One of the memories of my part-time taxi-driving job during my uni-student days was when I picked up a young bloke heading off to a special event, awkwardly wearing a formal suit.
What stood out for me was that he was so uncomfortable wearing his dressy outfit that he put his suit jacket down on the seat and sat on top of it, crushing his neatly-ironed clothes in silent protest to the foreign formalities he was about to endure.
The attitude and action of this guy sums up much of the Australian way—we love a party, but we hate dressing up… we love an event, but don’t like to take anything too seriously.
Maybe this comes from our larrikin origins, our convict heritage that breeds a deep-seated, anti-establishmentarianism?
Perhaps we Aussies don’t like anyone taking him or herself too seriously, and as a result, we have an almost subconscious, reflex response to any pomp and ceremony?
I wonder if this is at the heart of the hyper-relaxed attitude that pervades many of our contemporary church services?
Responding to the call of the casual
So how should we respond to the call of the casual in our congregations?
On the one hand, it is perhaps unwise for us to go against the grain in trying to lead our congregations to a place of over-solemnity.
Perhaps it may be too counter-cultural to run church in a way that seems almost un-Australian in its vibe?
Or, on the other hand, are we being un-Christian in turning our church services into such informal events that we treat our historical creeds with contempt, and our confessions of sin too lightly?
Perhaps in the process of Australianising our Anglicanism, are we sanitising our Sunday services?
I suspect, to take the well-worn via media (middle road), there is something to learn from both ends of the spectrum.
The need to engage our Aussie culture
On the one hand, we should seek to engage the culture in which we live, and show a friendly ‘face’ to the society we desperately seek to have saved by the gospel of Jesus.
So, if the Australian way is to be a no-jacket-required, ugg-boots-and-tracky-dacks style of life, then a true-blue, Aussie Anglican gathering will work hard to break down any unwelcome pomp and ceremony, especially if this only creates a cultural curtain between the congregation and our heavenly Father.
We will subject all of our traditions and practices to the test of whether or not our ‘mate from the club’ would find them confusing and distracting.
We will do everything to make our gatherings as intelligible as possible so that not only will the outsider understand them (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:22-25) but the insider will find the gathering to be a comfortable place for an uncomfortable message (to paraphrase an old Bill Hybels quote), and feel more motivated to invite his or her unbelieving friend, neighbour or relative.
The need to acknowledge the presence of royalty
Yet, on the other hand, we need to acknowledge that when we gather together around the word of God, Jesus is present amongst us, by his Spirit.
This means that church meets in the presence of royalty... and what’s more, it’s the king of kings who is returning soon to judge the living and the dead.
So, when we talk about confessing our sins and knowing God’s forgiveness, it should bring about an expression of penitence and gratitude; when we stand to declare the historical creeds, it should bring about an attitude that demonstrates our commitment to the gospel; when we make promises or oaths in special services, we should do so with the same weight of responsibility as we might do when standing in court before a judge; and when we hear the Scriptures read and taught, we should act as though we are sitting at the feet of or king, in loving submission to Jesus.
This does not mean that we will act bored and constantly ashen-faced as we meet in the fellowship of the risen king, as members of his body and heirs of his salvation.
But it does mean that we will be careful not to be light-hearted about important things like struggling with sin (such as when we say a prayer of confession together), or prayers for the lost, or corporate declarations of faith, and so on.
Plus, it means that when our service leaders/readers/MC’s stand to begin the gathering, they will act in such a way that sensitively acknowledges the gravity of what is about to happen… that the lord of all creation is present amongst us by his Spirit as his word dwells richly among us.
Welcoming the guy with the crushed tuxedo
The guy with the crushed tuxedo is the guy we want in our churches: he loves parties and people, but can’t cope with pomp and precociousness.
We need to be prepared to sacrifice our own preferences of style and form in order to be all things to all people so that by all possible means we might save some.
But we must also be prepared to show leadership in our gatherings by modelling gospel-flavoured behaviours to the life-changing word of God, with culturally-sensitive liturgies and corporate prayers, helping real men and women to act in such a way that acknowledges the gravity of our sin, and the graciousness of forgiveness… without appearing too posh.