Stephen Burns is a British-Australian citizen who teaches worship in the University of Divinity, based at Trinity College Theology School, Melbourne, having previously been at ecumenical university-based seminaries in the UK, USA and Australia, including United Theological College, Sydney. His publications include Liturgy (SCM Press, 2006), Christian Worship in Australia (coedited with Anita Monro, St. Pauls Publications, 2009), Christian Worship: Postcolonial Perspectives (coautored with Micahel N. Jagessar, Equinox, 2011 [Routledge, 2014]), Pilgrim People: An Invitation to Worship in the Uniting Church (MediaCom, 2012) and Postcolonial Practice of Ministry (coedited with Kwok Pui-lan, Lexington Press, 2016). He is strongly committed to liturgical renewal and to emergent worship. He is a presbyter in the Church of England, married to Judith and father to Dominic. They live in Hampton, Victoria.
Stephen is one of the keynote speakers for the Conference.
More details of Stephen’s publications can be found here.
We interviewed Stephen about worship:
1. In your own ongoing Christian experience, how is public worship transformative for you?
Worship that I experience as transformative is something I glimpse. Now and again, something breathtaking happens and I live from it for as long as I can: maybe a song gives me words that say just what I want to say to God; maybe I recognise that the preacher lives the good news she is talking about; maybe I’m moved because that person’s voice cracks when he speaks of peace; someone trembles as they come for communion; tears come as we pray. And I’m glad I’m there, and I’m open to change and I’m seeking my own transformation.
Then sometimes as a pastor I get to hear people’s sense of how worship has touched and changed them, and that feeds me deeply. I also that worship that allows within it for folks to speak for themselves about what is moving them is something that we need to see more of. It would be good to hear more about how we may each sometimes find transforming power and grace and clarity in worship, and have the opportunity in worship to speak about it.
In another way, transformative worship is for me a matter of trust. Oftentimes I experience worship as humdrum, and then in the habits, discipline, and sometimes sheer hard perseverance to stick with it, I trust that being there is somehow helping me to make praise central in my life, to trust the way of Jesus, to grow in gratitude, to name what is wrong and move towards mercy, to pray and care for others, to receive God’s gifts, to constantly connect in to all the resources we are given in the gospel.
2. As leaders of Christian worship, what key elements of preparation and delivery make worship potentially transformative for others?
The desire for a vital spiritual life, for intimacy with God, is, I think, the key—and a willingness to be unembarrassed about that. Not that worship is some sort of show in which a leader’s personal spirituality is put into the limelight, whilst everyone else watches on, but I do think that without that basic yearning for God at the heart of life, the invitations that are entrusted to leaders of worship will never seem compelling.
3. Can Christian worship practices realistically seek to transcend cultural, racial, language, gendered, political and social difference?
I want to say “yes” to this, but with a clear caveat. I want to say that God breathes the scriptures alive to us, and sacraments are God’s gift, God’s own self-giving to us. Other things—whether they are pianos, Powerpoint, pipe organs, pews, whatever—these may or may not be helpful, but they don’t come with the promise of presence that comes with scripture and sacraments. So scripture and sacraments should therefore be central to Christian worship. These gifts, I believe, are for all—and they level us. We are all equal recipients. But more than that: in these things, the promises of God are made personal for each of us: “Stephen, I baptise you…”
The caveat, though, is that nothing follows about style of worship from saying that scripture, baptism and communion are somehow transcultural, from God. What kind of song is sang, what clothes are worn, what cultural norms are in play, whether we need Powerpoint or pipe-organs, is all up for grabs. It needs to be worked out missionally in the local setting, first of all so that participants can recognise their own culture in it. And not just the participants who are already there; if others are going to participate, they will need to see their culture. In an outward-facing and reconciling community, difference needs to be built in. This is no easy thing to discern or sustain, but it is crucial for us as the church in contemporary Australia.
4. Is there such a thing as an artistic sensibility so far as worship preparation and delivery is concerned? If so, what is its relation to God?
Yes! I want here to think about both gift and practice. Worship should be an event to which people can bring their gifts, artistic and otherwise—music and song, graphic and decorative design, hospitality, a sense for movement and ritual, care, all sorts of things, so that what happens is authentically the people’s, and makes something good out of the diverse gifts of the community. In terms of art, worship is not a “colour by numbers” exercise, locked into Uniting in Worship, Hillsong, or anything else, but needs to find a way to makes the best of the gifts of the worshippers. At the same time, things can be practiced: learning by heart, muscle memory in leadership, and strenuous disciplines—like kindness to all, like welcome to newcomers—make a world of difference between mediocre and marvellous communities of worship. Courage is absolutely crucial too—courage to be unembarrassed about worship, about praising, seeking, celebrating God’s presence, and no half-measures.
That maybe bring us to the key idea: encounter. If we believe that worship is truly about encountering the living, loving God, it will show, and the gifts will be shared freely, and practice done willingly.