A Protestant Doctrinal Reflection on Taizé

The anticipation and excitement about the recent Taizé’s “Pilgrimage of Trust” that is happening now in Hong Kong got me deeply interested with what Taizé is all about. A quick research on Taizé and one will realize how different it is from the usual traditional or contemporary worship style. However, it too is a widely acceptable manner of worship with Taizé styled worship being conducted all around the world, in both Protestant and Catholic churches alike. The startling differences in worship brought forth some important questions we should ask when we try to define what is “acceptable worship”.

“The entire idea of Taizé worship is to let the words that are either heard or sung, penetrate into the heart of the congregation.”

As a Protestant with an Anglican background, I was taught to believe that the defining characteristic of Protestantism is founded on the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin. But as Taizé becomes increasing endorsed by the Protestant churches, and more notably, by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself [1], one might ask if Taizé is aligned with Protestantism doctrines or is the church as we know it, being blatantly influenced by a cult. Then again, with this in mind, we will also need to re-examine the defining factors that make a cult, a cult. For this, let’s lay out what Taizé is all about.

Taizé in a Nutshell

To quickly summarize what Taizé is, I will list out all the defining characteristics of Taizé below as according to what was written by BBC [2].

  • Central Ideology – the promotion of ecumenism (the unity of Protestant and Catholic Churches) and peace.
  • Lifestyle – Monastic Order that is devoted to meditation and prayer.
  • Way of Life – Material and Spiritual sharing.
  • Prayers – 3 times a day according to Monastic Order. Prayers are highly meditative.
  • Most times, prayers are chanted.
  • Music – Much-repeated chants of simple phrases from the Psalms or parts of scriptures.
  • Worship style – Candle-lit worship with periods of meditation, chants, and scripture readings.
  • Pilgrimage – The pilgrimage of trust was launched in 1978 that involves the mass gathering of young people and visits to every continent.

On top of all these, Taizé also uses icons to worship [3]. They do not have any preaching, teaching, or any mentions of sin, repentance, and forgiveness [4] during their services. The entire idea of Taizé worship is to let the words that are either heard or sung, penetrate into the heart of the congregation.

Interiors of Taizé's Church of Reconciliation
Interiors of Taizé’s Church of Reconciliation

On the surface, this new method of worship seems harmless. Maybe even helpful on the spiritual level if one’s key focus is to connect with “God” or the “Holy Spirit”. The “mystical nature” of the service that everyone speaks about creates an illusion that transport one’s soul into a magical realm that might help one “connect with the Spirit” [5]. Of course, not forgetting that Taizé Prayer, in all its mysticism, forms the basis of what we now know as “contemplative prayer” [6].

The Ecumenism of Protestant and Catholic Churches

Sure, I think this is a good idea. But there are also a lot of doctrinal differences that one needs to sort out before we speak of reconciliation between the two institutions. I believe that reconciliation is necessary. However, I have an issue with the way Taizé is doing it.

Bringing a group of people from both institutions together and installing them as monks devoted to prayer, meditation, work, and bible studies seems counterintuitive on the grounds of reconciliation. One needs to understand that the cause of separation between Catholics and Protestantism is their doctrinal differences and reconciliation must take the form of mitigating these differences and finding common ground. Bringing people together with a whole new method of worship with absolutely no teachings whatsoever is not reconciliation. Rather, this can be viewed as a manner of diversion from traditions and doctrinal teachings. Worse, bringing youths from around the world to designated congregation spots to experience Taizé worship style and indoctrinate them with the idea of reconciliation is not reconciliation. These youths are innocent flocks of sheep that requires traditional institutions to help them socialize into right theology till they are ready to be thrown out there to discern for their own. By exposing the idea of “peace and reconciliation” with little or no prior knowledge of the doctrinal teachings of the other institutions are like leading them to the slaughter with no backing.

“The latent functions of early exposures to ideas of reconciliation and Taizé may bring Taizé into mainstream religion, which will ultimately lead to the overthrowing of traditions and basic fundamentals of doctrinal teachings in the long run.”

Sure, on the surface, such “pilgrimages” may have many positive results. But then, what are the factors that make the results, positive? The question that we as objective protestant thinkers really need to ask is this: Just what is the manifest functions of inculcating these youths to a fundamentally different method of worship and to the teaching of “peace”? In other words, what are we trying to achieve with all these pilgrimages? If it is a reconciliation of different doctrines, shouldn’t the reconciliation effort be done by the highest of authorities within these two institutions? Why are we bringing the youths? The latent functions of early exposures to ideas of reconciliation and Taizé may bring Taizé into mainstream religion, which will ultimately lead to the overthrowing of traditions and basic fundamentals of doctrinal teachings in the long run.

Peace, I agree on. Reconciliation, I also recognize the need for it. But pilgrimage of trust for youths and the monastic nature of worship to promote peace and reconciliation? No.

Problems with Taizé Worship

Then we come to the highly mythicized worship style with chants, meditations, and scripture readings. Taizé employs the method of meditative singing where short songs are repeatedly sung again and again till it “penetrates the whole being” [7]. These songs are also used as a form of prayers that will help individuals within the congregation find “inner unity in God”.

I am okay with singing. In fact, the Bible teaches us to sing and give praise (Ps 108:1). However, the key determinant of Christian worship through singing is outward praises to God. From what I am seeing in Taizé is an inward, self-indulging singing that allows the individual to be penetrated by the words of the song. On this note, the “inner unity” that is represented takes the form of being at peace with one’s interpretation of the words. Maybe the words are words of worship directed at God. But when meditation is encouraged in a congregation of emotion-centric youths, we may not know whether the things meditated upon is aligned with the scriptures. This in itself, may have dire consequences in the long run. And for the record, meditating on errored doctrines will lead to an increasing firmness in wrong doctrines.

“Taizé style of prayer blatantly contradicts Biblical teachings of keeping prayers short and concise for God knows what we need before we ask Him.”

Regarding the prayer-nature of meditative singing, the Taizé style of prayer blatantly contradicts Biblical teachings of keeping prayers short and concise for God knows what we need before we ask Him (Matthew 6:7-8). Hence, with regards to the contemplative nature of Taizé prayer, I do not think that it is aligned with Biblical teachings of praying. Rather, it is a method of finding ‘peace’ with oneself in the form of reflection.

Regarding the use of icons for worship, both Protestantism church founders have contradicting church iconography. Luther favoured the use of icons for the purpose of instruction and as a reminder to our faith [8]. John Calvin, on the other hand, rejected it saying that we should not represent God with a visible appearance. In fact, Calvin’s reason for the rejection of iconography is because icons attract people to meditate on them [9] – the very reason why Taizé have them in the first place [7].

Though Taizé does not advocate praying to the icons, it stressed that icons help believers pray and connect with God as a way of saying, “here I am”. Worship with the icons can be done in the form of standing, seating, or kneeling before the icon. Some people may bow or kiss the icon. However, Taizé stresses that such gestures do not express worship towards the icon but to what the icon represents [10].

People Praying Around Taize Cross
People praying around the Taizé Cross

The very issue with worshipping with the use of icons contradicts the reason why the Protestant church worship with an empty cross in the first place. Protestants do not worship with a crucifix and statues because of the historical concern that arises from the idolization of images and relics [11]. Hence Protestants are cautioned against worshipping with icons, statues, or any visual representation of God. So, the endorsement of Taizé worship in Protestant Churches is as good as disregarding years of reformation and re-endorsing orthodox iconography which history told us, will lead to idolization.

“The endorsement of Taizé worship in Protestant churches is as good as disregarding years of reformation and re-endorsing orthodox iconography which history told us, will lead to idolization.”

The practice of not preaching during Taizé worship service is one of the most blatant rejections of Biblical teachings. Of course, there are bible studies in the Taizé. However, group-based bible studies are different from the practice of preaching in corporate worship. John Piper explains that preaching during corporate worship is a “gift and work of the Holy Spirit” that “is not just seeing God, but also savouring God”. In his words, “true preaching is the kind of speech that consistently unites these two aspects of worship” – 1) God being manifested in understanding, and 2) in our joyous delight in the Word of God [12]. So, to remove preaching from worship is to refuse the congregation off God in the form of understanding and to withhold the joyous delight in the Word of God that the congregation so deserves during worship.

Cult?

At the end of the matter, Taizé, with all its contradiction to mainstream Protestantism, is blatantly at odds with the fundamental structures of Christianity. Whether we look at it from a doctrinal level or as an external spectator, Taizé is nothing like the mainstream Protestantism that we know of. However, the widespread acceptability of Taizé should spark conversations and dialogues in the heart of Christendom.

“Taizé, with all its contradiction to mainstream Protestantism, should spark conversations and dialogues in the heart of Christendom.”

Is Taizé truly a vessel of peace and reconciliation through doctrines of ecumenism? Or is there something deeper than that?

Deeper study needs to be done on this field to determine the defining characteristic of cults and whether or not Taizé falls under that category. (I am not saying it is. I am just suggesting that it is so different from mainstream Christianity that its method of worship should be debated upon).

Then we have mystic nature of Taizé worship that brings into question whether or not this Taizé is a cult that, instead of teaching or exhortation of the Word of God, helps it followers “’experience’ God through sensory-focused music and singing” instead [13].

References:

[1] – Hong Kong prepares to welcome thousands of young people for international Taize pilgrimage. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.anglicannews.org/news/2018/03/hong-kong-prepares-to-welcome-thousands-of-young-people-for-international-taize-pilgrimage.aspx

[2] – Taizé. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/priests/taize_1.shtml

[3] – Icons in worship. (2003). Retrieved from https://www.taize.fr/en_article340.html

[4] – The quieting, mystical experience of Taizé prayer. (2014). Retrieved from https://cruxnow.com/faith/2014/12/03/the-quieting-mystical-experience-of-taize-prayer/

[5] – Connecting with the Spirit in Taizé. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.abc-usa.org/2014/10/11/connecting-with-the-spirit-in-taize/

[6] – Taizé Style Worship. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://troynorthminster.weebly.com/taize-style-worship.html

[7] – Meditative Singing. (2004). Retrieved from https://www.taize.fr/en_article338.html

[8] – Cooper, J. (2014). Lutheran and the Use of Images. Retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/justandsinner/lutherans-and-the-use-of-images/

[9] – Osei-Bonsu, R. (2013). John Calvin’s Perspective on Music and Worship, And It’s Implication for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Retrieved from https://www.ajol.info/index.php/ijrs/article/download/90997/80412

[10] – Marc, J. (n.d.) Icons. Retrieved from https://www.taize.fr/IMG/pdf/cahiers16en_web.pdf

[11] – Luchs, A. (n.d.) Why doesn’t my church have statues and a crucifix like the Catholic Church? Retrieved from http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/why-doesnt-my-church-have-statues-and-a-crucifix-like-the-catholic-church

[12] – Piper, J. (1998). The Place of Preaching in Worship. Retrieved from https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-place-of-preaching-in-worship

[13] – West, M. (n.d.) Taizé Worship – Growing in Popularity, But Roots Are in Mystical Monasticism. Retrieved from https://bereanresearch.org/taize-worship-growing-popularity-roots-mystical-monasticism/

Picture Sources:
https://www.kerknet.be/kerknet-redactie/inspiratie/2-liederen-van-taiz%C3%A9-en-hun-wonderlijke-werking
http://www.hawaiicatholicherald.com/2016/01/28/photo-praying-around-the-cross/

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