Book Review: At Heaven's Gate

Reflections on Leading Worship

by Richard Giles, SCM-Canterbury Press, 2010

Review by Martin Gorick

from Signs of the Times, No. 42 - Jul 2011

I was looking forward to reading this book. The previous volume in the 'Reflections' series, Here I am: Reflections on the Ordained Life, contains the most concise, inspiring, and above all real descriptions of the priestly calling that I have ever read. Richard Giles' books are always readable and thought provoking and At Heaven's Gate does not disappoint.

He has a clear sense of the primacy of worship in the Christian life,

'our own little tradesmen's entrance into the kingdom of God'.

It is deeply counter-cultural,

'When push comes to shove in this performance-centred culture of ours, worship doesn't appear to do anything'

Yet properly attended to is at the heart of all things,

'If we really believe that the Sunday gathering of God's people is the sacrament of their transformation, that if we get worship right, those who participate in it will be radically changed by their experience ... exercising ministries and roles unthinkable before, then we shall award worship first, second and third place in our agenda, knowing all the rest will follow.' P3-4

He is clear that 'good worship' is the responsibility of the whole church, not just the clergy, and rests on the 'quality of common life enjoyed ... Good worship begins with a whole and happy community.' p16. He is instinctively deeply inclusive, quoting Bishop Rodney Michael approvingly, 'When a church says 'All are welcome. Which bit of the word 'all' did you fail to understand?' p130. However Giles recognizes that when it comes to worship 'we all become conservatives, knowing what we like and defending it to the last.' It takes a gifted leader he says, to 'prise people away from the familiar and enter new experiences of worship as a joyous adventure.' P13-14. You sense that Giles, doubtless a gifted leader himself, rather enjoyed this ministry of 'prising', as he says in a paragraph on 'tough decisions', 'When people threaten to leave, it will sometimes be appropriate to offer them the bus fare.'!

His pithy comments flow thick and fast. Opinionated yes, but so often right! On music for example, 'Sadly the phrase 'strong musical tradition' has become a code for the perpetuation of an extremely narrow understanding of music for worship ... composed before 1900, sung and performed by a privileged few, while the assembly is reduced to the role of spectator. This is a travesty of the church at worship.' p98. A harsh analysis, yes, but often ringing true. He advocates Directors of Music who are, 'liturgists and facilitators of the assembly's participation first, and virtuosi organists second ... animateurs of music' p99.

One can almost hear past organists and choirs of Giles' queuing to receive their bus fares! And perhaps that is my occasional concern. How many in his congregations could really buy into the vision? How many could cope with the pithy and prophetic Giles as parish priest? How many were lost along the way? I love his ideas about the congregation gathering in different parts of the church at different times, but in a full church that just isn't possible! Philadelphia Cathedral was spaciously re-ordered by Giles, but all the pictures in 'Re-pitching the Tent' show sparse congregations too. His book is something of a counsel of perfection, betraying the older man's despair of clergy who are unable to come up to his demanding mark. It will excite some clergy and laity, annoy others, and leave the majority of clergy perhaps feeling unable to rise to his heights of compassion, vision, inspiration, toughness and sheer loneliness that his style of prophetic ministry entails.

To me at least his writing is an inspiration. 'Strong, Loving and Wise' in fact, as all liturgical presidents should be. The book is short, always readable and contains a useful 'Worship Checklist' at the end. Read the whole book and be inspired, but don't worry too much if you can't live up to the whole vision of clergy heaven that is Richard Giles!