Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community
by Simon Chan. InterVarsity Press, 2006. 160 pages.
Simon Chan, an Assemblies of God minister with a Ph.D. from Cambridge who teaches at Trinity Theological College in Singapore, maintains that we cannot fully comprehend the richness of worship without basing it firmly in the doctrine of the church; conversely, we cannot understand the church apart from its life of worship.
Many Christians today have a weak understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ, he argues; instead they succumb to “a reduction of the church’s role to a largely sociological one of a service provider catering to individual believers’ needs” (p. 24). This is, of course one of the besetting sins of our age: treating church attendance as a sort of “window shopping” rather than as an expression of an organic spiritual relationship to one another in the body (1 Cor. 12:12-14). When a “worshopper” grows weary of the selection or stock at one venue, he or she is off to find another merchandiser more to his or her liking.
Chan’s answer to this problem is that we need a more thorough grounding in and acceptance of “the meaning of the church and its liturgy as found in the larger Christian tradition.” He goes on to explore the twin themes of church and liturgy, drawing on an impressive breadth of scholarly reflection, including Catholic and Orthodox writers. That breadth is at the same time the book’s greatest strength and its greatness weakness: included are 570 endnotes, which themselves take up thirty pages; yet the Scripture index covers only one page, averaging fewer than one biblical reference per page of the text.
Like so many writers of a liturgical bent, Chan gives great weight to early church history and practice in spite of (or because of) the paucity of New Testament data on worship forms and procedures. While the writings of the early church fathers are indeed important witnesses to the practices of the church in their day, they are not necessarily normative or infallible guides, and there are many aspects of their teachings we would hardly want to accept uncritically. Yet Chan goes so far as to say, “If Christ is the Truth, then tradition is the extension of the Truth. . . . The church as the living Tradition embodies a living and developing dogma. . . . The development of dogma does not lead the church astray.” If that is consistently true, one wonders about the need for the Reformation! (And indeed he quotes the Reformers very rarely.)
Chan leans most heavily on authorities other than the Scriptures in his chapters on the church and on the traditional liturgy. And his high view of tradition is coupled with a highly sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper: “The church becomes the one body of Christ by eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ” (p. 29). The Eucharist is, in his view, the climax of the liturgy, and as such is an indispensable weekly practice.
Chan is convinced that the traditional liturgy is the highest and only valid form of worship for Christians, and we ignore it at our spiritual peril. However, he assumes rather than proves that his historical model is “the true way of worship,” and that “a normative liturgy is the true way of becoming church” (p. 62). This is certainly a valid point of view, yet Chan has not made his case strongly enough to resonate with many besides those already convinced!
On the other hand, his chapter on “The Worship of the Church” is wonderfully insightful (as it deals more with biblical and theological foundations than with his preferred outworking of them in the liturgy); this chapter is well worth careful study and reflection, as is the chapter on “Active Participation.” Chan has provided a valuable service by his thorough and thoughtful treatment of the church as essentially a worshiping community, and of worship as the church’s essential activity. Liturgical Theology is an astute exposition of one important stream of Christian thought on these issues.
—Reviewed by Ron Man, Director of Worship Resources for the Greater Europe Mission organization (for more info visit www.worr.org).