescending demeanour and the congregation have a strong fellowship and team spirit.
If we consider how wealthy the church establishment was in the past, and how much land and property it owned, it makes us wonder where it all went to and how what remains could be better-used in our modern-day society. For instance, why are churches not more dual-purpose? There are so many homeless people, asylum seekers, etc. living on our streets or in costly council-provided accommodation, why not make more use of empty or only partly-used church buildings? Or sell them off and donate the money to help the poor in society?
Why do we need the top hierarchy of the churches living in sumptuous palaces and luxurious houses with all the trappings of wealth? Why do we need all the glorification and icons? After all, Jesus lived a very simple life and didn’t need all the robes and accoutrements to get his messages across – apparently he deplored it!
So, Graham, as a Minister of Religion, how do you view all the ‘pomp and circumstance’ which goes with some churches today and what do you think God would make of it all?
Rev Graham replies: Thank you for your question, Carol, and a quick answer would depend upon what Church tradition a person may align themselves to and what those of no church or religious persuasion thought.
In my early years, I grew up in the family home that was connected to Union Hall, an independent church in Hulme, Manchester, before its redevelopment in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
My mother was the caretaker/cleaner of the church and in my parents’ bedroom there was a door that opened up into the church hall and another larger room that was used on Sundays and midweek as the sanctuary and as children we would often play there. Such a space contrasts sharply to cathedrals in Manchester, Coventry, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s in London which are consecrated and the alter and sanctuary set apart from other areas within the church building.
In Psalm 84 we read about God’s dwelling place and His desire to co-dwell with His people, just as the sparrow and the swallow dwell in God’s creation. In all our places of worship, both large and small, God wants to grace us with His presence and bring a blessing to us.
In Exodus Chapters 25 – 31 we read of the instructions given to Moses concerning the Covenant (Law), Tabernacle (place of consecrated worship) and Priesthood (administers of the Sacraments). The Old and New Covenants between God and His people are restorative actions following the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden where God dwelt harmoniously with them and all creation.
The Law/Ten Commandments, housed within the ark, were given to Moses to regulate people’s living in a holy and ordinary manner. The Tabernacle was a dwelling place that, during the wanderings in the wilderness, represented God’s movable co-dwelling with His people. The Priesthood, which Aaron and his sons were called to, were to represent a Holy God to a sinful people and the vestments they wore, as found in Leviticus 8, were reflected in the celebration of sin offerings.
To one degree or another, when we enter a simple place of worship or a magnificent cathedral both seek to represent an intention that a co-dwelling may exist between a Holy and Almighty God and a worshipful people. If a place of worship is considered pompous then it is in danger of detracting itself from the important purpose of providing a space for personal confession, worship and teaching for Holy living. Conversely, if a neglected building is trying to represent the presence of God, it will be in danger of stifling any healthy attitude of confession, praise and worship. An environment, attitude and form of worship will help or hinder any sense of co-dwelling and worship to Almighty God.
In the UK we have the Royal family who are good at certain aspects of pomp and ceremony which may inspire, irritate or serve to separate people rather than bring them together. I’m sure Jesus would favour the belief that the church and its leaders and followers should be more inclusive under the sound of the gospel than exclusive in all its activities.
If the church is labelled pompous, there is a feeling that it doesn’t fully connect to the reality of ordinary people and therefore may be classed as distant and irrelevant to modern living and lose the opportunity to share the core message of Jesus who would not be considered pompous but very much connected to ordinary people. For all those in positions of power and influence, the spirit they convey is often more important and may act as a soft spiritual power compared to a spirit that is cold and distant.
In both grand and basic buildings, they may be classed as acceptable if their main intention is to lift a believer into the presence of God in various forms of worship, liturgy and teaching rather than acting as a form of entertainment with those leading being the main focus. The cross in any church acts as an icon to reminds us all of Jesus’s redeeming work on that cross.
In the New Testament we are taught to have an attitude of Christ and to imitate his lifestyle. He was willing to descend from heaven to live in a servant form to bring honour and glory to God (Philippians 2 6-11). Jesus had no home, income or status of his own apart from being the Son of God within the Trinity. He was despised and rejected and sent to the cross as a result of the ruling and pompous religious authorities of his day. On the cross he was given a criminals’ garment to wear and many believe that, during his crucifixion, he may not have worn any cloths at all!
John the Baptist, as a result of his forthright views and opinions, died a martyr as he prepared the way of the Lord and was very different to conventional priests, clothing himself with animal skins and having a diet of locusts and honey. The Apostle Paul was raised in a Jewish family and adhered to all the Jewish laws and ceremonies and went on to become a rabbi. After his encounter with the risen Lord, he lived a simple life travelling and helping to establish the early church while being persecuted and imprisoned.
As the early Christian church established itself, there existed a growing dilemma between serving God and securing an earthly power base. Jesus, Paul and many early church fathers spoke out against areas of compromise that existed within the church during the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
The church has, and often does, seek to govern in a worldly manner which reveals itself in how Canonical law, worship and sacraments take place or don’t take place. The Holy Spirit of God is the true power within and alongside the church. A priest who represents God wearing elaborate garments or simple tee shirts has to humbly convey a sense of the God’s Spirit so that people are uplifted to truly worship God with thanksgiving.
The church is, and always has been, in various stages of flux that includes both decline and increase. It is required to constantly be in an attitude of penitence, forgiveness, humility, renewal and confident in the power of the Holy Spirit rather than in its own human structures and aspirations. The Kingdom of God will be fully established in God’s time that will represent a restoration of the perfect Garden of Eden where a creator God is happy to co-dwell in the presence of a forgiven, worshipful, created believer.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Carol, depending on a person’s experience of worship and those without any Church or religious persuasion, it may be concluded that all churches can be pompous and off-putting or humble and uplifting in their own particular setting. To differentiate between the two it will be helpful to identify certain hallmarks:
- Does it radiate a sense of the otherness of God?
- Is there a thin-line presence between heaven and earth?
- Is there a sense of self-promotion that represents a misuse of spiritual power and influence?
In my retreats and study times, I often attend Mirfield Monastery in West Yorkshire where there exists the hallmarks of a majestic consecrated abbey that conducts its life and witness in a very simple monastic form as referenced in one of my blogs Ironically Iconic. In Genesis, we find a perfect situation where the creator and the created have friendship and presence together without the help of a third party as represented in the role of a priest. That special relationship is broken and the ‘shame of nakedness’ entered human life with God giving Adam and Eve animal skins to cover themselves!
In a restored Garden, Heaven and Eternal space, the Christian hope is that we will not require any further laws, tabernacles, vestments and sacrifices to draw us near to God. The true pomp and circumstance will be found when we abide in the very presence of God Almighty 24/7.
Listen to this majestic hymn about the greatness of God Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken by John Newton based on Psalm 87: 3