Monday, 1 August 2011

Good servant, poor master

There’s an old saying which says that fire is a good servant but a bad master. Why? Because as long as it is under control fire warms,  cooks your food and heats your house. Out of control however we all know what destruction and devastation it can cause. The same can be said of liturgy i.e. the order of services we use for Holy Communion. There are those who think that you should not tamper with what is written but use it all from start to finish, from the opening: “In the name of the Father…” to the ending: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” and all the bits in between including the creed. But I want to argue that that is not really the function of liturgy. The function of liturgy is a means to an end—the end being the worship of God—and not an end in itself. In other words the liturgy is meant to serve us as we worship God and NOT become an object of worship i.e. an idol, of itself. To borrow the above analogy, it is to be servant not master.

As a servant it can achieve great things for the people of God ensuring that God is the focus and not self, protecting us against the kind of self-indulgence which is the bane of so many non-liturgical churches. I see liturgy as the railway lines that keep the train (the faith) travelling in the right direction and the right way up! So as a tool in the hands of priest and people it can bring us closer to God and create a sense of awe and wonder, joy and praise. As the object of worship itself however it can damn us to a form of empty ritualism that is formal, dry and empty. It can just as easily lead us away from God as it can lead us to God. Worship becomes something that is done, a question of ticking boxes, rather than something that draws us into God’s presence, awakening our spiritual senses and touching and softening our hearts to love God.

A case in point is a service at St. Peter’s on July 10th where I preached about the Parable of the Sower. After the sermon closed with a prayer, the sense of God’s presence was, for me, palpable. To break ‘the spell’ by introducing the Creed at that point would have been irresponsible and crass. So I went with what I preceived as the gentle flow of the Holy Spirit straight into the prayers, taking advantage of the hush that had fallen on the church as God moved among us.

My role as priest is use the Liturgy sensitively and with one ear or eye on God. It is not to tick boxes and make worship too mechanical or rigid. It is meant to be full of curves not straight lines. God is a person and to relate to him like a machine is irreverent and wrong. As in too many case this leads to deadness and morbidity. I hope that those who think things should be done by the book will understand that the calling of the priest or minister is not to just ‘say’ the whole service, but to try to lead worship in a way that is sensitive to the movement of the Spirit. It is God who leads the service through the "person at the front".

Our expectation every service should be that we come to meet our Father. The liturgy—depending on how it is used—can either help or hinder that.
(Adapted from Parish Magazine Article August 2011)

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