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CREATING UNCOMMON WORSHIP

by
02 November 2006

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Canterbury Press £20 (1-85311-590-8) Church Times Bookshop £18

RICHARD Giles is a liturgical John the Baptist — a prophetic voice crying aloud in a wilderness of depopulated (though heavily over-furnished) churches hosting arid liturgies under the scorching heat of a contemporary culture that threatens to destroy what little life remains in them. His previous and much acclaimed book Re-Pitching the Tent showed us how to reorder a church for contemporary worship and mission. This book answers the implicit question, “Now that the tent has been repitched, what are we to do in it?”

The answer, which Giles bases primarily on his experience as Dean of Philadelphia Cathedral, is a liturgy of simplicity, dignity and beauty. God’s people, freed from slavery to the letter of liturgical texts, and from a cautious and attenuated use of liturgical symbols, are given back their baptismal identity. As they gather around the font, the lectern and the altar, theological truths to which lip-service is often paid (the priesthood of all the baptised, the people of God on pilgrimage) are given physical manifestation.

The liturgical environment and the manner of eucharistic celebration complement one another. In the space that they allow, in the relationships that they form, in the symbolic world that they create, they prepare the way for Christ to come.

There are some slightly loopy moments: the suggestion, for example, that individual communities should write their own creed. Quite apart from (important) questions about authority, if ever there were a recipe for chaos within Anglicanism, this is it. I shudder to think how many gallons of ink, how many forests of trees, this newspaper would need to expend as different groups fought to ensure that other communities’ creeds included their particular litmus test of doctrinal orthodoxy.

As is often true of prophets, more questions revolve around the man himself, as he comes through in his book. Despite the democratic rhetoric, it is clear that the sort of reforms Giles has instigated in Philadelphia need somebody like him to carry them out: somebody bold, visionary, inspiring and, to be frank, ruthless. The implied statement is “People of God, reclaim your birthright or else shove off.” Such an approach is, apart from anything else, inimical to the Anglican tradition, in which change proceeds in an organic and incremental fashion.

This, however, should not blind us to the realities that Giles proclaims. It is probable that, one way or another, liturgical worship as it is now experienced in much Anglicanism — stale, pompous and turgid — has perhaps ten or 15 years left.  By then, the congregations will have died, either of old age or boredom.

In the opinion of this reviewer, one of only two outcomes is likely.  Either there will have been a renaissance broadly along the lines that Giles suggests, or else there will be little liturgical worship left, because so much ground will have been ceded to those who have absolutely no understanding of what a wonderful gift it is: of the freedom that it gives, the grace that it conveys.

The Revd Edward Dowler is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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