Perhaps the first thing to be said about decorum is that it is now viewed as an old-fashioned thing. Even to admit it is a criterion at all seems like trying to bring back what is no longer tenable, like Miss Thorne’s keenness for quintain. Decorum is what persons who do not want to admit that things are no longer as they once were or who fail to understand that for better or for worse we must deal with the way they are now think will bring back better times. Decorum is an old concept, it is broken or worn-out, it is and idea that can only apply in certain circumstances which anybody can see no longer exist.
This, the entertainment view of decorum—I will call it, is an unexamined attitude adopted simply under the influence of a generally prevailing attitude toward anything that has not been associated with a gadget launched in the last few weeks. Technopoly encourages this. This view is simply the prejudice of the day of what we may very loosely call American culture, which when it goes to church we may with some accuracy call evangelicalism.
But thinking persons will not agree with this easy dismissal of decorum. Decorum is the seemly conduct of public affairs, and as usual with aesthetic considerations, there’s more to it than meets the eye. But this is why it is complex: it is aesthetic, and we have in our day to argue even about the importance of this consideration, let alone the criteria. One may still encounter persons who agree that things ought to be done with decorum. But try to disagree with anybody’s views of decorum; you will find there is no subsequent conversation about the criteria: it is not entertained. The result is that speaking of the criteria for seemly conduct is either something not to be taken seriously, or it is something about which polite persons cannot consciously disagree. Decorum is, then, often what we have always assumed it to be, but to enter into judgment with these conflicting assumptions is to, in a way, violate our own standards of decorum, for those who have any. This is a bit fatal to the enterprise of having a common sense of what is seemly conduct.
So I think we need to get to the place where decorum is better understood. It is like modesty. There are persons loose in this world who believe modesty is about how much of your body is shown, merely. It sets up a conflict between aesthetic considerations and considerations of propriety, as if these were separate things. What is missing is a consideration of what modesty is in itself, which upon examination I think will be found to be a consideration of the ethics of aesthetics. Where it examined and found to be chiefly and attitude, a cause of which one’s clothing, demeanor and many other things are effects, perhaps the aesthetics, the seemliness of appearance would not end up as roughly handled, and the cause of modesty not quite so easily cast by the way. At least that is what I think.
Whatever I may think, decorum is important to public affairs because the way things are conducted bears on the outcome. When the desired outcome is to get people to stay, then things are conducted in such a way as to attract people at whatever cost, as we now know, even the cost of the (once, and this was also a mistake) all-important message. In this sense, a so-called contemporary service has its own perverse decorum; to do things otherwise would be obtuse, counterproductive, and insensitive to the object worshipped: the (now) all-important average person wanted as a regular church goer. How improper to think decorum has to do with God. God is not an elitist, after all, only bad persons are. Having criteria is elitism, and Jesus Christ obviously has none, having become a human being and suffered on the cross so that all the world may be basically ok and not worry about things whatever their conduct, which, let me reiterate, does not matter. God is the one in need of worshippers (bodies enjoying themselves in activities which an age without standards of judgment judges to be sufficiently religious, though no other age conceivably would), therefore it is improper to consider decorum in worship in terms of who he is.
Here’s where that point of view is right: people will only stay voluntarily. They need to want to stay in order to stay, and the hard part is to get them to understand that they should want it for outcomes which their desires naturally avoid. God sets the standard for worship. God defines worship and limits its elements, so we who do not know can understand what it is and what he wants. But he wants us to understand what it is and what it does, and to do it with a right good will, and that, I think, is the province of decorum.
Illustration: I left fundamentalist worship because it was chaotic and indecorous and not subject to change. I have become a very low church Reformed Baptist. The regulative principle comes to us from John Calvin’s concern for reforming worship. How is worship properly regulated? We don’t make it up, God commands it. If God did not tell us to do it in Scripture—which is sufficient for all things relating to faith and practice—then it is something made up. The effect of a thoroughgoing adherence to this principle, at least in my mind, is a very simple approach to worship, as low-church as you can go. Four things are required on a regular basis: public prayer, public reading of Scripture, congregational singing, public proclamation. You observe the two sacraments regularly, but not necessarily in every worship service. A worship service contains the four elements and one or both sacraments, but the four elements are the minimum and the six things are the maximum.
A standard objection to that view is: what is so great about that? What indeed. Only that those are the requirements God makes on us, and without which he cannot in good conscience be asked to bless the proceedings. That is all.
Why is God’s blessing important? Because if he does not meet with us, we do not worship. And that is the supernatural unfakeable part that makes worship be or not be. Either God attends (to worship himself, we might say) or there is no worship. It is not about creating a feeling or worship, I do not believe you can manufacture or provide aesthetic equivalents of God’s presence. It is real or it is not there. If it is about rites and incense and ingenious solemnities performed by well-intentioned people, then the regulative principle of worship is wrong. Nor it is about meeting the conditions God imposes and then mechanically expecting a result (though you might put it that way, but ought not to). It is about understanding God is not obliged to us, but we are obliged to him, bringing our elements as witnesses to that desire for what he has promised in order to attain, not the performance of these duties, but the living encounter with his real presence only the believer can enjoy (though the unbeliever can be aware of it).
But decorum is how you go about it, and it tells you how you ought to feel about God’s presence whether he is there or not. I think many thinking people go for decorum, and the more high church approach provides decorum, and from them we can learn to think about that aspect (and I do not deny that God can make his presence known in those circumstances, but do deny they are the best circumstances for it). Not that the normative principle which emphasizes decorum which in our day is as I above described it is the answer: I do not think it is. Still, the answer is not the bare observance of the bare elements, but the decorous observance of the bare elements. The regulative principle cannot be bare elements handled as if they are the magic elements and all that God requires is shabby, indecorous obedience.