Guest Article by Mark Marshall
It was my first Ash Wednesday years ago.
I loved my big Bible Church at the time and still do and appreciate it and how God used it in my life. But the worship of Anglicanism – with an actual church calendar, no less – was drawing me in.
So lunchtime on an Ash Wednesday found me sitting with slight nervousness in a traditional Anglican church. The narrow brick sanctuary was well attended.
The service was neither what I expected nor what I was used to. In the quiet, a bell rang and two priests entered. And they immediately began the liturgy. It was that simple. There were no announcements. No music to rev us up or otherwise affect our emotions. There was no music at all during the service. If I recall correctly there was not even a sermon. All I can remember are prayers and ashes and quiet.
This may be quite normal for many readers, but it was almost culture shock for me who was used to (or endured) services beginning with twenty minutes of overamplified music followed by a long sermon. (No complaints about the sermons though. Tommy Nelson was and is one of the best.)
But I liked the change. The quiet prayers and liturgy enabled me to worship in a way my big Bible Church was not. The quiet let the gravity of the prayers stand out and let me contemplate. I was thereby guided closer to the humility and penitence we all need before God.
I soon came to realize most Anglican services are not quite that restrained, particularly on Sundays and holy days. One reason behind the restraint of that service was that people had limited time during their lunch hour. And, yes, it was Ash Wednesday after all; perhaps only Good Friday is a more somber day.
Nonetheless, I never forgot that in worship sometimes less is more. A simple said liturgical office can often help one worship, pray, and contemplate more, maybe far more, than a “praise and worship” service.
One of the many interesting traits of Anglo-Catholics is that they get this. And the church I attended for that Ash Wednesday leaned toward that churchmanship. Of course, Anglo-Catholics can and do use incense, color, chanting, and music to bring a little bit of heaven to earth in their “solemn” services.
Yet go to Pusey House on a weekday morning in or near the Oxford terms, and it will be quiet. There will be no music and no incense. Well, maybe there will be a slight lingering fragrance from the worship of a past Sunday or high holy day. There will be several periods of silence in the chapel. Only one priest with the Sacristan or another assistant will be leading Morning Prayer then a said Mass. All is restrained and simple and quiet. And, other than my home parish, I can think of no other place and time of worship in recent years that has done more to bless and form me.
Without getting into “worship wars” or disputes about churchmanship, I think our Anglo-Catholic friends and Lent have much to teach us. Yes, there are times to worship with the most ceremonious celebration and glorious music one can muster. Sometimes it’s good to get loud even. And the joyous celebration of Easter will come soon enough.
But we are missing something important if we do not also have times when we are quiet before the Lord, both personally and corporately, when penitence is emphasized. Lent is a particularly good time for simple and reverent worship. In the subdued liturgy of Ash Wednesday and Lent, less is more.