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When every vicar’s a liturgist

10 August 2010

Edward Dowler looks at formation issues


Worship-Shaped Life: Liturgical formation and the People of God
Ruth Meyers and Paul Gibson, editors
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

THIS book, whose title reflects an idiom now becoming tedious, draws together papers arising from the 2003 International Anglican Litur­gical Consultation. These are written by a team of Anglican liturgists from different parts of the Com­munion, though US and Canadian influences predominate. It includes many stimulating insights on litur­gical formation, focusing in par­ticular on the themes of incul­tura-tion, the education of ordin­ands, the place of music, and the celeb­ration of liturgy with young people.

The contributors all make the point clearly that worship forms and, indeed, as Juan Oliver em­phasises, can deform those who participate in it; and they are united in their view that the production of new liturgical texts is not sufficient for thriving liturgical life. In order to promote genuine understanding and participation, it is vital to at­tend to wider questions about the environment and liturgical culture of worshipping communities, and to offer education at every level.

As ever with collections of essays, there is not space for some conten­tious points to be followed through. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the nature of inculturation was one of these. Juan Oliver, for example, writes that ritual must be so embedded in local time, place, and culture that it can be “immediately apprehended by the participants, especially the new ones, without explication” (his italics). Without wishing to advocate unnecessary mystification of church services, I do wonder whether this is possible or indeed desirable; for, in any liturgy (even in churches that aim to be as non-liturgical as possible), there is and always must be a symbolic language to be learned. It is never immediately apprehended, even by those of us who have attended for many years.

Again on inculturation, Solomon Amusan offers an interesting essay on the Yoruba people in Nigeria. Traditional Yoruba worship is strongly centred on the Supreme Deity (though there are inter­mediary ones as well), celebrates something like a daily office and its own major festivals, has a liturgical priesthood, a rich musical tradition, and various rites of healing. Rather than, as the missionaries did, dis­missing all this as “rank heathen­ism”, a more enlightened approach might seek to build upon Yoruba practices so as to create a genuinely African Christian liturgical identity.

But Amusan is frustratingly evasive about what the limits of this might be. In an extreme moment, he regrets the fact that “lack of thorough and deep liturgical edu­cation hindered our wish to throw away all things that could be re­garded as foreign to Nigerian cul­ture.” But what would be the impact of such a monolithic approach to our own particular culture in other areas of church life? And if, on prin­ciple, nothing should be exported from culture to culture, can the Church really be “mission-shaped”?

I was sorry not to find more reflection on the importance of the internet, which, in the Church of England at any rate, has profoundly influenced the way in which liturgy is shaped and experienced. The ease with which material can be down­loaded and manipulated enables all the clergy to become liturgists. And, in reality, many of us do spend enormous amounts of time and effort manipulating texts from an apparently infinite variety of allow­able options, so as to suit whatever we perceive the local needs to be. The Vicar sitting in his or her study hunched over the computer trying to devise next Sunday’s service is like T. S. Eliot’s, with “time yet for a hundred indecisions And for a hun­dred visions and revisions Before the taking of a toast and tea”.

It is all very well for Mark Earey to bemoan talk of “the liturgy” as a single monolithic entity, but does the lack of a sense that the liturgy is in some sense given to us, as op­posed to designed by us, really bene­fit us spiritually and ecclesially? In this context, the title of Richard Geoffrey Leggett’s chapter was strik­ing: “When will you make an end?”

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill in the diocese of London.

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