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Creativity and worship

9 February 2011

In 1967 I was studying at St Chad’s College in Durham, England, and I went to spend the Christmas vacation with an Augustinian community at Breda in the Netherlands.

It was only a couple of years after the Second Vatican Council, and liturgical reform was in the air, and the Dutch Catholics were the avant garde of the Roman Catholic Church, doing things that had not been done before.

While I was staying with them they asked me to translate papers and articles from Dutch into English, and their papers were mostly about liturgical reforms. One of the papers stressed the point that the new forms of liturgy were more flexible, and therefore would demand a great deal more creativity from the celebrant. Apart from the use of the vernacular instead of Latin, this was the biggest change.

With the old Roman Catholic liturgy, no creativity was needed. All one had to do was learn what to say, when to say it, and what actions to perform. There was a greater or lesser degree of ceremonial. High Mass was done with lots of ministers, servers, choirs and clouds of incense. Low Mass could be gabbled by a priest on his own in 20 minutes.

Now the services could be tailored to the needs of each community. It was recognised that different societies and different cultures had different needs and expectations. So creativity was demanded, but was not always to hand. The result was not always happy.

Priests who had been saying the Latin Mass for 20 years were suddenly lost, and if they lacked the spark of creativity, the congregations suffered. When it was in Latin, which few people understood, at least it sounded mysterous and numinous. When it was in a rather banal vernacular translation, with an uncreative priest, it could be deadly dull.

If you’ve read this far, and haven’t guessed it by now, for this synchroblog I’ll be discussing one aspect of creativity, the creativity in leading worship referred to in the paper by the Dutch Augustinian. I’ll also be discussing it mainly as a personal narrative of my own experience, so if that sounds too boring, scroll down to the end and pick one of the other posts.

I returned to St Chad’s College after the vac, where they had their own tangles with liturgical reform. The previous term they has been using the C hurch of England’s “Series II” services in the college chapel, which had been sabotaged by some members of staff, who didn’t like it. On my return, the college staff  had unilaterally reverted to the old version, which was a kind of Anglo-Catholic version of the Roman Latin Mass, only in English. Some of the other students had been at a conference that had been addressed by Walter Hollenweger, a Swiss-Chilean Pentecostal who worked for the World Council of Churches. He got them all fired up on liturgical creativity, and had said that the people who knew about creative liturgy were journalists. So there was a group of us who were feeling somewhat rebellious about the reversion to the old ways in the college chapel.

In the Easter vac in 1968, two of us went to Switzerland for a course on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students, and took the opportunity to go and see Walter Hollenweger at his office in the WCC headquarters in Geneva, to discuss our complaints. I won’t go into all the details here, but we had a minor revolution in the college. In July 1968 I returned to South Africa with ideas of liturgical creativity and also having had a first taste of Orthodox liturgy. I attended a couple of “experimental” services organised by the University Christian Movement at Rhodes University, but wasn’t very impressed.

In 1969 I found myself at the Missions to Seamen in Durban, where the main form of public worship was a kind of truncated Anglican Evensong, with a few sentimental frills for those who had romantic notions of the sea and sailors. When I was asked by the priest in Greenwood Park to lead a couple of services when he was on leave, and he told me that they had the bishop’s permission to scrap Evensong and do “experimental” worship, it sounded like an opportunity to be creative. I asked him if I could call in the youth group of the Christian Institute, an ecumenical group, to help plan and lead it. He agreed. The result of it was that I was fired by the Anglican bishop of Natal. You can read the full story at Notes from underground: Psychedelic Christian Worship — thecages, which is really an integral part of this post.

The next few years saw the rise of the charismatic renewal movement in the Anglican Church (and several other denominations). This led to a new desire for praise and worship among those who were touched by the renewal, but the emphasis was not on creativity, but spontaneity.

At the same time the Anglican Church introduced new forms of service, called Liturgy 1975. This was minimalist. They were liturgical outlines rather than liturgical texts, and so they made room for both creativity and sponteneity. Because the printed service books services trimmed everything regarded as non-essential, they were regarded as the “bare bones”. The local congregation provided the flesh and skin, and, it was hoped, the Holy Spirit would breathe life into it. This sometimes happened, if there was the right mix of creativity and spontaneity.

The service for the Holy Eucharist had a section headed “Praise”, which began as follows:

Praise the Lord
Praise him you servants of the Lord

You that stand in the house of the Lord
Praise the name of the Lord

Then is said the following, which may be omitted in Lent

Glory to God in the highest
and peace to his people on earth…

In parishes influenced by the charismatic renewal, the space between “Praise the name of the Lord” and “Glory to God in the highest” could be filled with anything from a few minutes to several hours of spontaneous prayer and praise. This could be either serial or parallel. Sometimes people prayed one at a time, in plain language or in tongues, someone might start a hymn or chorus, which would be taken up by others, and sometimes there would be singing or praying in tongues, with everyone praying at once. In places like Zululand it got quite exuberant, with people shouting and jumping up and down. When the celebrant, or the minister leading that part of the service judged that it was enough, it would go on to “Glory to God in the highest”, which, if sung well, could sum up the praise part of the service, or if said (uncreatively) could bring everyone down to earth with a bump.

Ten years later, in 1985, we began going to Orthodox services, and in 1987 we joined the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox liturgical texts were maximalist rather than minimalist. There was lots of repetition, which was one of the things the Anglican and Roman Catholic liturgical reformers had been determined to do away with. “Again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord” was exactly right, but “Let us complete our prayer to the Lord” usually indicated that there was  another hour or two to go. There was little room for creativity or spontaneity. And the texts were theologically concentrated. There was sometimes an enormous amount of theology packed into a few words. There is a lot of repetition, but after 25 years of the repetition, it still isn’t exhausted. There is always something new, something that has been there all along, but which suddenly impinges on one’s consciousness.

So looking back over more than forty years on the remarks of the Dutch Augustinians about the need for more creativity in leading worship with the (then) new liturgical revisions, I’ve come to question whether it was a good thing.

I think of our “psychedelic” service in St Columba’s, Greenwood Park. It took a great deal of preparation, and a great deal of creative thinking. As a once-off, it wasn’t too bad, but the thought of repeating that amount of effort once or twice or even more every week for ten, twenty, thirty years or more is daunting. Sooner or later the creative juices must run out, and too much depends on a small group of leaders.

The Orthodox liturgies don’t run out of juice because they don’t rely on the creative mood of the moment, which can be minimal if one is feeling tired, or sick, or depressed. The Orthodox services rely on 1000 or more years of experience, which is inexhaustible, whereas the creative effort of a small group of people soon becomes exhausted. The problem is that not everyone can be creative all the time, and some people are not creative at all, and so what was once inspiring and creative and spontaneous worship can soon descend into banality and boredom.

After becoming Orthodox, we were out of the western charismatic scene for a while, but a couple of years ago I had a taste of it at the Amahoro Conference, where I mistook what was intended to be “worship” for the band practising (see What is worship? | Khanya).

I’m sure that creativity has its place in the Christian life, but in leading worship I think it is greatly overrated.


This post is part of a synchroblog on Christianity and creativity, in which several people post on the same theme on the same day. Here are some of the other posts on the topic:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 February 2011 1:48 am

    Hmm. That is an interesting take on creativity. Do you think that creativity was used when the services were first planned, or as the tradition was developed?

    • 10 February 2011 10:15 am

      Oh yes, but the point is that it developed slowly and cumulatively, so that it represented the experience of the whole Church. Not just the up-to-the-minute brainwaves of one person or a small group, but of Christians over the centuries.

      Bishop Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox bishop in Oxford, England, once attended a liturgical conference where various scholars were discussing the current state of their liturgical revision projects. He didn’t have much to say, and eventually one of the others turned to him and said “Hasn’t the Orthodox Church done any liturgical revision recently?”

      “Oh yes,” he replied. “About 200 years ago we introduced a new service for the expulsion of rats from wells.”

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