I heard it the first time a few weeks before the election and figured it was a fluke. But when I heard it again — this time from the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop — I wondered if this was a trend, perhaps even a movement.

The “it” I encountered first came on the Facebook feed of the dean of one of the largest Protestant seminaries in the country, in the form of this quote from Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM: “Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: ‘Worship me.’ Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything” (see the full context of the quote here).

The second encounter came in the opening speech that Bishop Michael Curry gave on October 22 to the Executive Council, the body responsible for the oversight of the budget passed by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church every triennium.

It’s really clear that the actual life of the church gets lived in our congregations, our lay and clergy people, it is lived as people of God as Verna Dozier used to say, “The real action happens when the dismissal get said, ‘Go into the world,’” that’s when the action happens.

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These are not small or unimportant claims.

I can see how you, dear reader, may be thinking that I’m overly sensitive. “Haven’t you ever heard of hyperbole?” you ask. But this is not hyperbole. I would know. I studied with Stanley Hauerwas and so I have a significant experience with the trenchant use of a few helpings of good ol’ American overstatement with a side of a choice expletive or two.

The problems are of two different sorts.

First, there is the basic claim itself: the sharp distinction between worship and ethics. In Fr. Rohr’s claim, worship isn’t really challenging and doesn’t really demand much from us, while the work of living the Gospel is extraordinarily difficult and demands much from us. (There is also that rather insidious aside that Jesus never told us to worship him.)[1] Bishop Curry assumes a similar distinction between worship and ethics: he frames the situation in terms of action. “Real” action is outside the church, after worship, when we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” The conclusion we are to draw, apparently, is that worship is less real.

The two might be forgiven if they ministered in different traditions, where the Eucharist does not lie at the heart of worship or where worship itself is conceived in a more emotive fashion. But this isn’t the case in the Roman Catholic Church or in Anglicanism. The Christian tradition has a long and rich history of seeing ritual worship and the other things we do with our body and mind to be of a whole — one seamless garment. The documents of Vatican II put this beautifully. First, in the Decree on the Sacred Liturgy, we read:

[T] he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. … From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way (par. 10).

This approach is echoed in this oft-quoted phrase of Lumen Gentium, the Decree on the Church: the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (par. 11).

The Eucharist is where God makes possible our sacrifice, uniting it to the sacrifice of his Son, so that we who are the Body of Christ, in receiving that same body in the Eucharist, become more fully what we receive. And here we can glimpse the union of ethics to worship. The union with God in the Eucharist that comes by grace also makes possible all our additional works, which are a sacrifice of praise unto God. Augustine describes this most beautifully: “The true sacrifice is every act done in order that we might cling to God in holy fellowship, that is, every act which is referred to the final good in which we can be truly blessed.” (City of God X.5).

What we offer in union with Christ is, in part, (in Cranmer’s phrase) “our selves, our souls and bodies.” Augustine explains it thusly: “The congregation and fellowship of the saints is offered to God as a universal sacrifice through the great priest who, in his passion, offered himself for us in the form of a servant.” He continues: “And this is the sacrifice that the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar (which is well known to the faithful), where it is made plain to her that, in the offering she makes, she herself is offered” (City of God X.6).

The act of truly offering oneself to God is, it turns out, a profoundly difficult thing. As Bonhoeffer famously put it, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” Christian eucharistic worship is not easy; it is the response of love and adoration to the God who acts first in Christ Jesus, whereby our offering of bread and wine as symbols of all of creation, along with our very selves, is joined to Christ’s own self-offering to the Father on the Cross and continually pled in heaven. And in the Father’s acceptance of this sacrifice, God gives it all back to us as the Body of his Son — the bread and wine along as well as ourselves.

To be blunt, setting up a conflict between worship and the living of the Christian life is repugnant to the gospel. Our prayers remind us that “all our doings without charity are nothing worth.” And the charity required to offer rightly the eucharistic sacrifice — which is also the divine gift received therein — must be the only motivation for ethics (especially social ethics). Otherwise, they cannot please God.

Christian worship and Christian ethics are inextricably bound up together.

The second problem with their separation of worship and ethics is the choice to frame the discussion with just two, binary options. My hunch is that this sort of binary approach springs from a desire to communicate in simple terms. And I agree with the intent: to speak about the Christian life in a way that most people cannot understand is pastorally unwise and will likely bear little fruit. Such simplistic thinking and teaching, however, may also spring from intellectual laziness, even unintentionally.

Slogans and pithy statements are memorable. But they only get us so far. The gospel and the Rule of Faith are not simple or simplistic, but present a richly lavish mosaic whose beauty requires an eternity to marvel at and adore.

Commentators have begun to see the devastation wrought by simple, binary approaches in the wake of November 8. As J.D. Vance showed us in Hillbilly Elegy (and this marvelous interview with Rod Dreher), the “other side” to the cultural elite is much more complicated the “college educated” vs. “non-college educated” divide would seem to indicate. If the election taught us anything, it is that we need to get to know other human beings who are different. That’s just not the (one) other group I don’t understand, but the whole myriad of those who are “other” than me.

Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed on this very topic, which he calls “reductionist solitarism.” Saturday Night Live got the message also. The fact is that “women” aren’t a group about whom social scientists can reliably predict voting habits (along with Hispanics, African-Americans, evangelicals, and so on). Why? Because people, and their voting habits, cannot be reduced to their gender, their race, their sexual desires, their hair color, their sartorial style, or a host of other given and chosen qualities of human beings.

So if human beings are such a mystery, how much more so is the God who fashioned us? How much more intricate are this God’s dealings with his creatures, his innumerable gestures of divine mercy?

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:33-34)

Theologians, teachers, pastors: don’t settle for simple sound bites in an age of evil rhetoric.

Footnotes

[1] Does he mean that since Jesus told us to do lots of other things, those things must be more important than the worship of Jesus? Or does he mean that since Jesus didn’t tell us to worship him, we actually shouldn’t worship him and that such worship is a distortion of the gospel?

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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Marcia A. Tremmel

Thanks for these great points, Fr. Olver. I wish we didn’t split the two either and I’m not sure that’s what either Fr. Rohr or Bishop Curry meant. I always think of worship as ongoing whether I’m in church, at the altar, washing dishes, writing a check to Food for the Poor, handing a restaurant gift card to the homeless guy so he can eat that day- the list could go on and on. Can it all not be seen as worship? Whether we are joining in prayer and song in the liturgy or doing something for the least of… Read more »

Thanks for your comments, Marcia. Yes, I think that all of these things can be seen as worship. I was simply thinking of the more formal distinction about the distinctiveness of our worship in the Eucharist, but you are quite right to highlight how these things are interwoven. I love in the Litany how we ask God to deliver us, not just by Christ’s death on the cross, but by all the other parts of his life (even his birth and circumcision!). Our Lord’s whole life was praise to the Father and our should be as well.

One of the fundamental questions that must be addressed is what is the Gospel. Left and right have their (partial) Gospels. You are pointing out that the error of the left is to see the Gospel as a call to social action. The right tends to reduce the Gospel, ironically, to action, except now it is action that views the Gospel as the way I can “get to heaven when I die.” [Really, given Rohr’s work, he should know better. Ironic that his claim comes from a web site with the name “Center for Action and Contemplation”] When you say,… Read more »

Thanks, Charlie. Let me push back a bit. You write: “You are pointing out that the error of the left is to see the Gospel as a call to social action.” The concern I raised was less sweeping than that. It was simply to highlight that the worship and service/ethics are inseparable from each other. But I do agree there is something critical about the order: worship precedes work, which is to say that grace precedes everything.

Andrew Pearson

Fr. Olver, this is timely. I have been thinking on the same thing in light of the Presiding Bishop’s Christmas message. Thanks for putting forward some foundational thinking on this.

“To be blunt, setting up a conflict between worship and the living of the Christian life is repugnant to the gospel. Our prayers remind us that ‘all our doings without charity are nothing worth.’” That’s well worth emphasizing, and thanks to Fr. Olver for doing so. But, human nature being what it is (mine, anyway), the greater risk (for me, anyway) is to be lax about worshipful service outside the church even if I’m diligent about faithful worship inside it. Maybe Rohr and Curry–clumsily, perhaps–are shining a light onto one kind of chasm that some of us (I, anyway) are… Read more »

I think you’re hitting precisely on the concerns (or the audience) to which both Fr Rohr and Bishop Curry are writing. It IS a serious problem. My hope was to gently push back and remind us that we can correct this error without speaking in a way that engenders confusion.

First, this reminds me that the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is framed around worship, as it is the Christian practices primarily acted out in the worship of the community, that properly shapes the ethics of the community. Secondly, I think that Jim Rain is right to point out that for many of us religious and seemingly pious folks, it is easy to check of the box of serving God by compartmentalizing that service to worship. And yet, I think it’s worth considering that the greater and more widespread problem in our culture may be those who have long since… Read more »

Well said, Jody!

Charis Hill

I believe that if people (such as the author of this article) choose to interpret a direct call to follow Jesus’ teachings as something that is negative, we certainly have more work to do to find wholeness within TEC and the world. Saying that Mr. Rohr and PB Curry are pitting worship and work against each other is a bit presumptive without asking them firsthand if they would agree with your interpretation of their words. I think this quote, from your first link in the article, could be a great starting point for an interview with Mr. Rohr: “I have… Read more »

[I also posted this reply over on TLC’s FB pace] Thanks for reading the piece, Charis. I’m grateful. I am in absolute agreement with you that the direct call to follow Jesus is one to which all Christians must actively respond, without exception. And I don’t think the article stated or insinuated otherwise. The concern I had was with the introduction opposition between the call to follow Jesus’ command to serve in the social sphere in any context with the call to worship. I hope that both Fr Rohr and Bishop Curry don’t want to put the two against one… Read more »

Thanks to Michael B. Wurz in a comment on FB who brought in this great quote from one of my former teaches (who must have influenced me!): “Elsewhere I have argued that the politics that creates the “and” between liturgy and ethics reproduces the politics of modernity that privatizes what makes the church the church, namely, the worship of God. That Christians now must try to understand, for example, how prayer mayor may not be related to the moral life indicates something has gone profoundly wrong with the practices that are meant to shape the Christian community. Once the “and”… Read more »