The story goes that since the Enlightenment and the rise of natural science, we have entered an age of disenchantment. Rationality has rid the world of demons and ghosts, not to mention cherubim and seraphim. Whereas in premodern times we could believe that an actual angel appeared to Mary and uttered the famous words that announced the birth of Jesus, now no such belief is possible because we all know that the world is not like that.

The story also goes that Christianity is about the moral life and believing twelve impossible things before breakfast. It is rarely thought to be about delight and desire. But these two are at the centre of Christian worship. In the history of English Church Music there was a long tussle between those who insisted that the words sung must be heard by the congregation (because those words belonged to the Word of God) and composers who strove to produce music that, while the words were often in Latin and the confusion of many voices obscured them, sought to produce a thing of beauty for the glorification of God.  This controversy continued back and forth with changes in the English Monarchy.  If you attend St George’s Cathedral in Perth, you will find the latter use of church music. The service for the Eucharist is often sung in Latin and to music composed in the reign of Elizabeth I. As the words sung are repeated every Sunday and an English translation lies before us in the order of worship, we have no trouble knowing what is being sung.

One of the results of this practice is that we are enveloped in a kind of enchantment that reaches back centuries to the millions of Christians who sang or heard sung the same or very similar words. The practice is atavistic, it connects us to the faith of our ancestors and hence supports our own faith.  The central idea of this essay is that these experiences of worship can re-enchant our world. We witness solemn processions of robed choir, servers, deacons and priests accompanied by a thundering organ. The liturgy unfolds in word and action, each tightly scripted to its meaning and place. It begins not with “good morning” but with a blessing that sums up all our hope; “The Lord be with you.” It continues in formal, read prayer for the Sunday being celebrated. There is no off the cuff remark. Not even a welcome to visitors, for this is the serious business of worship in which nothing inessential is allowed.

The liturgy is a tightly choreographed dance in which the celebrant and servers turn from congregation to choir for the Kyrie, Sanctus and Gloria. This all sounds like it would be a disaster in our time. Who would come? Surely the players should attempt to sell the play! But this is a case of less being more, like the deadpan expression of the actor Bill Murray. One commentator praised a new priest as having “Not a bit of enthusiasm”.  This is not the place to exercise charisma.

The gospel is sung in the middle of the Church, and the singer is surrounded by candle bearers and a censer. The congregation turn to hear it. The gospel is among the people, we turn to hear it, it is accompanied by light and smoke, it is sung because singing relates to our emotions as well as to our rationality. As the saying goes; “who sings prays twice”. The sweet-smelling smoke calls us back to Old Testament references to the presence of God. Present but hidden.

The effect is to create a world that is not reduced to the paradigms of Enlightenment rationality, although it happily exists in that world. The scientific view of the world is accepted but does not empty the world of meaning. Rather, human historical narrative, the power of art, the formation of community and the sense that human life has a destiny takes centre stage. We do not accept that the world has been disenchanted even though we acknowledge natural causality.

The worship of the Church remakes an enchanted word in which strangers from another time and place become our forebears and in which God comes to dwell with His people, and his people are transformed. The much talked about clash between science and religion does not exist because religion (for want of a better word) addresses humanity in its existential totality that may not be reduced to animal causation or economic necessity.

The work of re-enchantment is carried in the sacramental life of the Church. Who would think it possible that a child should receive the Spirit of God upon baptism? Who could credit that Christ himself is present in the preaching and the Eucharist? Is not the Eucharistic table, a table spread for all humankind, the symbol and reality of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people? Does it not represent the fulfilment of human history?

Without this vision, our world is reduced to the anaemic view of science and practical rationality, a bare meal indeed. It is no wonder that we are experiencing an increase in the mental disorders of anxiety and depression. We are a people who live in deep darkness and the shadow of death, obsessed with technological fixes that come and go without addressing our underlying problem: we live our lives in bewilderment. It is not obvious how we should live our lives, in what lies our destiny and purpose. We need more than good works; we need to be confronted by our nature and destiny in God.

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment has given us a mistaken idea of the deity by objectifying Him as a supernatural person who pervades the universe like the mythical ether of the early scientists.  It is quite easy to dismiss such a being and welcome free-thinking atheism. But this is not what God is about. God is that repository of wisdom and knowledge distilled from human experience without which we are all lost. He is at once wholly other and closer to us than breathing. To experience the presence of God is to be delighted as we are delighted when the music is complex and harmonic, music that fits the words being sung to evoke sorrow at our sins and delight in our salvation.

It is the liturgy of the Church that re-enchants our world, humanises it, and sets us on our feet, that will save our crumbling politics and dissolving institutions by giving us a deeper view of the human estate.

 

Dr Peter Sellick
March 2022

Peter Sellick has a background in science, has spent ten years as a Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church and is currently an Anglican Deacon.