Intimate Worship in a Public Church Service?

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Recently I was drawn into two similar, strange discussions in one day.

First, in a conversation about taking pictures and filming in public church services someone said that being photographed or filmed during worship was irritating, since worship was such an intimate thing that it was almost like being photographed or filmed during sex.

Later that same day a discussion started on a friend’s Facebook timeline. He had posted a photograph from a service in his church which showed a man singing enthusiastically. I asked, in jest, whether he had asked for permission to post it, because of the GDPR. The result was a lively (and, typical for Facebook, fairly aggressive) discussion about the legal and ethical aspects of photography and filming in church. And here, too, someone said that they felt “violated in the intimacy of worship” by cameras in church.

These discussions led me to do some thinking about what is appropriate, with reference to worship, in public church services, in smaller, more intimate prayer meetings, and finally, in the privacy of one’s prayer closet.

Generally, as a man, I am uncomfortable singing certain worship songs which are popular today: songs which, if the lyrics were minimally altered would be hard to distinguish from secular romantic love songs.

Yes, I know that such songs with their romantic and almost erotic images of our relationship with God take their inspiration from the Biblical Song of Songs and the images in both Testaments of God and/or Jesus as the bridegroom and the people of God as the bride. But in these images the bride is the people, collectively (Israel and/or the church), and not the individual believer. I believe that Song of Songs, likewise, needs to be read in this collective way if our relationship with God is in view.

I am also aware that throughout church history there have been mystics who described their relationship with God in passionate, almost erotic terms; but to my knowledge these were all women, no men (but I am open to correction).

I would also hesitate to connect worship with sex because that, typically, characterizes certain pagan religions but is foreign to Judaism and Christianity.

But let’s assume for a moment that the comparison of worship with sex is not a priory and fundamentally inppropriate; that still leaves the question whether it is appropriate to compare But let’s assume for a moment that the comparison of worship with sex is not a priory and fundamentally inppropriate; that still leaves the question whether it is appropriate to compare public worship with sex, or perhaps better, whether worship that is so intimate that it invites comparison with sex belongs into a public setting.

We know from Scripture that sex between a married couple is “honorable and undefiled”, but would it be appropriate if a married couple lived out that aspect of their relationship in public? Isn’t it rather true that this is considered unacceptable, and that married couples interact in less intimate ways when in public? Even in our sexually unrestrained culture “making out” in public prompts cries of “Get a room!”

I propose therefore, that public worship and intimate worship are two different things, which are appropriate in different settings and on different occasions; and that worship which is so intimate that it invites comparison with sex belongs in the prayer closet of which Jesus speaks, rather than in the public church service on Sunday morning or other public occasions.

I am not trying to curtail the work of the Holy Spirit who blows where and when he will; I am well aware that he can sometimes provoke very strong and extremely emotional respomses; but in general I believe that what Paul says about tongues and prophetic utterances holds here as well: “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets”, i.e., we determine when we express ourselves in what manner, even when under the Holy Spirit’s influence.

Back to photography. I am not promoting a photographic or cinematographic free-for-all in church; there are legitimate reasons why some people don’t want their picture taken, such as those hiding from domestic violence or persecution in their homeland. Pictures of other people’s children also fall into this category (which is why our former village priest used to cover children’s faces with balloons in photos of parish activities).

And I am also irritated, at times, when video recordings of Christian events zoom in on ecstatic or bored faces in the congregation – this can be embarrassing to the people concerned and doesn’t add value to the video.

I think common decency and respect requires us to seek their permission before publishing photographs where individuals can be identified. When filming events from the front (i.e. panning over the congregation) there must be clearly marked areas which are outside the cameras’ field of vision, where people can feel safe.

Close-ups of individuals might be appropriate at weddings or baptisms, especially of relatives of the couple or candidates, but otherwise are not necessary and potentially embarrassing and should be avoided.

Above all, make sure that people know what is going on; this is typically not an area where most people like to be surprised.

Postscript:

Yesterday I came across a quotation in a magazine article which, in my view, highlights the problems which arise when the biblical image of bride and bridegroom for our relationship to God is applied to the individual believer rather than collectively to the People of God. The quotation is from the Abbess of the Poor Clares in the German city of Münster:

“When I entered the convent at 24 years of age one of the things I worried about was, whether I really wanted to become the millionth bride of Jesus Christ. Today I understand that image differently. I feel very secure in the presence of God. He has a permanent place in the chamber of my heart.”

The problem here is, of course, that Christ has only ONE bride, not millions of brides. Men face the additional problem that as individuals they have a hard time identifying as a “bride”.

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