It was April or May of 1995. My wife and I had been attending a non-denominational charismatic church here in St. Louis for about nine months. The church met in a school, and there were probably between 400 and 500 people there each Sunday. These people were very loving, sincere and devout. The pastor had an exceptionally charismatic personality. He wore blue jeans, oxfords, high-top tennis shoes, and had long hair and a made-for-radio voice. (He later took a job for a local radio station.) The praise band consisted of a keyboardist, drummer, guitarists and a team of singers. The worship would consist of a series of songs played in direct succession, and often repeated, for at least 40 minutes. The words to the songs were projected onto a large screen. The worship service was designed to reach a kind of emotional climax, and then move into a 'spiritual state' called 'soft worship', during which the drums fell off, and keyboardist would go through a very simple chord progression, playing softly, and sustaining each chord for some time (with 'improv' and arpeggios in the upper register). If you have been in this sort of thing, then you know what I'm talking about.
On this particular Sunday in 1995, a woman performed a voice solo. She went up to the front, and was handed a microphone, and began to sing the traditional hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty ...". But she sang it as if she were in a night club, with a forced gravelly voice, and sensual, bodily motions. It was the most poignant contradiction of form and content I had ever witnessed. I had been growing more and more disturbed by the irreverence of the *form* of the worship, without being able to identify consciously what it was that was bothering me. Finally, during this song, the contradiction hit me square in the face, in large part because the words of the song are specifically about the holiness of God.
As we left the service that day, I told my wife, "I'm never coming back", and we didn't go back. Over time I came to understand that the form of worship is no less important than the material content, because the form itself has an intrinsic content that is communicated along with the words.
Consider, for example, this video of a contemporary worship service:
Contrast that with this video of a prelude to the Mass I attended last year on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica.
What does the form (not the words) of the music communicate about God? Does it communicate sacredness? Reverence? Transcendence? Order? Majesty? Beauty? Holiness? Royalty? Contrast the prominence and visibility of the musicians between the two videos. Structurally, the invisibility of the choir communicates that it is not about them.
I did not make that transition right away, from charismatic worship to Catholic liturgy. I think I could not have done so. The transition is immense, and involves a reshaping not only of intellect, but also of intuitions, appetites and sensibilities. After leaving the charismatic church, we started attending a Presbyterian church and joined it shortly thereafter. I knew that there, at least, I (and my family) would not be getting the night-club version of "Holy, Holy, Holy".
But four years later, I was becoming more and more aware that the Presbyterian service was simply not feeding my soul. And yet I couldn't identity what was missing. One thing I did know, the whole service seemed to be man-centered in its form and activity. Here's what I mean. So much of what took place involved handing a microphone to a human being, and letting that person give his or her thoughts about something. There were welcoming comments, particularly to visitors, an explanation of who we were as a church, and what our mission was in the community, various reports by different lay persons on different activities and outreaches they were doing, a session meeting report, a report on a missions trip, a budget/attendance report, a report on the youth group retreat and announcements by the youth pastor of upcoming youth group activities, a report on the college ministry activities, a series of prayer requests in which an elder would walk around and hand the wireless microphone to anyone who wanted to describe to the whole congregation and to any degree he wished for as long as he wished something he was going through for which we all should pray. There was a children's sermon, a regular sermon, and exhortations about stewardship and being generous to God, by an elder, before the offering plate was passed. I was weary of all this man-talk. I wanted no more words of men, no more handing around of the microphone. I was coming to church for something else, *not* to hear people give their opinions or talk about what they were doing. I could go to a newspaper or a theological journal or many other places, and get much more informed opinions than these. I didn't just want to be in a religious club; I wanted something other than that. It got to the point that during the service I found myself being internally critical and disengaged. I knew that cynicism is soul-destroying. So I stopped going to church, for about a year.
Then a friend suggested that I visit an Anglican church. The moment I walked in, I noticed the difference. People weren't talking before the service started. People were kneeling and praying, on kneelers. All the words of the service were already written down, as the liturgy, in this case the Book of Common Prayer, which is beautiful and reverent and drawn largely from Scripture. (The BCP was itself drawn largely from the Catholic liturgy.) The only occasion in which a person spoke his own opinion, was the homily, and the homily was only about five minutes long (compared to the 30-40 minute homilies I was used to). And the climax of the liturgy was the Eucharist. The service was simply called "Holy Eucharist". We walked forward between the choir, and received the Eucharist while kneeling. Here was something that went beyond men's opinions. I couldn't be cynical about the liturgy, or critique it. And that was especially true of the Eucharist. This was not man-talk. It was non-propositional; it was sacramental, i.e. the Gospel embodied, Christ Himself. I realized that this is what my soul had been craving -- to be fed on God. (At that time, I wasn't aware of Apostolicae Curae.) And this aesthetic and liturgy was clearly the *form* that fit the serving of this divine food. In the liturgy, my soul was literally drawn up to God by its majesty and beauty. When the priest says, "Lift up your hearts", we reply, "We lift them up unto the Lord." The form of the liturgy and the music helps us lift up our hearts to heaven.
So what does this have to do with the reunion of all Christians? It wasn't just (or even primarily) doctrine that moved me from a "non-denominational charismatic" to Catholic; it was also aesthetics, i.e. beauty. I came to understand episcopal ecclesiology only *after* already being drawn in by the beauty of the liturgy and its sacramental nature. If it hadn't been for the beauty and sacramentality of the liturgy, I would not even have started to consider seriously the historical basis for episcopal ecclesiology. My point is that theological arguments alone will not reunite Christians. Beauty, however, is attractive; when we encounter it, we are drawn to it, because in the depth of our being we crave Beauty. We can only sing "Lord I lift your name on high" or "Our God is an awesome God" so many times. Such music is neither beautiful nor soul-nourishing. In its form, particularly, it is trivial, common, tiresome and banal, not transcendent, noble, heavenly, enduring and glorious.
There are, I'm sure, an untold number of Christians burned out by ugliness of form and a steady diet of mere man-talk, not having the Eucharist. They have gifts to give Catholics, for they know something about communal love and life, and being entirely devoted to Jesus. But we can hold up to them what they lack, the beauty and soul-nourishing quality of the liturgy, and especially the Eucharist. The beauty of the liturgy, and the gift of the Eucharist are treasures that we can offer to our brothers and sisters in Christ who do not have them, and who may not even be aware that they exist, having never known anything else. This is the kind of exchange of gifts in which, I hope, we may begin the path to full visible union.
If anyone wishes to study more about the relation of form and content, how form is not content-neutral, and how form can contradict content, I recommend Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death, and his Technopoly. He shows there how media is not content-neutral. I would expand that to the more general claim that form is not content-neutral. See also All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers. I also recommend Thomas Howard's Evangelical Is Not Enough, Kilde's When Church Becomes Theatre, Frankforter's Stones for Bread: A Critique of Contemporary Worship, Marva Dawn's Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, and Michael Horton's In the Face of God. All of those are written by Protestants, except Howard who has since become a Catholic. My referring to them does not mean that I agree with everything in them. The same sort of form/content relation is true in architecture as well: see, for example, Michael Rose's Ugly as Sin, as well as his In Tiers of Glory. Roger Scruton's book The Aesthetics of Music is also quite helpful in explaining the differences between beautiful and ugly music. Consider also the contrast between contemporary Evangelical worship and what is revealed in the recent film Into Great Silence.
"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)