Jim Hart: Ancient-Future Worship & The Great Tradition (January ’21 Presidential Address)

You can see the previous Presidential Address, referred to in this address, at this link.

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Welcome to our new classes: the MWS Kaph 2 class and the DWS Upsilon 2 class, along with our returning students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees. We warmly welcome you to our community of learning and faith.

Purpose of Presidential Address: Keep before this community our God-given mission, and to explore various aspects of it. Mission statement: “The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies forms servant leaders in Christian worship renewal and education through graduate academic praxis, grounded in biblical, historical, theological, cultural, and missiological reflection in community.”

Let us pray:
Lord, we thank you for your presence. Teach us, lead us, change us, anoint us by your Spirit, and send us on your mission. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Congratulations, to all of you! You are about to embark on the most useless study there is—the study of Christian worship. Aristotle claimed that the supremely important activities are the most useless, because they exist precisely for their own sake and not for a greater external end. The worship of God is therefore the most useless and supremely important thing we can do. And, therefore, studying Christian worship is a most critical educational endeavor. I realize that this is a shameless repeat from several sessions ago but it is nonetheless true!

In preparation for our Opening Convocation, I want to remind you of the purpose and ethos of our convocational services. We have a handout with this info. Please take a look at the handout.

I also invite you to review my presidential address from June that addresses the topic of what is referred to generally as spiritual communion. This will provide you with an overview of what we are doing with our virtual Opening Convocation and why we are doing it. As I stated in that address, in renewed worship, by virtue of our baptism, we participate in the identity of Christ as prophet, priest and king and all of the associated charisms and vocations. Like this past June, in this session we are unable to partake of the Eucharist together; however, in our spiritual communion we can still bring sacrifices of our praise, our thanksgiving, our works of virtue, our treasures, our callings, and our very selves, and unite these sacrifices with the one unique sacrifice of Christ back to the Father. We can still remember the paschal mystery of Christ, his fulfillment and summation of all of the biblical covenants, becoming the true once-for-all Paschal Lamb. And we can still seek to participate in the manifestation of that great mystery. And we do all of that through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, so that God may be glorified, and the entire creation may be finally renewed in the life of the Triune God.

Ancient Future Worship: What is it?

Metaphysics and the Great Tradition

Let’s turn for a brief visit to the foundations of why IWS exists, particularly as an ancient future worship education institution. The mission of IWS, simply stated, is to form leaders in Christian worship renewal through the Great Tradition. What is the Great Tradition? In his book Visible Church-Visible Unity: Ecumenical Ecclesiology and “the Great Tradition of the Church,” author and theologian Ola Tjørhom begins to define the Great Tradition as the apostolic faith and practice “…grounded in the apostolic witness to Christ as ultimately revealed in the Holy Scriptures and living on in the Church’s anamnesis – its memorial – expressed in liturgy, tradition and witness. The Great Tradition of the Church is defined and shaped by the ecumenical creeds (Nicene, Apostolic and Athanasian) of the ancient and undivided church.” He goes on to explain that the Great Tradition is the essential visible unity of the ecumenical church. There is a lot to unpack from this statement including understanding true ecumenism and embracing a robust ecclesiology, or the theology of the Church. But I will try to give just some introductory remarks about the ancient future posture of IWS. As you probably know, the Apostles’ Creed, mentioned above, is the faith statement for the IWS community. These historic creeds provide excellent boundaries to theological beliefs and practices, as do other resources, such as homilies, apologies, essays and devotional writings of the fathers and mothers of the Church, Medieval mystics, saints and theologians. Simply put, it is scripture as interpreted through the historic Great Tradition that creates the philosophical, theological, moral and devotional framework for our reflection on worship at IWS, but more to it, for how we should then live our lives in constant worship and mission.

Robert Webber gave some defining gestures toward the Great Tradition in writing the first core value of IWS, rooting the Institute in “…the whole church in its many expressions and variations of the Christian faith, particularly articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation and the Evangelical awakenings and heritage.” Identifying that consensus of orthodoxy and orthopraxy however, can be quite difficult. But as I mentioned in June, “This means that IWS leans on the consensual wisdom and teachings on scriptural interpretation, liturgical practices and theological sensibilities that have been tried and tested in the Church for 2,000 years. The word “orthodoxy” means “right, or true worship.” True worship is biblically centered worship that participates in that story of God’s saving work in Jesus the Christ. It is the submission of humankind to God, to be cleansed, forgiven, changed into his likeness revealed in Christ though his word and table, and then sent into the world in mission with fire to love the world to the God who is perfect love.

The Great Tradition is rooted in a particular understanding of reality, or beingness. The Great Tradition roots its understanding of reality in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing), which can be stated as creatio ex amore (creation from love), because God love is the very essence of God. This means that everything that is, whether animate or inanimate, naturally occurring or man-made, is created by God and finds its being and ultimate end in God. All of creation, including time and space, is therefore a means of encountering God. Everything that exists is necessarily insinuated with the Creator. But, God is also other than everything that exists. In fact, to borrow from Kathryn Tanner, God is “otherly other.” Everything that exists, exists because of God and finds its being in God. And, God is present to his creation, sustaining it and eternally continuing to create. Therefore, everything that exists participates in some way with God and his continuous creative process. That is a participatory, sacramental worldview, or more accurately, a participatory, sacramental metaphysic. Don’t allow “sacramental” to be a scary or negative word, or a magical word, or too liturgical a word. It simply means that God mysteriously participates in his created order as the created order mysteriously participates in God’s merciful and loving continuous creation.

In the great liturgical procession of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we see that mankind is at the end of the procession. Who comes at the end of a liturgical procession? The priest, the presider, the celebrant. Humankind comes at the end of this great procession of creation because the apex of creation is humankind, uniquely created in the image of God, the celebrants of this great liturgical procession of creation and the priests of the created order. And we do that in worship, famously called the source and summit of the entire Christian life. But, please note—since humankind is made in the image of God, we alone in the created order are given the right, freedom and dignity of saying “no” to God. My cat doesn’t have that right. The rocks in my backyard don’t have that right. But I do. Worship, especially ancient future worship, is about turning our all-too-often “no” into a “yes” to God. I’ll say that again. Worship turns our “no” into a “yes” to God, letting God change us into his likeness, or divinizing us. And, we have to do that every week as we hear his Word and commune at His table.

The Great Tradition, in its theology and liturgies, embodies this sacramental Story or metanarrative. This is revealed in a descending order of sacramentality. First, Jesus is the visible, sacramental manifestation of the Father (refulgence of his glory – Heb. 1:3). All of creation is also a sacrament, formed by God’s eternal Word as an expression of his love. The Church is a sacrament of Jesus as his mystical and true body. The scriptures are a sacrament of Christ, the Word of God. The sacrament par excellence for the Church is the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Baptism is the gateway to the Eucharist.

We have been in the season of Christmas—the Christ Mass—the celebration of the incarnation of God in Christ, Divinity becoming what he created, God tabernacling with his people, establishing the new and definitive priesthood in Christ. Why is this season called Christ-Mass? It’s because the most visceral experience of the power of God’s incarnation in Christ is regularly manifested most vividly, even most tangibly, in the liturgy of corporate worship.

So, welcome to this most useless, but supremely important task—the study of Christian worship.

This session, may the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.