Liturgy for a missional church

P1280195Last week, it happened. Half way through Holy Week, I finally got fed up with reciting the opening prayer in Common Worship. The offending text is as follows:

Blessed are you, Lord God of our salvation,
to you be praise and glory for ever.
As a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief
your only Son was lifted up
that he might draw the whole world to himself.
May we walk this day in the way of the cross
and always be ready to share its weight,
declaring your love for all the world.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There are many minor irritating features here. First is the habitual use of ‘Blessed are you…’ which is very odd English but a consistent feature of CW. The theory is that it takes us back to the first century and connects us with our roots in Jewish liturgy. But this ignores some key realities about translation; in the NT the semantic range of ‘bless’ language is almost interchangeable with the range of ‘thank’ and ‘praise’ language and so would not have sounded odd to Jewish readers—but feels very odd to us where there is not the same equivalence. (Compare Matt 26.26 ‘blessed’ with Mark 14.22 ‘blessed’, Mark 14.23 ‘gave thanks’ and Luke 22.17, 19 ‘gave thanks’. Luke is arguably moving from Jewish to gentile culture, and adapts his language accordingly). And it is odd enough to have been dropped from the Additional Baptism texts. It might work in a certain Matt Redman song, but not in other, even liturgical, speech.

Then there is the juxtaposition of contrasting and unconnected theological motifs. Jesus was indeed a ‘man of sorrows’, and he was indeed ‘lifted up.’ But the second idea belongs to the notion in John’s gospel of the cross as glorification, on which he cries in triumph ‘It is finished!’ in contrast to his cry of dereliction from the cross in Mark. These two ideas are biblical, and are sharply contrasting, and we need to take both seriously—but in consecutive phrases within one sentence? It jars almost as much as the bizarre kaleidoscope of juxtaposition that we were treated to during Lent. As someone previously commented in the discussion here 5 years ago:

There is no time to ponder anything for more than a microsecond before the next huge idea comes at you like an express train.

But the biggest problems come in the last main sentence, in which there are three very different notions. The first is the image of discipleship from Mark 8.34 (and parallels) described as ‘walking in the way of the cross.’ The third is the quite different theological idea from John 3.16 and elsewhere of the cross as the expression of God’s love for the world. The middle one, which tries in vain to link these two, is at best unhelpful and at worst heretical, the idea that we ‘share in [bearing] the weight of the cross.’ Notice that we are supposed to share the weight of the cross, not our own cross, so we have moved from our own costly discipleship to participating, somehow, in Jesus’ redemptive death for the world.

Yes, Paul uses the language of ‘sharing in his sufferings’ in Phil 3.10, and even strains our theological horizons by talking of ‘filling up his sufferings’ in Col 1.24. But neither of these come close to the idea that we participate in bearing the weight of Christ’s cross, and even Simon of Cyrene cannot help us carry this theological idea back across the borders of heresy. It is an idea decisively rejected in the BCP language of Communion (‘who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’) and in the Anglican rejection of the idea that we are in any sense re-offering his sacrifice, the central notion in the Roman Catholic mass (‘May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…).

Yet my frustration with this prayer is only one of a series of frustrations. (Leonard to Sheldon: ‘It must be hell inside your head sometimes…’).

  • The responsory/memory verse, which chops verses in half so that they then don’t make sense.
  • The switching of the Lord’s Prayer (which should draw together our intercessions) and the Collect (which should collect the whole service or section of a service together, as it does elsewhere) so that they try to do the opposite.
  • The use of the flaccid ending ‘Let us bless the Lord/thanks be to God’ which is supposed to mean ‘Let’s praise the Lord/Praise the Lord’, but fails because no-one understands the semantic equivalence between bless, praise and thanks, and so in effect means ‘The service has ended/thank goodness for that!’
  • The wordiness of the collects (now corrected by available alternatives) including the formulaic insistence on the longer ending.
  • The loss of some of the excellent closing collects in BCP and ASB through relegation to the later ‘library’.
  • More broadly, why did we end up with a series of books, rather than having the core services that are used most frequently in one volume? I am not sure I have ever seen a rationale for that.
  • The choice of Gill Sans as a font, which appears to have become a quasi-official one for the C of E. This despite the fact that, with its small bowls compared with its risers, it is less readable—and notwithstanding the sexual proclivities of its designer, Eric Gill.
  • The use of red for rubrics. Yes, I know that it what the Latin word means—but the ASB’s blue was, once more, chosen for its readability, under the strange notion that being able to read the text might be more important than how good we are at Latin.

P1280188What are the possible responses to my frustration (which can be printed here…)?

The first might be to say ‘A lot of it is optional; drop the parts you don’t like.’ But the options are not evident on the app which I most often use; if other people are leading I don’t get the choice; others are subjected to these things when they are being led; and why have we ended up with a liturgy which includes so many problematic elements?

A second response would be to take offence. One person involved in the process of creating Common Worship, in response to my venting frustration on Facebook, has unfriended and blocked me. This suggests that liturgy in some sense belongs to those involved in the formal process, and that a criticism of the texts is a criticism of the people. It isn’t; like football, it is much more important than that, since liturgy expresses the doctrine of the Church, and so needs to stay within the doctrinal register of what the Church believes. If the liturgy is problematic, we need to discuss this and do so with reference to good theology.

A third response would be to argue that these texts all came through the proper processes, were discussed and debated, and so are agreed by the Church through the only process that we have for this. But if this process did indeed work, how is it that we have needed a new set of collects, additional Eucharistic Prayers (even having thrown out the initial six), Additional Baptism texts—and we still have frustrations with Daily Prayer.

I think that part of the reason why this needs discussion—and why discussion is often avoided—is that we are living in days when so much is being contested. This often means we are exhausted by debate, and want to avoid it—but we then also want to gather around something that we agree on, and the easiest formal place to go is the liturgy. So when this is under dispute, we are in a difficult place.

In the discussion on the Facebook thread, there were in fact two equally strong and opposite objections expressed to Common Worship. The first was that it was too complex, wordy and pompous; the second was that it lacked the depth and majesty of the BCP. Both of these were captured in one fascinating comment:

The churches I know of that are growing are not the ones that are using Common Worship liturgy.

This can, of course, be interpreted in one of two ways. Such churches are either ones that have thrown out the use of written liturgy, and take an ‘informal’ approach to worship. Or this could be a reference to churches which are presenting worship as a transcendent experience that is discontinuous with everyday life, through the use of profound and formal liturgy, often from the BCP. I think the commentator was referring to both. As it happens, current observations about church growth do appear to confirm these as the two kinds of places which appear to be showing numerical growth in attendance.

It is far from clear, however, what a good way forward will be in relation to current liturgical provision. I strongly believe that the complexity and wordiness of much CW liturgy (under the guise of ‘riching up the liturgy) accelerated this polarisation within the Church—and, though the reasons for both responses are clear, I am not sure this is a healthy position for the Church to be in. I think it is partly due to a fundamentally mistaken strategy: to offer a million authorised or official texts which must be adhered to, rather than a small number of core texts which can be used flexibly. The division between ‘authorised’ and ‘commended’ texts was also a mistake, since there is nothing to prevent the ‘commended’ (i.e. not widely supported, but not prohibited) texts from shifting to the centre—as with the odd focus on the ‘Chrism Eucharist’ each year in many dioceses, which is hardly a mainstream, historical Anglican practice.

When people come to faith, particularly from a non-church background, they will need to learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’, and part of that will be developing patterns of prayer and worship in a previously unstructured life. So liturgy, of some form, is need for us to be an effective missionary church in a post-Christendom culture. I am not sure what it looks like, but I do feel fairly confident that CW isn’t it.

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40 thoughts on “Liturgy for a missional church”

  1. It could be worse – look at ‘A New Zealand Prayer Book’ (1989) where even the biblical texts are rewritten (‘adapted’) to edit out any use of ‘He’, ‘Him’, ‘His’ with reference to God, as well as ‘kingdom’ and ‘righteousness’ (now rendered ‘justice’) ; clearly feminist thinking was regnant there, along with synergistic eco-theology. But marrying the spirit of the age doesn’t seem to have produced many children.

    But the prayers I hear in supposedly evangelical churches that have scrapped all liturgy except a bit of the communion service are scarcely better, being banal, flat, repetitive and unimaginative. I know that evangelicals have never cared much for liturgy and Colin Buchanan was odd man out in this regard; but couldn’t we have a bit more poetry? Even a bit more Bible in allegedly Bible-centred worship? That’s another matter …

    • Brian, yes indeed, it could be worse. But I hold out some hope that it could also be better.

      I entirely agree with you about liturgy and Bible in evangelical churches. But if you wanted to find a way to drive people from liturgy, giving them five, long, wordy (and often not very Anglican) books would be quite a good strategy.

  2. Thank you for this, Ian, which says far better than I can how I have felt about Common Worship since its inception.

    • Gordon—how very interesting. I had no idea that such a thing had been produced—but is it really Common Worship? I had understood that Church House Publishing had a monopoly on these texts.

      Looks like it is available on Amazon, new and used.

      • I’m pretty sure it is CW – I think that SPCK publishes by licence. (They do publish a CW Lectionary…)
        I think the reason that publication is not common is that it’s too expensive and too inflexible.
        We produced a complete service book for our Benefice at a cost of £3.75 a copy as opposed to £12.00…

        • On flexibility, I think once we were told ‘Here are loads of texts; make up your own local tradition’ then a single volume was probably not going to be a seller. But therein lies the problem; each of us does our own thing.

          In almost every context I am in, I used the main services more or less ‘as is’, so in fact I could easily make use of a single, simple book—and I would be spared the endless variety.

  3. Thanks Ian – you have put into words many of my frustrations with Common Worship!

    It just seems to lack real coherence, although some bits are better than others. I also agree about the use of language – the BCP, despite using Elizabethan English, I think manages to put the gospel across more clearly in the communion than Common Worship. CW has a tendency I think to use more words, to try to jam more in, and ends up overloading people with concepts.

    On a tangential note, Common Worship seems to me to be pretty good evidence that John’s Gospel was indeed written by John and not the ‘Johannine community’. When you have a community writing something, you end up with Common Worship!…

  4. Forgive my ignorance, Ian, but how was Common Worship put together, and by which body? I have spent a lot of time in my church trying to convince people of the flexibility of Common Worship, but I also recognise its flaws (my ‘favourite’ is ‘as we wake refreshed from the depths of sleep’ – really!?) and wonder how these are to be addressed and rectified.

    • There was a complex process of working on it managed by the Liturgical Commission, and all the texts went through the usual, full Synodical processes.

      That’s not the whole story though. A question for me is the extent of the influence of the then Chair of the Lit Comm, who was my diocesan bishop. This could explain the source of people’s observations that CW is grand and pompous…!

      Another question is whether Synod is really equipped to ask all the questions during such a complex process. If these services simply don’t work in many UK subcultures, such as working class and inner urban, then how did we end up with them? Were these people not asked? Did they not answer? What other agendas were at work. Oh, btw, the Chair I mentioned above also removed the word ‘mission’ from the diocesan structures…

      How can textual problems be rectified? There is no process—so people will vote with their liturgical feet.

      • Yes to this and the blog as a whole (though the font doesn’t bother me!). As one who followed the development through Series 1 onward ( and reams of News Of Liturgy!) and who supported the change to ‘modern language’ in general – we just seem to have got over complex and over provided. Is the ministers role to be quite so much about liturgy?

        My observations are that the choices don’t always seem to have led to ministers knowing about structure. And I think that this is extremely unhelpful for congregations. Pick and mix isn’t the idea and it leaves congregations without a spine for their worship week by week. Permanent novelty isn’t helpful is it?

        As to pomp… that was the target of a (perhaps too quickly fired) arrow in the other discussion. It got uppity so I left it alone. Pompous…. Yes….that it was done by someone who wanted to captain the Titanic. Naturally he wouldn’t have seen it that way.

        But if you are concerned with liturgy that isn’t missional then can it be Anglican let alone Kingdom of God stuff?

  5. Thank you very much. Slightly surprised, perhaps, to agree with you at least 85%, Ian, especially in the idea that a small number of core texts could be used flexibly rather than a huge number used inflexibly. T. S. Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality” shows that a genuine lily can’t be gilded by flowering up the language. One ironic result of the approach that was take-in CW is that a fair number of clergy are so baffled by the myriad choices required, having other things to do with their ministry time, that they simply perm their favourite combination (e.g. most like what they were used to) and use it without variation every Sunday of the Year. I can’t come with you on Gill Sans — its high legibility at all sizes made it as usable for Posters as train timetables. The red rather than blue was to do with the technology of the late eighties (when most photocopiers couldn’t handle blue) —but for content, I think this discussion is well worth having. Thanks again .

    • Thanks Alan. ‘Slightly surprised, perhaps, to agree with you at least 85%, Ian, especially in the idea that a small number of core texts could be used flexibly rather than a huge number used inflexibly.’ Always glad to surprise! This is the major assumption behind CW, and I don’t recall it being expressed, let alone debated—someone might be able to put me right. Did we ever consider whether this was the right strategy?

      I think you are absolutely right on the use of variations in practice. It means we pick our favourites, stick with them…and then end up with our own service which might have very little in common with the church in the next parish. If liturgy matters at all in shaping belief, this is very worrying.

      Gill Sans *is* readable on posters—but that is because of its ‘lack of adornment.’ It is striking that Arial has much larger bowls for better readability—and in fact serifed fonts are more readable in body text than are sans-serif fonts. More significantly, the CW text is very uneconomical on the page, so we have ended up with bigger, longer (and more expensive!) books with more pages. They look classy, but are less useable—and that also indicates some of the priorities in the revision process.

      I am sure you are right about copying—but blue on white has higher contrast than red on cream. Many who are dyslexic also find blue easier to read.

    • Yes, that would be quite useful—were it not for the fact that a. it is strictly illegal, and b. that it is illegal because it tampers with some issues at the heart of Anglican understanding about what we do when we come to worship and remember Jesus’ giving of himself.

      • Thank God I’ ve got you to straighten me out! I had no idea. Now I shall have to go delving to find out how and why the illegality. Sometimes I feel as though I were walking through a minefield. Should that particular website come with an allergy warning? Many thanks.

        • Well, it depends on who it is for. Anyone ordained in the C of E should know very well that using these in public worship is illegal—they make such a commitment to their bishop when they receive a license.

          You can read the whole text of the Communion service in the book which is can be found here.

          The key moment is the ‘epiclesis’, the point where the Spirit is invoked. In C of E liturgy, it is invoked on the people that they might receive aright. In 1928, it is also invoked on the elements, which then appear to become ‘an acceptable offering’, following the Catholic understanding of the Mass. See p 369 ‘bless and sanctify both us and these thy gifts of Bread and Wine, that they may be unto us the Body and Blood of thy Son’…

          • Thank you for those helpful answers. I lived in the States for a while so was an Episcopalian. That was many years ago – I doubt I would be these days. Is the 1928 U.S. Version different, apart from substituting the President for the Queen? I only use it for Morning Prayer but I can easily revert to 1662 instead, on days when Daily Prayer jars on me. That’s the trouble with modern life in general, whether church or supermarket – far too much choice about everything.

      • Ian, I believe you may be mistaken as to the identity of the 1928 book that Annie’s website is referring to. It is not the proposed English BCP of 1928. It is the 1928 prayer book of what was then called the ‘Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA’. This was the official prayer book of PECUSA from 1928 until 1979 when they adopted their current book.

    • Thanks Simon. I think the link to mission is several-fold. First, liturgy is often cited as an obstacle to mission, since non-church people find themselves in a strange and alien culture. Second, the Decade of Evangelism rapidly became the Decade of Liturgical revision, as energy was devoted in another (the wrong?) direction. Thirdly, in practice I think a lot of clergy and other leaders do find their time taken up with complexities of liturgical provision, when in a simpler age (of ‘reading’ the service) time is spent on other things. Fourthly, the prima facie evidence is that different traditions of liturgical practice do have a measurable impact on whether congregations grow—and the evidence is intriguing.

  6. Now I want to know about your final statement – that ‘intriguing’ evidence different liturgical traditions impact on whether congregations grow! (Although there might be other definitions of mission than church growth).

  7. In one sense nowt to do with this article. But when I was taking a service in prison one Sunday I’d found ( c ant remember how I got hold of it!) a church of Kenya Anglican form of service… So I thought why not use it as we have many Africans I prison at the time …. However in one sense my goodwill backfired rather sadly…. As about halfway though during a particular time of quiet I heard & saw this poor man sobbing his heart out…. He was a Kenyan & I had made him so very homesick…. He was really distressed… I never did it again…. I stuck to our somewhat abridged form of service due to time pressure of chapel time in prison… Also I do wonder what any of it was actually UNDERSTOOD, by some prisoners.. Who have come to chapel & many have said to me over the years they’d never actually BEEN to a 1: inside a church 2: to a service of worship…

  8. As far as Daily Prayer is concerned, there is nothing particularly privileged about the CW forms (except that they are published and printed and easily available online). Any form which complies with the rubrics of A Service of the Word and uses the Daily Office lectionary will satisfy the canonical requirement.

  9. On the rationale for lots of books: the Synod debated a 1994 Liturgical Commission Report, GS 1114, called ‘One Book or a Series of Volumes in 2000?’. I don’t remember it in detail, but I do remember that the Synod agreed that new liturgy couldn’t be contained within the covers of one book. (It also agreed to make the texts available electronically and for free).

    On the collects: I agree that the long ending was unhelpful, on top of the collects themselves not working as a whole. But you’ll have seen that Daily Prayer omits the long ending.

    Research suggested that the Psalm Collects were much appreciated in the precursor to CW:DP. We rejigged some of them, and I found the process of writing some of them really transformative. I’ve encouraged people since to write their own: it’s difficult though for things in print not to become ‘normative’.
    Don’t get a liturgist going about fonts!

    You’ve continued to talk about ‘heresy’ in a volume commended by the House of Bishops, and I wonder if you feel you should take this further?

    The CW project was about creating structures to enable freedom, with many alternatives and the opportunity to make worship appropriate to its context. I can see that it looks like an overwhelming pile of texts which look like they have to be used all the time by everyone, and this is a shame.

    But I thank God every time I do one of our 80 funerals a year and 30 weddings a year, and (remarkably) even in our 70 baptisms a year, for the material produced and worked on carefully down the years.

    And I am thankful for Order One, and, as you’d expect, for CW:DP, which has nourished my daily praying for a decade now.

    I look forward to the next generation doing what is necessary.

    (PS: I just didn’t need this popping up on Facebook when it did. But I don’t think I blocked you. And you shouldn’t interpret my unfriending as a sign that what I was involved in ‘belongs’ to me and the people I worked with. I’m not involved in that world any more. But sometimes ‘tone’ affects people more deeply than others might recognise. And I didn’t devote all those hours to ensure that we inflicted dodgy theology and effete grand liturgy on everybody. For most of the time I was involved I was in former mining parishes, and I was trying to help them.)

  10. Jeremy, thanks very much for commenting—that is kind and gracious of you to do so.

    Thanks for the information about the decision on texts—that is useful to know. But I wonder if the right question was considered. Given there were going to be lots of different texts, that would lead to several books. But that misses the strategic theological issue: was a million texts the right way to go in our cultural context?

    I am not sure where next I could take the observation about heresy. I think it is a serious error in this particular prayer, and there are others in other prayers. I don’t get the feeling that anyone has any interest in endless minor edits; the edifice stands or falls as a whole. It think it again illustrates the problem with having so many authorised texts—it’s just impossible in practice to ensure they are all good. And yet they are all now something about which I have sworn an oath of obedience. I find that difficult.

    I appreciate your view on your own use, and your role in the process. But I hope too you will see that I have deliberately avoided making the comments personal (I think I have worked out who wrote the offending prayer in MP; and I have bigger issues on which we disagree!) but instead have focussed on texts and processes.

    I don’t dispute that many people will, like you, have found much of the material helpful. But that is also true for all sorts of collections of prayers and offices and other resources. The difference is that, in the past (and even now) these things don’t have the status of ‘authorised’ and are not the Church’s liturgy. My two main comments here are
    a. This particular piece of liturgy just doesn’t work, and
    b. it is an example of how what we have ended up with in CW doesn’t (IMHO) work for the church as a whole.

    I am not sure whether you and I differ on what make for good liturgy, or whether we are applying our criteria differently—or whether there are important matters of personality and personal taste involved (which in itself points to a problem). And I don’t think I can account for why CW has worked for you in your context, when so many people have found CW has shifted the register of worship away from their local context and into the high end of middle class (It is quite difficult not to connect that with a Chair who claimed that being a public school chaplain was the best training he had for being a bishop!!)—but they clearly have.

    Perhaps the best evidence for this is the flight from formal liturgy of any form in many congregations, which (culturally) is in danger of creating two quite distinct and separate C of Es. With the debate on other issues around, I can’t think this is very helpful…

  11. ‘I think it is partly due to a fundamentally mistaken strategy: to offer a million authorised or official texts which must be adhered to, rather than a small number of core texts which can be used flexibly. ‘

    I absolutely agree with this, Ian. I can see the same trend happening here in Canada, where we are in the early stages of revision of our 1985 BAS. Liturgists seem to want to constantly multiply texts. I don’t think most people in the pews go along with that.

  12. On the CW opening prayer for passiontide and the linking of motifs of glorification, lifting up, suffering and drawing the whole world to himself – I was very struck by the linking of Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 12:20-36 in the Eucharistic lectionary for Tuesday in Holy Week. The motif’s you mentioned all seem to be linked in these passages – the passage from John appears to reflect deeply on Isaiah’s servant of the Lord – linking suffering, glory, lifting up and drawing the nations and arguably, though John doesn’t use the language, v25 and 26 of John 12 sound like taking up the cross. I do think the opening prayers provide some good food for reflection but I tend to prefer the alternative (usually Psalm base or in passiontide from Lamentations I think). I find CW daily prayer a nourishing diet.

    • Richard, that’s good to know. But that is one massive complex of ideas within three sentences, and it does not work for me. I wonder whether people react differently to CW because of different personalities—but we have a real problem as a Church if authorised liturgy only appeals to certain personality types.

  13. Well argued and clear, as always Ian, and mostly I agree with your points. But thinking about “share its weight” takes me beyond the argument about sufficiency of Christ’s death – no disagreement there, to wondering what being”en Christo” really means. I’ve come to see that more and more as being taken up into God. So for me there is no right or wrong here. Just a mystery. Yes, it’s all too many ideas in one place, but also a stretching out after the inexpressible. It mostly “works” for me, though I agree with what you say about CW. It worked for the author too, presumably!? Liturgy should indeed hold our doctrine, that’s an Anglican maxim. But it holds mystery too, and that’s Anglican too?

    Picking up your more general point – I have gone back to BCP for my personal devotions much of the time. And beauty/mystery in worship is what middle of the road Anglicanism has lost in aping contemporary worship without the ‘personal fervour’ that so often animates it in its natural (evangelical) setting! It ends up as more about fun than depth. 🙁

  14. As someone who has only known CW and who is an ordinand, I find a lot to like in CW. MP has enriched my prayer life and the communion liturgies have especially spoken to me in the last few years.
    While I take your point about complex ideas in a few sentences, I find that different parts jump out at me on different days and in different ways. However, I really pay attention to words and gain a lot out of that in worship which I know is not everyone’s experience.

    About flexibility, I have loved the variety of materials on offer. I feel able to tailor any service I prepare to a narrower theme which I think helps engage people. I enjoy the process of building a service like a magpie, taking bits and pieces from Patterns for Worship and the Main Volume (for example). The congregation at the deprived inner-city church I attend seem to engage really well when I build a service this way despite it not being what they have been used to. Having said that, I’m not sure I can guarantee to have the time to creatively do that when I am in curacy and beyond unless I really set it aside to do so.


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