One of the current debates happening in the Church of England is about the relation between liturgical forms of worship and the task of mission. Put simply, some would claim that a highly structured and ‘liturgical’ service—in the sense of being shaped by formal liturgy—creates barriers to outsiders and is therefore an obstacle to mission and growth. So there is an association claimed between churches that are growing and those that have informal cultures of collective worship.
But it is not quite so simple! In the last few years we have also seen growth in the numbers attending places with more formal cultures of collective worship, including cathedrals and Oxbridge colleges (those these latter are rather sui generis). And we need to avoid the exaggerated polarity between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ for other reasons as well. On the one hand, Anglican clergy take a vow that they will ‘only use the forms of service authorised by canon law’, and so any Church of England service ought to be recognisable as Anglican in some way or another. (In fact, it is very easy to make a quite informal service conform to the shape and style of ‘A Service of the Word’.) On the other hand, churches I have been to where the collective worship is ‘informal’ often follow a quite strict and predictable pattern, and can make lots of assumptions about who does what and when, which, left unexplained, could be baffling and off-putting to visitors.
So can liturgy be missional? Can churches that use ‘liturgical worship’ draw new people in, see them coming to faith, and grow? This is what I will be exploring at an online training morning with Transforming Worship (South) on Thursday 12th October from 10.30 to 1 pm. You can book by completing the form here.
We will be considering a range of issues around Church of England liturgy, in particular the content and shape of the Communion service, which lend themselves to missional engagement.
The shape of the Communion service moves from welcome and gathering, through confession and forgiveness, into hearing and receiving the word of God, to a celebration of the story of salvation, remembering the climax in Jesus giving himself for us, and moving to being sent out into the world. For regular members of the congregation, this can function as trajectory of discipleship and mission, being drawn in, equipped, and sent out. But for visitors this also includes a dynamic of invitation.
The content of key parts of the service resonate with issues in our culture. We know our need of community—hence the gathering and welcome. We are acutely aware of the presence of evil in our midst—hence the need for confession. We long for wisdom of the ages—and so we hear the words of Scripture. We are drawn to stories of good and evil, where good triumphs against the odds—and so we hear the story of salvation history reaching its high point in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We yearn for a sense of higher purpose in our lives—and so we are sent out on a mission.
And specific prayers and elements of the liturgy are rich in missional content. In particular, the longer prayer of thanksgiving after Communion paints a picture of the the people of God, called, equipped, and sent out on mission. In my previous exposition of this prayer, I ended as follows:
This, then, is what the Church of England believes about the role of the ‘laity’, the people of God in the world. We have experienced the unique grace of the Fatherhood of God in Jesus by the Spirit, and we are to offer that to all. We live distinctive lives which proclaim not our goodness, but the grace of God, bringing light into dark places, demonstrating a shared life in a broken world. And we live in hope that God will complete his purposes, and that one day ‘the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever’ (Rev 11.15).
This is a high calling, and one that our practice has not always reflected. But is it one we actually understand? I was discussing this with a (lay) friend, who has been a lifelong Christian and a member of the C of E for 25 years. ‘Have you ever reflected on this prayer, or been taught about its meaning?’ I asked. ‘Not once’ was the reply. As Stanley Hauerwas argues, we do not need to invent new initiatives, or grasp new strategies, so much as learn to be what we are. This challenges each of our traditions—for evangelicals to use this liturgy, for Catholics to teach this liturgy (and not just assume it will do its work), and for liberals to believe this liturgy. Then, perhaps, the whole people of God might find what they need to be faithful witnesses in the world.
Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.
Dying and living, he declared your love,
gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory.
May we who share Christ’s body live his risen life;
we who drink his cup bring life to others;
we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.
Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us,
so we and all your children shall be free,
and the whole earth live to praise your name;
through Christ our Lord.
This sense of the Church as the laity, dispersed in their various roles, is captured rather wonderfully by Dave Walker at cartoonchurch.com. I would add, though, that this is not a particularly distinctive view of the Church of England; I think most other denominations would share this understanding of who and what the church (and the laity) really are. But it is nice to confirm that this is the C of E’s actual view!
Of course, there are serious obstacles for many visitors in some church cultures, which seem very formal and inaccessible in the way they use liturgy—and these need addressing.
To explore all these things, come and join me on 12th October as we explore these issues and regain confidence in liturgy as mission. I look forward to seeing you there!