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Regulating public worship

21 November 2014

Formation is more important than law, says David Stancliffe

Beyond Common Worship: Anglican identity and liturgical diversity 
Mark Earey
SCM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT318 )

THERE are those who are still worried that what they do in church might not be legal. They find the multiplicity of what is available in the Common Worship resources baffling, and, when he was the Praxis national education officer and, ever since, people have written to the Revd Mark Earey asking for help in sorting out what to do in church.

This book is his response to what he identifies as the unresolved and underlying tension between those who think that worship as the carrier and former of Anglican identity should be controlled by those who know what that is - the bishops? or the General Synod? - and those who minister faithfully and imaginatively in local contexts where they know what works.

Earey sketches the outline of the creative developments in the Church of England's worship over the past 60 years in the first chapter, welcoming the extended directory-style, inclusive approach of Common Worship, and then in Chapter 2 begins to outline some possible solutions to the enormous diversity of pastoral practice and theological presuppositions - do we clarify the rules, or enlarge the boundaries so that even greater diversity is brought within them, or go for more local, i.e. diocesan, control?

This leads him in Chapter 3 to his distinctive approach: using Paul Hiebert's Set Theory, he advocates Centred Sets rather than Bounded ones, and in Chapter 4 reflects on what makes worship "Anglican", and contains much sound and commonsense reflection on how to do worship in a relational way. This is the most creative part of the book, and shows Earey at his best - a thoughtful, imaginative, and sensitive teacher.

His final chapter offers suggestions for working out the implications of his dream: new canons, the formation of leaders of worship, including bishops, the part played by the Liturgical Commission, risks, accountability, and discipline. In the conclusion, he sums up the possibilities like this: "Can we move from control to trust in the way we regulate worship. . . ?"

This is a deeply felt contribution to the debate about the nature of the Church of England and its identity, but despite the creative material in Chapters 3 and 4, it is centred on that concept "regulate". I was forcefully reminded of the complexity of the process I spent so much time in finding a way through, steering not just the texts but the style and formational opportunities that the process of developing worship presented between the Scylla of the various strands of theological thought-police and the Charybdis of the advocates of worship as mission or entertainment. Public debate about regulation of the press offers an interesting parallel: there are no easy solutions here if regulation is the central task.

But is it? Earey writes not for those who are confident about their liturgical formation or who don't think that what you do in church matters much, but for those who want to be loyal Anglicans and yet free to do what they think is right for their community. I think he is right about boundaries: no one who has been a bishop for more than six months can possibly believe that you can control what people do or think or say.

Your best chance is to encourage and resource lay people and clergy alike, show them that you believe that what we do in church and how we do it matter more than anything, and make it abundantly clear that you trust them to do it well. Formation - of the bishops, too - is the only way of grace.


The Rt Revd Dr David Stancliffe was formerly Bishop of Salisbury, and chaired the Liturgical Commission.

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