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Moving beyond Common Worship

On different occasions I have explored here some of the problems and issues with Common Worship. This has included general issues with the approach, some difficulties with Daily Prayer, and criticisms of the additional baptism texts as well as how they might be helpful. Underlying all these issues is the question of CW’s overall approach: rather than having one central text that is used flexibly, we have ended up with a million and one different texts which must be adhered to. Formally speaking, the focus is on control rather than relational accountability, and there are significant traditions (pulling in different directions) who ignore this regulation anyway. So where do we go from here?

Peter Gunstone, who has many years experience in music and worship leading, and is starting training for ordination at Cranmer Hall in Durham, here reviews Mark Earey’s volume Beyond Common Worship and engages with Mark’s proposals about how we should move forward.


Published barely five years after the final volume of Common Worship appeared, one could be forgiven for asking ‘why do we need to think beyond Common Worship, and what relevance does this have to pastoral ministry?’ If, like me, you acknowledge the formational qualities of the shape and content of congregational worship, then I encourage you to read on.

Beyond Common Worship is not about a discussion of CW texts, but about the CW approach to worship. Mark Earey, Director of Anglican Formation and Tutor in Liturgy and Worship at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, aims to stimulate thinking about where the Church of England is now, and how it might develop liturgically in the future to serve a missional church. Central to this is a consideration of what makes worship truly Anglican and exploring ‘the tension between common forms and local needs, between a catholic … and an inculturated approach.’ (p.2)

Radical liturgical changes have taken place since the 1965 Prayer Book (Alternative and Other Services) Measure: gone are the days of one prayer book in every church: considerable variety is now the norm. Although many churches do operate within the considerable CW ‘framework for freedom’, the worship of both Fresh Expressions and many of our larger churches often bears little resemblance to CW.

Many fresh expressions or new forms of church do not use the authorised texts and forms of worship, but creatively frame their own liturgy, empowering people who use indigenous language and expression to find their own authentic voice in lament and worship.’ (Kim Hartshorn, writing on the Fresh Expressions blog, quoted by Earey)

Is this not a good thing? Well yes, but Earey highlights problems arising from canonical difficulties relating to the Declaration of Assent, and from the complexity and particular content of CW. He likens Anglican liturgical provision to a once-simple computer operating system that has undergone manifold ‘patches’, becoming unwieldy at best, if not unworkable. Having set the scene, the principal content of this book is the discussion of a range of solutions.


The first is short-term solution, that the rules should be made clearer than they currently are, demonstrated by the ongoing plethora of questions concerning the ‘proper’ use of CW from ordinands and clergy. This could be achieved through a simpler and more consistent representation of the material. Recognizing that the main CW volume is, in effect, a leader’s manual, rather than a congregational prayer book, this could be achieved through digital media rather than re-publication of the main volume.

The second, a longer-term solution, would be to change the rules to encompass a greater range of material, which has been the pragmatic practice of the Church of England for a long time. It is not without irony that Earey quotes Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury (1903-1928), who resigned following the failure of the 1927/28 Prayer Book revision to pass through the House of Commons:

Rules clear in principle and yet elastic in detail we do absolutely require, if the Church, in its manifold activities, is to be abreast of modern needs and yet loyal to ancient order.

Earey continues:

A hundred years on and despite huge amounts of revision, we still do not have these—what we have are rules complex and obscure in principle, and overwhelmed with detail: through this may not be anybody’s intention, it certainly is how they are experienced by many.

The Liturgical Commission’s 1989 Report, Patterns for Worship introduced a new focus on shape rather than text. Whilst this approach was adopted wholesale in CW, the House of Bishops essentially maintained the customary bounds by the prioritizing of worked-out services in CW over and above outlines. Earey does not see this as having been a positive outcome for the long term, noting that:

whatever the intention, these are read [by some people] …as the Church telling them how to do everything, and then they give up, or revert to doing something more familiar, rather than engaging with the shape of the liturgy, the key elements that tradition has handed to us, and then wrestling with how to make that tradition live in their own particular context (p 41).


61YTQeTWkXLHowever, what might clarifying and changing rules actually achieve? Many have been and will continue to be in a long line of tolerated liturgical non-conformity within the Church of England, pushing the boundaries. As I mentioned earlier, such ‘rebels’ include some of the largest and more pioneering churches: Anglo-Catholics, conservative evangelicals; creatives; Fresh Expressions; ‘New Wine-style’; and Radicals/Progressives, without all of whom the Church of England would be a much poorer place.

Mission-shaped Church proposed the ‘principled and careful loosening’ of ecclesiological structures, but not of liturgical ones, and Earey suggests that some sort of parallel to a ‘Bishops’ Mission Order’—a ‘Bishops’ Liturgical Order’, perhaps—might be useful here. However, this represents yet another ‘fix’ onto the already over-complicated ‘operating system’ of the Church of England’s canon law regarding worship. In the context of a positive return to the Christian norm of unscripted prayer and local decision (Michael Vasey), is a legal structure of control dating from the Reformation appropriate for today’s church? Earey thinks not, suggesting that we should breed trust rather than a lack of it, and refocus the question away from ‘what can we get away with?’ to ‘what would be good worship for this context?’ (p.60)

The main proposal of this book is that the Church of England’s approach to worship be changed from a ‘bounded-set’ to a ‘centred-set’ approach, which is identified by core values and movement towards that core. Earey suggests that maintaining a bounded-set approach to worship which forces us to think in short-term ways, reinforces legalistic approaches, and focuses on the detail will not be good for the Church in the long-term. Instead:

One of the consequences of a centred-set approach is that it would open up the possibility of, and the need for, a more long term approach … Evaluation of worship would mean looking at patterns of worship as well as individual services; … ask[ing] more long-term formative questions about the overall balance, the long-term biblical coverage of the readings, the general approach to the sacraments or the theological balance of the songs … acknowledging the cumulative impact of worship as well as the instantaneous.

This does demand us to clarify what the ‘centre’ is, what makes worship ‘Anglican’. Recognising that both culture and the church have been moving in a variety of directions for some time, and that essential quality of the establishment of the Church of England as both indigenous and catholic, Earey suggests that Anglican identity should be seen as plural, although rooted in common values such as those proposed by Steve Croft: the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (Scripture, the Creeds, the Sacraments, and the Episcopacy) plus the Five Marks of Mission.

The key implications of a centred-set approach would be: new Canons; a new urgency for training leaders liturgically; and new roles for bishops (accountability) and for the Liturgical Commission (advisory, shapes, texts, guidelines). Whilst identified risks include liturgical anarchy and the death of common prayer, the horse has already bolted in this respect. In the face of all the institutional-focused problems of the current situation, the opportunity to make the rules more worshipper-focused and institution-enabled seems highly attractive to me, and more missional.


In conclusion, Earey identifies that the big leap for many will be to need to let go of ‘the idea of liturgical conformity as a core part of what makes a church or an act of worship Anglican, and replacing it with concepts of relationship and accountability.’ (p 140) In short, he is asking whether or not we can

move from a situation in which central control feels like the norm, and freedom and flexibility the exception, to a situation in which trust, creativity, experiment (with accountability) is the norm, and central control is the exception? (p 141)

I was delighted to read Beyond Common Worship because it puts into print much of what I have been considering in recent years. I have been somewhat surprised that this book seems not to have been widely read. I hope that it will be, and that these ideas might find their way through synodical process in the not too distant future.

10628332_10100981630252511_2497621212226526740_nA key question that arises for those of us who are involved in pastoral ministry is: to what extent do we ourselves operate in this way? Are the boundaries that we create helping or hindering Christian discipleship? What do we have to learn from the centred-set approach? Earey draws attention to the Wesleyan ‘low control, high accountability’ model as practiced in Methodist Circuit meetings. A danger for all organisations is that they fall into the trap of operating on a ‘high control, low accountability’ basis by default.

Peter Gunstone is about to start ordination training at Cranmer Hall, Durham. He has 25 years’ experience in leading worship in local Anglican churches, and at national and international Christian gatherings.


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One Response to Moving beyond Common Worship

  1. Jonathan Clark June 22, 2016 at 10:24 pm #

    Thanks for posting this review. I read this book some years ago, and felt it was one of the most important to emerge for the C of E for some time. It sounds quite an arcane subject, but it drives to the heart of how most people experience the church: through its gathered worship services. So the more people that grapple with his questions, and the more Liturgical Commissions who are empowered to work to broader remits, the better.
    I liked Earey’s section on Bishops’ Worship Orders as a parallel to BMOs, and I’m happy to report such things exist (in essence though not name) in Gloucester diocese.

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