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Lord, have mercy upon our misery

13 February 2015

The language of our liturgy has implications for our mental health, suggests Eva McIntyre


Welcome embrace: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, c.1668

Welcome embrace: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, c.1668

RESEARCH from the campaigning organisation Time to Change gives the churches something to celebrate when it comes to our work around mental health. Their findings show that people living with mental illness are less likely to experience discrimination when participating in religious activities than in any other area of their lives.

Even in 2008, Time to Change's annual survey showed that only ten per cent of service-users said they had experienced discrimination when participating in religious activities. But the creative and inspiring work that has been done since then - both nationally, through the C of E's Mental Health Matters, and regionally, in our dioceses, parishes, and interfaith groups - has clearly made an impressive impact. In the 2012 survey, just six per cent of service- users had experienced discrimination; by 2013, the figure had dropped by a further 1.5 per cent.

Church groups around the country provide support and empowerment for people who live with mental illness. Conferences, drop-in centres, worship provision, and all manner of other activities show that Christians care about the daily reality of living with mental illness - indeed, many of us have lived experience of mental illness ourselves.

OUR liturgy, however, is at odds with this good practice. The recurrent themes of unworthiness and sinfulness which run through many Common Worship texts are, for those living with mental illness, like tree roots in a dark forest, waiting to catch your foot and send you crashing to the ground in pain.

The House of Bishops recently told the General Synod that "our liturgy must contain our doctrine." A central claim of Christian doctrine is that we have been forgiven; that we are God's children, saved by grace. It follows that we shouldn't indulge a sense of our own unworthiness, but rather live as beloved children.

Yet our liturgy actually reflects both our human tendency towards low self-esteem, and the comfort with which we cling on to the sense of our wretchedness and inadequacy. After all, being wonderful, loved, and potent is far more frightening.

MANY churches will begin their worship with a confession that implies, or explicitly states, that we are wretched and wicked. I have a particular dislike of the claim, in one Common Worship confession, that "we are not worthy to be called your children." This is a reference to the parable of the Prodigal Son, although in that story the words are never spoken aloud, because the father rushes out to embrace his son. The sentence was only the judgement that the son anticipated in his mind, before he actually returned to his father.

Its use in our liturgy encourages us to return each week to a place of self-chastisement; it makes no allowance for moving forward on our spiritual journey. I recall the words of a woman in my congregation: "I've tried so hard all week, but the first thing I'm asked to do when I come to church is to tell God how awful I am!"

does also offer forms of confession which acknowledge human negligence, and harm done, both corporately and individually, without pandering to the tendency to wallow in our perceived impotence and wickedness. In particular, the form using the Kyrie, "Lord, have mercy," offers scope for creative and reflective self-examination.

The emotional roller-coaster ride may take an upward course with a good offertory hymn, only to plummet again with the Prayer of Humble Access: "We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under your table" - a misappropriation of words from the beautiful Gospel story where the Syro-Phoenician woman challenges Jesus over his suggestion that she might not be worthy to share the bread destined for the table of the Hebrews.

Then, before we can get to the queue for coffee, there's the post-communion prayer to navigate, where we may find such phrases as "he may not find us sleeping in sin."

IT WOULDN'T be too daunting a task to be more sensitive in our liturgy: careful choices from the wide selection of Common Worship texts could remove many of the stumbling-blocks. Introducing original material is permitted within the rubrics at certain points of the liturgy, such as the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer.

Taking time to unpack some of the language used during the service might help to divest it of the baggage we unwittingly attach to it. (If you don't have a say over the liturgy in your church, you could cut out this article and pass it on to those who have.)

A few simple steps could make the difference between someone going home with a sense of abject unworthiness, or secure in the knowledge that he or she is a beloved and powerful child of God. Now that really would be good news for our mental health.

The Revd Eva McIntyre is Co-ordinator of Mental Health Matters, which is part of the Committee for Ministry of and among Deaf and Disabled People, a committee of the Archbishops' Council.

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