For William Shakespeare “worship” was a polite term of address, like “your majesty,” as in the line from The Merry Wives of Windsor (which premiered in 1597 in the same room that we met in during this summer’s clergy consultation) “Will’t please your worship to come in, sir?”
In Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” the lovestruck knight Arcita is banished from the dukedom of Theseus, but he sneaks back in and disguises himself as a servant in the household of Emily, the woman he longs to be with. Arcita gains such a reputation throughout the dukedom as a noble person that Theseus’ advisors recommend promoting him from servant to squire. In Chaucer’s fourteenth-century words, the advisors tell Theseus to “put him in worshipful service.”
“Worshipful service” is Middle English for something like “noble employment” or “honorable work”–a job fit for someone of good social standing and virtue. This archaic meaning of “worshipful” reminds us that in Middle English, “worship” could still mean “dignity,” “honor,” or “reputation.”
Chaucer’s word “worshipful” reminds us that worthiness is a key concept when it comes to worship. Does it bring God honor–does it, we might say, enhance God’s reputation? This is not to ask whether our worship is dignified-solemn, showy, or sophisticated. But in an era in which therapeutic and marketable models for worship have gained so much popularity and influence–suggesting that worship must please the people rather than God–it may reorient us to ask: is our worship fit for the King?
Worship declares how inherently worthy God is to be praised, to be confessed to, to be preached about, to be served. This is what the elders around the throne in Revelation 5 model for us as they sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” As Psalm 96 says, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due [God’s] name.”
See you in worthy worship!