Faith & Reason: Thrills, spills, lots of fun - but ultimately not real

Liberals and charismatics are both blaming one another for the rush from the Anglican pews. Is style in worship just a question of taste? The Rev Dr Martyn Percy suggests there may be something more profound at stake.
Is the Church of England dying of Bad Taste? Robert Runcie certainly seems to think so. His broadside last month against the happy-clappies and the huggy-feelies asserted that trite forms of worship eventually turn people off. That is why church attendance is again on the decline. On the contrary, riposted those he attacked, the public is eschewing church- going because of the wishy-washy intellectualism of liberals like Lord Runcie.

It is not a new argument. The religions of ancient Greece reflected a remarkably similar social dualism. Just as body and spirit were separated, so was the balanced rational from the intoxicated irrational. The god Apollo represented the former, the cult of Dionysus the latter.

Apollo was for the reflective, thinking, philosophical types. His religion was carefully ordered, and prided itself on the shape of its worship, and its creeds. Dionysian religion, in contrast, was linked to unbridled energy and, more specifically, sexual performance. The horned Dionysus was the god of the most enraptured love. His worship created a form of temporary madness in the believer, induced through certain rituals - music, dance, prophecy and ecstatic rites - and a rich grammar of assent that stressed intimacy, abandon, ecstasy and sacralised eroticism. But above all Dionysiac worship satisfied demands for an intimate immediacy with the divine.

Advocates of contemporary Christian worship would naturally wish to claim that their religion is not of the same spirit. Yet songs used in worship among some charismatics often encourage believers to imagine the kisses of Christ's mouth, a God who takes, comes and consumes; and believers who melt, and are moulded and pass out in ecstatic desire. Add to this the excitable cries of revivalist gatherings, the swoonings of recipients of the Toronto Blessing, the body language of charismatic believers, and the social and theological stress on intimacy, and it seems that Dionysus is back.

Robert Runcie is certainly right when he suggests that some evangelicals, in their pursuit of success and a ready market for the Gospel, are far too content to embrace the tasteless for the sake of a few converts. In ignoring beauty, art and a theology of any substance, evangelicals offer a culturally related version of the Gospel that ultimately self-destructs. It is always in vogue, but ultimately disposable; religion comes as a fashion accessory, not a necessity.

How, though, can a manifestly popular religion be described as a failure? The answer lies in the depth and breadth of traditions that worshippers are allowed to appeal to. Contemporary Christian worship of the type attacked by Runcie celebrates passion, romance and feeling - with God. Believers sing about what it is like to know God in this way. Creeds, liturgy and sacraments - and 2,000 years of Christian tradition - have been abandoned for a therapeutic religion that stresses the offering of emotions. Failure follows because people are only united in worship by harmonised feelings: doctrinal schism and sectarianism are waiting around the corner. Moreover, this type of worship only works as antidote to social realism - it does not engage with life as it is. It is wish-fulfilment, a suspiciously narcissistic grammar of assent that encourages the worshipper to imagine that they are at the centre of God's attention, and can have a cuddle or caress any time they ask.

So, behind the argument over taste, there are serious concerns. Runcie's attack was not just stating a preference for the superiority of Schubert over the Spice Girls. The issue is one of substance. In singling out certain types of evangelical worship for criticism, Runcie is suggesting that there is a link between their theological and aesthetic vacuity and the declining number of communicants. In preferring hymns like "Thine be the Glory" to choruses that offer sentiments such as "Lord, I Just Want To Cuddle You", or lyrics that celebrate and anticipate a feeling of consummation with Christ, the issue is as much about theology as it is about taste. The latter type of song domesticates God, turning Jesus into a romantic hero. This religion is an adventure theme park - thrills, spills and lots of fun - but ultimately not real.

Bad Taste, then, is not the issue. The key concern is a style of worship which does not offer any real theological basis for individuals to mature in their faith. The danger is that once people have become bored with anodyne and escapist worship they will not move on to a style which allows room for spiritual development. They will simply chuck the whole product away.