IT SEEMS incredible to
think that Common Worship is now more than 16 years old.
The first parts (the calendar, lectionary, and collects) appeared
in 1997, before the name Common Worship had even been
In 1997, the internet was
still in its infancy, and no one had heard of a smart phone. In the
Christian world, "Messy Church" still meant a worship space with
too much clutter, and we had not even begun to imagine a time when
everything would have to be labelled "mission-shaped".
Things have moved fast
since the late 1990s. Common Worship is now operating in a
different world. It is time to review and evaluate it rather than
simply to tinker and supplement it.
This has become
particularly apparent in Fresh Expressions of Church, although the
questions about Common Worship's flexibility are not
limited to those contexts. Bishops' Mission Orders have allowed for
a new approach to parish boundaries and how mission can take place
across them. A Church of England shibboleth, the parish system, has
The extraordinary thing
is that nobody seems to have considered that we might need
equivalent Bishops' Liturgical Orders to provide the scope
for experimentation and creativity which most people in Fresh
Expressions assume is part of the deal.
It often comes as a shock
to those doing the most creative work in mission and church-growth
to discover that the official guidance about worship in Fresh
Expressions simply points them to the rubrics and notes of
Common Worship. In some contexts, this provides plenty of
flexibility, but in many others, it looks increasingly out of touch
WE NEED a review of
Common Worship, not to produce more texts, but to consider
the fundamental framework within which Church of England worship
takes place. To use a computer analogy, we need to consider the
operating system within which Common Worship
This operating system is
based on the Canons, the Prayer Book, and the notes, rules and
rubrics of Common Worship itself. It is an operating
system based on the needs and assumptions of the 16th-century
Church. Although it has been tweaked and adjusted over the
centuries, it is essentially based on a model of uniformity and
In the 16th century, this
was new: print and politics combined to make uniformity both
possible and appealing, at least to those who were in control. It
affected not only the Church of England, and its Book of Common
Prayer, but also the Roman Catholic Church.
In the Church of England,
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was interested in local liturgy,
appropriate to its context. The difference between then and now is
that when Cranmer (and Henry VIII) said "local", they meant
England; when we say "local", we are more likely to mean our
parish, or neighbourhood, or a particular ethnic, cultural, or age
The result, 500 years
later, in a very different political and church context, is that
Church of England worship is based on a system where creativity,
experiment, and flexibility are seen as good, but exceptions to a
rule. Permission for local decision-making has certainly been
extended, but the system still works on the assumption that the
norm is uniformity and control.
The inevitable result of
a system based on "one size fits most, if not all" is that clergy
and other worship leaders can feel de-skilled and infantilised.
Instead of developing the ability to listen to God, to use informed
common sense, to discern with congregations what worship should to
be like in their context, they can feel that they have to rely on
being told what is right by the liturgy that they are given.
As a Church, we are
steered into a position where the key question is "What is
allowed?" rather than "What would be good worship in this context?"
The framework is legalistic, and based on control and fear rather
than on trust with accountability. It means that the most creative
work is pushed underground, where it cannot be corporately
THE ASB's fixed period of
authorisation meant that it had to be reviewed, and its successor
considered. Common Worship does not have an equivalent
"use-by" date: it remains authorised until the General Synod
This has advantages,
because it means that we can focus on revising only the texts that
need work - such as more eucharistic prayers for use when children
are present. But the disadvantage is that there is nothing to force
us to review whether Common Worship, or the framework
within which it operates, is still fit for its purpose overall.
It is time to set such a
review in motion. This does not mean dumping either Common
Worship or the Prayer Book, but it does mean having an honest
conversation about how they are working - or not - in the new
context in which we find ourselves.
Few of us have the energy
for a big new liturgical writing exercise. But we need to find some
energy for evaluation, so that we do not drift into a situation in
which our liturgy, so central to our self-understanding as
Anglicans, is being ignored or sidelined because it is no longer
doing the job that we need it to do.
The Revd Mark Earey is Director of Anglican Formation and
Liturgy Tutor at the Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological
Education, Birmingham. He is the author of Finding Your Way
around Common Worship (CHP, 2011) and Beyond Common
Worship: Anglican identity and liturgical diversity (SCM Press,