My best worship days were my Cambridge days.
I have revisited this thought many times over the last year. It’s not that I don’t worship God now, that I don’t delight in him; in truth, my faith is deeper now than it was then, more rooted in understanding and given to expression in joy.
But those Cambridge days were precious because of the diversity of worship practices which made up the rhythms of my week. I came to faith there in my first year, thanks to a book or two and the unashamedly gospel-focused preaching of the CICCU. Indeed, gospel-focused Bible teaching meetings which I attended every Saturday night even before I was a Christian. Work that one out, eh?!
But, within eight months of coming to faith, God had called me out of the Baptist church I’d been attending to visit the newfrontiers church. Fortunately, I didn’t tell my friends in the CICCU that God was speaking to my heart by his Spirit about this; they didn’t have a category for the prophetic, and I was too naive to know that God was not supposed to speak save in the words printed in the Bible, so such a statement would have branded me a heretic in their eyes. (We talked rather too much about heresy in those days – the prerogative of idealistic eighteen year olds, I suspect!)
The one-off visit to the newfrontiers church that I’d promised God in order to ‘shut him up’ – yes, those were my gloriously brash words to the Almighty! – turned into a commitment which lasted throughout the rest of my time in Cambridge. The little shy English girl who definitely did not do putting her hands in the air or otherwise drawing attention to herself and was never, repeat NEVER, going to become one of those happy-clappy crazy bunch had become one of those slightly off-the-wall charismatic-types, all because of what the Spirit did to her that first time she went.
That, in itself, pretty much confirmed my status as a bit of a heretic in the college CICCU group, a gathering which was dominated by young men (by a ratio of 4:1) who were on fire for the gospel (or was that Calvinism?!) and knew that God was not that into charismatic-style worship. But they were gracious and let me stick around; they probably knew that I had a lot to learn about God and the Bible!
And, despite our differences, these young men are some of the most committed believers whom I have met. Many, if not most, are now in full-time Word ministry and they really, really love Jesus. Their faithfulness with the Word of God, their willingness to submit to it, their heart to please him – these were the things which they wrote on my heart too. So it is that the CICCU was a precious worship context for me, a foil to the bright lights of the charismatic new churches movement.
Yet this was not all that formed my faith in Cambridge. Rhythms of charismatic-style church and Word-centred CICCU gatherings were essential; so, also, the daily prayer meetings that I started in the college because God told me to, meetings which we kept up for two years and which I often look back upon with longing. But the last element in the mix is the one which somehow brought it all together. It is this component which I most miss today and which prompts the thought with which I began this post, the thought which has been rattling around my heart for months.
You see, I used to sing evensong twice a week. Sundays meant happy-clappy worship in the morning, sometimes lunch with some of the CICCU boys and then a 4:30pm rehearsal for a 6pm evensong in the college chapel. And I loved those days. Nobody else really came to chapel much other than the choir. We weren’t one of the big choirs; we could sing in tune but we were still probably in the third tier of Cambridge choirs. And also our chaplain was not exactly known for preaching the gospel. A lapsed evangelical, he seemed almost to have lost a sense of God as knowable, of the centrality of Christ. So there was perhaps nothing to draw people, no sense of food for the hungry.
But I was fed.
I was fed through the liturgy, a liturgy through which I stumbled for months. Everyone else seemed to know the words and we didn’t bother with written copies so, time after time, I mumbled my way through the Creed until one day I realised that I knew it. And we chanted Psalms. (The annotation of these chants is actually more complicated than you’d think, resulting in more than a few dodgy notes from me!) Week after week, we sang the Mag and the Nunc; different arrangements, sometimes not even in English, but always the same content. We asked the Lord to ‘open thou our lips’ and sang that ‘our mouths shall show forth thy praise’; we prayed in silence for those whom we knew; and I fell in love with the theological formality of the Anglican Collects.
And I miss this. Oh, how I miss this! I love being an evangelical and a charismatic/Pentecostal. (The Pente bit came after Cambridge when I joined a black-majority Pentecostal church and realised that, to fit in, I might need to learn to dance in worship – and not that expressive dance stuff either!!) I love the traditions which have formed me and whose rhythms still govern my ways today. But I long for more, for the rootedness of liturgy, for prayers repeated by the saints throughout the ages, and for the discipline of reading Scripture in the company of the whole church rather than just whatever bits I happen to be reading my way through at the time.
I have some ideas about how to engage with this. Perhaps I will reflect on them here in time. But I can’t help wishing sometimes that my college’s chapel could be transported to London, that my Sunday evenings could once again consist of singing evensong in the chilled-air quiet and semi-dark of a beautiful, candlelit stone sanctuary. It formed me so deeply that time: a time of CICCU-gifted fervour for the Word, of unrestrained adoration taught by the newfrontiers worshippers, and of grounded liturgical earthiness given by the Anglican evensong.
It formed me so deeply and a part of me wants to go back.