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Is Common Worship doing its job?

04 October 2013

It is time to evaluate the liturgy to see whether it still works, argues Mark Earey

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 agreed.

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 been re-thought.

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 with reality.

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 functions.

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 control.

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 group.

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 evaluated.

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 decides otherwise.

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, 2013).

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