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A language designed for insiders

31 January 2014

John Binns has an ambivalent relation­ship with Common Worship, and believes it is ultimately a barrier to would-be churchgoers


THE website whychurch.org reviewed statistics of church membership over the past ten years, and concluded that there are four categories of people that the Church is failing to reach: men, the young, the poor, and Christians. The surprising last category arises from the growing number of people who, when asked, say that they are Christian, but do not go to church. They are the believers who do not belong.

This requires all of us who plan and conduct church worship to ask whether we have failed to identify, and offer, a liturgy that engages and articulates the faith of our generation. And, since this has been the period when we have become accustomed to the liturgical style and context of Common Worship 2000, this soul-searching must include our experience of this book, which has shaped the worshipping life of our Church.

Most of us have a list of the parts that we love, and which move us, and also the phrases and prayers that irritate. We find that some services work, while others need revision. The marriage service meets with general approval, but, as the recent public debate has revealed, we find some statements in the baptism service difficult.

Although it is interesting for those of us who worship to swap stories and experiences, and for the Liturgical Commission to devise new forms of service, this misses the point of why the liturgy of the Church of England, and especially Common Worship, fails to address this generation. It is an activity for those already inside the doors.

Let us start by asking how we actually use Common Worship. At my church, we consider that our main act of worship is parish communion, on Sunday morning, and the baptism service that takes place within it. For this, we use Common Worship, with its wide range of options, to enable us to derive a form of service that fits our own circumstances.

We also offer choral evensong, and usually matins as well. This attracts visitors, and others who attend more occasionally, who would not see themselves as full members. We use the Book of Common Prayer, employed within the range of the Anglican choral tradition.

THEN there are special services: the school end-of-term services, the launch of a new charitable organisation, the shoppers' carol service. We devise our own order of service for each occasion.

So, for us, Common Worship and parish communion go together, and I suspect that that is the case for others, too. Common Worship affirms and strengthens the eucharistic life of the Church; so it makes the assumption that a church is a defined and identified group of people who form a community, and gives a language to express this identity, and a ritual character to give it shape.

But the problem with any community is that, while there are some within it who value the comfort and reassurance it provides, there are also others who are outside. Any liturgy, or form of words drafted for use by one community, will exclude all those who are not included. If we see the church primarily as a community, then we are setting up a system that excludes just as much as it includes.

If Common Worship serves a defined Christian community, does it serve those who are outside? Is it building a faithful gospel witness, or is it using the theological language of eucharist and communion to justify and facilitate the withdrawal from an aggressively secular society into the safe haven of a clearly defined community?

I have just returned from a fascinating visit to the only sub-Saharan African country with a long history of Christian faith: Ethiopia. It took me a while to grasp that their churches are completely different from ours; in fact, they are not churches in our sense at all.

Instead of buildings in which Christians gather for worship, they are holy enclosures with several different parts: a holy of holies, to which only clergy have access; a place where choir and worship leaders perform the sacred songs; a hall where young people are taught the faith; and a large space outside where people read and pray.

At festivals, there will be different kinds of worship continuing all night - sometimes with two or more going on simultaneously. People go to whatever bits they want, and very few go to all.

POST-MODERN England is a different kind of society from rural Ethiopia, but there may be something that we can learn from them. Worship is not a catch-all activity that must be conducted in a style laid down by the church authorities. It is diverse, varied, simultaneous, and unexpected. A post-modern church needs to discover a post-liturgical style of worship.

We need to recognise that places matter. Far more people in the UK relate to the church building itself than come to the worship within it. We need to think more about the part we play as a custodian of national sacred space.

Occasions matter. People come to church when they have something to say or do: this may be the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one, the end of a school term, or the launch of a new organisation. Marking special occasions is how most people worship.

I value my participation in Common Worship parish communion on a Sunday morning. It is fine as a starting point; but we need to discover forms of worship that can speak to that majority of Anglicans who find that our liturgy does not speak to them.

Canon John Binns is the Vicar of St Mary the Great, Cambridge.

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