I often hear people make a contrast between styles of worship in church that labels some “traditional” and some “contemporary”. And I – and I guess you too – know what they mean. And it’s certainly true that some forms of worship that pride themselves on being contemporary are determinedly non-traditional.
I have in the past experienced, and heard others share similar experiences, of Sunday church gatherings that not only embrace contemporary musical, dress and other styles, but manage to get through the whole act of worship without a reading from the bible. That’s clearly non-traditional.
So there is definitely a contrast to be made between traditional and non-traditional. However, I want to argue that there is no contrast between traditional and contemporary. Traditional worship is also contemporary.
Traditional, liturgical worship, that follows a similar pattern week by week, goes on happening in a majority of churches today. It uses language that is often more poetic than everyday language (often not as poetic as it might be) but which in most contexts is still recognisably the same language we speak every day.
People often prepare and use, and sometimes compose spontaneously, prayers in which they lead others. These prayers refer to events that are happening right now, in distant and war-torn countries, in chaotic parliamentary politics at home, and in the local community in the coming week. These prayers draw on a pattern and style of praying inherited from the past, they sometimes include words written many years ago, but the themes and topics of the prayers are set resolutely in the present.
Traditional worship uses hymns that have been written centuries past, but very commonly puts them alongside hymns written in the last few decades. I was recently at a Eucharist where the music during the distribution of communion included both a choir singing Mozart’s Ave Verum written in 1791, and the congregation singing Stuart Townend’s Behold the Lamb written in 2006. And I have been present at many similar occasions.
On one occasion in St Matthew’s gospel, following a series of parables, Jesus says:
Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.Matt 13:52 NRSV
Good liturgy enables us to do something similar with the worshipping traditions of past and present generations. It brings out the old and new from the treasures of the church. It holds them together, and blends them in new harmonies to the praise and glory of God.
It is both traditional and contemporary.