Many of you will have heard of Charlemagne, the great Frankish (Germanic) ruler of the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Charlemagne influenced Western Europe in many ways, both in the church and in the state, but I’m thinking today about a quest he made for unity in his empire. As you may know, Charlemagne’s efforts included conquering lands, repelling invaders, securing his borders, reviving culture, etc. But the unity that he achieved in a political way wasn’t totally secure, because people could always rebel.
However, there was also a spiritual question, in that there was a spiritual power down in Rome that people had begun to call the “pope” — the spiritual “father” of all Christians, in the eyes of some. One big question for Charlemagne concerned how political and spiritual powers would co-exist: who is in charge? Is it the pope or the emperor? Or some combination of the two? Could this question even lead to a breakdown in the unity of the empire?
One tactic that Charlemagne used to unify his empire was to unify the worship that existed throughout the empire. In other words, he attempted to standardize the Christian worship of his “Carolingian” empire. You might think that would be easy, but you’d be wrong. Besides all the difficulties of communication across hundreds of miles in those days, there were some very specific, distinct, and already ancient worship traditions associated with lands in his empire: in Spain, in northern Italy (centered in Milan), and in Gaul (now France).
So what was Charlemagne to do? Should he take one of these local traditions and make it “empire-wide”? Actually, what he did was to send messengers to Rome to find out how they “did worship” there. He knew that Rome was a very ancient Christian city, and he viewed Roman traditions as the most authoritative. It’s not unlike the reasoning employed by King Oswy at the Synod of Whitby in the late 600s — but that’s a story for another day. (Feel free to research it, if you like!)
I don’t think this move on Charlemagne’s part is just an interesting historical footnote. I think that many of us have experienced the same kind of cultural cohesiveness that comes from a common worship tradition. Those of us in the Churches of Christ may know what this is like. Until recently, all over the Bible Belt, people in Churches of Christ sang many of the same hymns, heard much of the same prayer language, and experienced similar preaching. This was comforting: if one was traveling, one could visit an unfamiliar Church of Christ and yet feel right at home.
More broadly, and more recently, the most common way this unity happens nowadays concerns modern worship music. As you know, there’s been an explosion of modern worship music in the last 20 years, and whether you are in a Bible church, a community church, a Baptist church, etc., there’s a good chance that you’ll hear songs you know. Does this create unity outside the church walls? Maybe. But it certainly creates unity as we share worship experiences together.
Closest to home, as members of the our university community, we all experience communal worship on campus (in our daily “Chapel” gatherings). Some of us like the all-music “Praise Day,” some prefer the more contemplative “Come to the Quiet,” and still others like the aptly-named “Small Group” Chapels. But we all know the experiences, and we all know the standard complaints that students levy against required worship. Despite those complaints, though, one reason that the University administration preserves the Chapel requirement is that, while our students come from different worship backgrounds, worship as a bonding social experience is very powerful in community-building. This bonding occurs on a sociological level – there are human-level phenomena working here – but we believe it also happens in a spiritual way. We believe that the Holy Spirit binds us together as Christians, and one way the Spirit does this is through our worship.
So, the next time you’re bored in a worship service, I’d encourage you to think a bit about what’s actually happening during that service, and why lifelong Christians often find hymn-singing to be so powerful in their later years. God is binding us together, as the old song goes, with cords that may not be able to be broken.