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‘Literate’ liturgy

02 May 2014

Not what it says, but how it is led well, Martin Warner notes

Table Manners: Liturgical leadership for the mission of the Church
Simon Reynolds
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT343 )

"LITERACY" is a word that we are using increasingly to mean more than simply the capacity to read. It is applied to how we handle the varied aspects of other parts of our life as well, such as finance, IT, emotions, social processes, and personal relationships.

The way we use words is fundamental to how we worship, and Table Manners by Simon Reynolds is a timely exploration of our liturgical literacy. He is not simply asking us to review the texts; they are the raw material. He is challenging us to be better informed, to be more imaginative and spatially, dramatically, and theologically literate in how we use words, environment, and other media that bring the liturgy to life.

This is, of course, a minefield. Obvious landmines are variation of tradition within the C of E, and passionately held views about local custom, costs, resources, and complaints. The case for not setting out to explore this field is very strong, it would seem. The danger of failing to do so with conviction and "literacy", however, is in fact life-threatening for the people of God.

It is no accident that much of the material in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy is taken up with instructions on worship. This is the most important thing that the Israel of God does, in its days of pilgrimage and in its settlement in the promised land.

And it has to be one of the things that we also take very seriously indeed. There may only be one go at getting it right for the person who has ventured into the very strange territory of your, or any, church. If the quality of our worship is not good enough to inspire in that one visitor a thirst for God, it may not be the worthy offering of thanks and praise to our Creator which we know we should be offering.

Reynolds writes from what is obviously a "broadly Catholic" viewpoint. Although he is alert to those who do not share this tradition, the book makes best sense for a priest and congregation who value the rhythm of liturgical life as their resource for evangelism and growth.

Chapter headings indicate the imaginative and informed approach that constitutes liturgical literacy in Reynolds's view. He writes intelligently, but not as an academic. Context, furniture, mood, action, poetry, and the changing seasons of the year are what define this very accessible, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book.

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.

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