Last 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.
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.
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?