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Decently and in order

06 December 2013

Mark Earey reads a handbook for the conduct of services

The Good Worship Guide: Leading liturgy well
Robert Atwell
Canterbury Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18  (Use code CT260 )

BISHOPS often express disappointment at the quality of worship that they experience (or hear about) in their dioceses, and it must be difficult to resist the temptation constantly to suggest ideas for improvement. Robert Atwell, the Bishop of Stockport, has grasped this bull by the horns. His Good Worship Guide is focused not on complaint, but on improvement, and is full of practical hints and tips, often very simple, designed to improve the quality of worship.

Glossaries are often revealing. At more than 40 pages, the glossary is clearly an important section of this book. Messy Church is listed, as well as Monstrance, but, though you will find Posada, you won't find Prayer Ministry; and Wafer Box is in, but not Word of Knowledge.

One of the strengths of this book, however, is its attempt to be even-handed to different traditions. There are many phrases such as "In some parishes . . .", which help to reduce any sense that we are being pushed into one particular vision of what "good practice" looks like. Nevertheless, now and then the author's own background and assumptions inevitably show through - for instance, in the mention in a wedding checklist of a "Nuptial Mass", or his reference (without caveat or comment) to "reverencing the altar" at the entrance of the ministers. None the less, as well as those whose natural comfort zone is the "central" part of the Church of England, Evangelical clergy who find themselves serving in a middle-to-high parish will also find it useful.

Just occasionally, the author becomes more directive - for instance, telling us that an hour and ten minutes is absolutely the top limit for a Sunday service, and that an hour is better. This may be true in many (if not most) contexts, but seems to work against his earlier advice to read your own church context in order to know what will be appropriate. There are some churches in which an hour's service would leave a congregation feeling short-changed.

The book begins with a fairly long section on why worship matters, and how important worship is in mission. Here, for me, Atwell sometimes seems to stray from a strictly liturgical focus, and we get advice on such things as making sure that the vicarage answering machine has a friendly and welcoming message on it.

The meat of the book, however, consists of practical guidance about doing services well. Sunday-service advice covers Prayer Book evensong, all-age services, and both Prayer Book and Common Worship services of holy communion. Occasional services are also covered - baptism, confirmation, funerals, and weddings. I was sorry to see nothing on the service of Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child. It would have been interesting to have a section on healing services.

For each service are given wise guidance, clearly borne out of parish experience, and very useful checklists, which often begin with things as practical as making sure that the sound system is turned on and that the candles are lit. Just occasionally, the nitty-gritty approach verges on stating the obvious (for instance, in the checklist on baptism, making sure that the plug is inserted in the font before filling it with water).

Later sections cover the seasons of the Church's year (explaining for the uninitiated just what an Advent wreath is, and how to mark a Paschal candle), and give "behind-the-scenes" advice on things such as liturgical colours, and how to get the wax out of altar linen. There are helpful diagrams showing how to fold a corporal, and guidance on processional protocol.

Any manual or handbook should be a pleasure to use, and this book certainly fulfils that requirement, having an attractive layout, a wide page format, large print, plenty of white space, clear headings, and many pictures - both diagrams and photographs (black-and-white).

All in all, this is an excellent, reliable guide. The most odd omission in such a practical book is an index, which would have made the pearls of wisdom easier to find in a hurry.

The Revd Mark Earey is Director of Anglican Formation and Tutor in Liturgy at The Queen's Foundation, Birmingham.

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