General Synod, the Church of England’s ‘Parliament’ has voted to look at a revision of the Common Worship Baptism service. There has been debate about the difficulty of the language; can you expect non-church-goers to understand the idea of the ‘kingdom of God’ for example? But that is not the issue for me—it is much broader than that. The whole service is far too complex, and the language is fussy and, to be honest, at times pompous. The double set of triple vows simply seems unnecessary, and does not make practical sense when it is used.
But this is not the first time Common Worship has run into trouble. Almost immediately after its publication, there was an outcry at the new set of Collects. The accusation? Too pompous! And so a new set of simpler-language collects was agreed and published.
Other services have their problems too. I know plenty of clergy who would not use the ‘new’ order in the Wedding service, with the vows later, with anyone but the most confident. I have heard criticisms of the Funeral service too—though I have not used it myself.
But, as some of you will know, I could write a whole blog post on the problems with Daily Prayer. Again, pompous language, some frankly meaningless versicles and responses, the loss of some historic and more recent prayers to an appendix on page six hundred and something—and the ribbons! You need a handful to mark all the different places you might go to! David Houlding, a member of Synod’s Catholic group, commented on Radio 4 that ‘you cannot ignore the historical legacy of worship.’ But ironically, that is just what CW has done in many of its revisions.
Even at the level of the production, something has gone badly wrong. The typeface (Gill Sans) was chosen for its style, rather than its readability. And rubrics had to be red of course, even though blue ‘rubrics’ are more easily read! And why, oh why, the innumerable books? In a parish, what I would want is a single volume containing a pattern for Morning Prayer, Holy Communion, Baptism, Wedding and Funeral. Done. (I have told CHP this is what they should do next time!)
The effect of all this has been to increase the polarisation of attitudes to liturgy in the Church. Whilst there are those who happily continue to use CW as it was intended, many more churches are ditching formal liturgy altogether—and are the poorer for it.
This was supposed to be the liturgical revision to end all liturgical revisions, to give us a prayer book for generations to come as the BCP had been (hence the echoing of the name)—but something went badly wrong. What was it?
I would venture to suggest it was the idea that liturgy is the province of specialists, and so what the Church needed was expert liturgy devised by experts. What has resulted is something that is elitist, complex, and anti-missional. Instead of a million texts we had to follow to the letter, what we should have had was a single text we could use flexibly…rather like the 1980 ASB in fact!
Now, dear reader, I hear you cry: ‘But you are a Dean in an Anglican theological college! How can you criticise the Church’s liturgy?’
What I am concerned about in ordination training is to teach three things:
- The principles of liturgy, not as a technical specialism, but as the human dynamics of what happens when the people of God gather together to confess their sins, hear God’s word, be taught how to grow in faith, to celebrate God’s gift to us in Christ, and then be sent out to live lives of faithful witness.
- Those being ordained in the C of E will have to use this book, or collection of books, so they do need to find their way about it.
- But I hope, thirdly, that students here will also realise that what they learn in 1 suggests that what they learn in 2 has some serious problems about it, and in doing so they might be equipped to find creative ways of making public worship inviting and engaging in an increasingly de-churched culture.
I would really like to see more and more churches being ‘liturgically intelligent’ across all our worshipping traditions, not just the more Catholic or middle-of-the road Anglican—and for the Church to offer texts which encourage this to happen. CW doesn’t do it.