Reviewed by Tim Perry
By Edith M. Humphrey
Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2011; Softcover, 272 pages, $26.50
MANY BOOKS about Christian worship are written with an edge – to denounce or defend this or that denomination, style or practice. A book combining clear convictions with generosity and breadth is rare. This book is just such a find.
Author Edith Humphrey is a Canadian who teaches New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Her new book, Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven explores corporate worship with grace, elegance and a deep personal investment.
Humphrey takes us on a journey that begins in the Scriptures, continues through the classic liturgies of the Eastern and Western Church, and culminates with a survey of contemporary worship services from diverse traditions. Her conviction, which radiates through each of the seven chapters and conclusion, is that worship is not so much something we do, as the means by which the Triune God draws us into his own presence.
This is an important, if all-too-often neglected, theme in training for worship. For, as James B. Torrance points out in his slim but very valuable book, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (IVP), the reduction of “good worship” to “practical excellence,” often subliminally communicates a subtly Unitarian theology – that is, a theology of worship in which God remains a distant, uninvolved spectator while the congregation – or worse, the worship team – performs.
With Torrance, Humphrey rightly stresses that worship is, in the first instance, something that God does. Worship is the eternal self-offering of the Son to the Father in the Spirit. Our worship is our entry into the eternal pattern of giving and receiving that is the eternal being of the Blessed and Glorious Trinity. By the Spirit, we offer ourselves to God the Father in the offering of Christ; by the Spirit, we are united to Christ who, in his humanity, has given himself and us in him completely to the Father.
Humphrey’s training as a biblical scholar serves her very well in the opening chapters. Without being overly academic (we are not overwhelmed with scholarly footnotes; words that might be new are helpfully asterisked and defined in a glossary) she displays keen insight into the Old and New Testaments.
Anglicans will no doubt warm especially to her assessment of the Book of Common Prayer. Her deep affection for Eastern Orthodoxy – where she now finds her ecclesial home – is also evident. Her generous and accessible description of Orthodox practices will open up a form of Christian faith that often strikes readers as exotic and foreign. And her deep description of the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass will give even the “freest” of free-church readers much food for thought.
Humphrey is certainly not liturgically hide-bound. She continues to hold affection for those free-church, Protestant and Anglican liturgies that are now part of her past.
Like a growing number of Christian academics, her personal liturgical story is one of pilgrimage. She has migrated from a free church formation (hers was Salvation Army) through several evangelical iterations, through a protracted stay in Anglicanism to now Eastern Orthodoxy. Unlike many with similar stories (mine is strikingly similar at points), however, Humphrey manages to present her material in a way that is not “progressive.” That is, she does not present Orthodoxy as the one right liturgy, with the rest being mere approximations.
Her purpose is not to advocate for the tradition in which she now finds herself. She avoids advocating any one tradition and remains focused on her theme: how entrance might deepen our corporate worship experience, regardless of the liturgical form that worship might take. Her bias is clear yet unobtrusive – a very difficult balance to strike.
All the book’s material is compelling and its themes are winsomely presented. What struck me as odd, however, was that, apart from one passing mention in the third chapter, the Ascension simply was not addressed. Yet it is in the Ascension of Jesus that the entry of humanity into the presence of God is most evident, especially in the book of Hebrews. The Ascension also figures in the Eucharistic Prayers of various traditions – I think here of the sursum corda “Lift up your hearts” in the Book of Common Prayer.
Greater attention to this neglected doctrine could have strengthened an already very strong presentation. For readers interested in bolstering Humphrey’s theme, Douglas Farrow’s new book, Ascension Theology (T. & T. Clark), is an excellent place to start.
Of course, “this is not the book I would have written,” is a trope as familiar as it is unfair in book reviews. And I hope this is not how my one criticism is taken.
Grand Entrance is a fine work from start to finish, to be read by Christians regardless of liturgical formation or worship practices. It won’t solve our “worship wars,” but it just might teach us how to side-step many of its land mines. TAP
In Sudbury, Ont., the Rev. Tim Perry is Rector of the Church of the Epiphany and teaches at Thorneloe College of Theology, Thorneloe University.