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
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
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
COMMON WORSHIP 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
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
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
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'