Monday, 4 March 2013

Liturgy - friend or foe

I was clearing out the junk on my computer the other day and I came across an article I had written in the Parish Magazine from my previous parish. Clearly I was going through a rough patch there as I tried to change things in the liturgy (prescribed order of service) which I thought had become a little dry and stale. There were, as I remember, a few complaints from some members of the congregation and I was writing the article to try and explain the right place of the order of service. For what its worth - even if it is just to remind me - here it is:

"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 the 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, making sure that all the boxes are ticked, 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 (2011) 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 and so to break ‘the spell’ by introducing the Creed at that point would have been irresponsible and crass. So I went with the flow and straight into the prayers, taking advantage of the hush that had fallen on the church as God moved among us.

My role as minister/priest is not to 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 and leads, as is quite clearly the case across Anglicanism today, to deadness and morbidity. I hope that those who think things should be done by the book will understand that my calling 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.

This requires a certain amount of trust between people and priest. Trust that the priest knows what he is doing, has a certain amount of experience in his area of expertise and training, and is thus able to lead worship as he thinks is right and appropriate to each individual occasion. Without that trust it is difficult, if not impossible, to function properly, as the very integrity of the priest is being called into question.

So next time part of the service is left out or we use other prayers, collects or a different service pattern, please understand that I am doing it for the right reasons, in order to keep things from getting stale, impersonal, cold and routine. 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."

Since writing the above I back-peddled after a mini-rebellion by a small group of members made Sunday mornings a very uncomfortable experience and within a year I left for my present parish. Did that play a part in me leaving? Yes and no. A very definite 'no' because I believe that God called me to St. James and that was the only reason I left after 13 years. But there is a tiny bit of 'yes' too as leaving was made that bit easier knowing that I could not take them much further as evidenced by the opposition/resistance of the more vocal few.

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