Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
These words are from the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647. It was written during the Civil War in an attempt to bring theological unity between the English and Scottish Churches. It was not ultimately adopted by the Church of England, but still has something profound to say to us, even if it is expressed in patriarchal language (presumably they thought the chief end of woman was to make the sandwiches!)
It's attempting to address that most basic, far-reaching and profound of human inquiries; why are we here?
As we continue to reshape our worship at All Hallows' in Lady Bay, this is a live question. It's no less urgent for St Edmund's in Holme Pierrepont. Discerning our purpose, our ‘chief end’, is crucial to thinking about what we do when we gather. What might be a little lost for our generation in reading the awkwardly gendered language of the catechism is that this is a communal question. It affects our individual actions, but this is a question about what is the purpose of humanity, what is our collective vocation? If the church is meant to embody the vision of an ideal human society, we must seek to understand what is God's answer to that question.
Glory is one of those words that puzzles me. It's used again and again in our liturgies, and I think we have an unconscious sense of what it might mean, but to try (as I frequently do) to explain it in terms a child of primary school age could understand is a challenge. The best I've been able to do so far is to say that it has something to do with reputation and something to do with reflected light. If that's true, then ‘glorifying’ God means living in such a way that we reflect the light of God and to speak well of God.
‘Enjoying God forever’ means that our ultimate purpose is, as the theologian Sam Wells puts it, to ‘be with’ God. He contrasts this with doing for, doing with and being for; all good, he says, but the greatest is being with. The character of that being with is of our enraptured bliss; boundless joy – ‘pleasures forevermore’ as the psalmist puts it (Psalm 16:11)
Our gatherings then, are to be a reflection, a foretaste, of our ultimate gathering in God’s presence, to be characterised by joy and the reflected light of God and where together we ‘speak well’ of God. Whether we do this in the simple language of children or the poetic majesty of the Book of Common Prayer is less important perhaps than our collective intent; what is it we believe we are doing when we come together.
How we approach our gatherings is a matter of choice before it is matter of experience. Our fumbling attempts to express our hearts to God, even when using words beautifully crafted in previous centuries, can feel at times a little lower than heaven. But what we are attempting is perhaps even more important than what we achieve.
In worship, just as in this life there needs to be space for failure as well as success, sadness as well as joy, lament as well as celebration but in all these experiences, in our ‘being with’ God, and with each other, we recover our identity as human beings and find the possibility of true fulfilment. That is why it is so important that our gatherings at inclusive, welcoming and open, that we listen to the experience of all in our midst, the stranger as well as the friend, the newcomer as well as the old hand, the misfit as well as the fits-well.
I pray we may deepen our welcome and our hospitality to each other and to all as we meet week by week.