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The false humility of liturgical tweaking

27 November 2015

CANON B5 has much to answer for. This is the rule that permits ministers to make small variations to the wording of authorised liturgical texts, as long as these do not imply a change of doctrine.

One of my personal bugbears is the widely adopted variation to the text of the dismissal at the eucharist, by which “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” becomes “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” The imperative mood, with its drama and sense of finality, is weakened to the exhortative. So we are all going off to have our Sunday lunch, including the celebrant — very nice, too; inclusive, even.

Yet that is exactly the problem. The liturgical dismissal should be our congregational marching orders. It sends us off and out to do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s world. Meanwhile, someone has to stay at home and mind the sanctuary, or, at least, clear up, blow out the candles, move the chairs, tidy the vestry, and lock the doors. But the “Let us” removes all distinction between ministers and people, and turns the “sending out” into no more than a pious aspiration. Let us go indeed, and earnestly hope that the coffee is better than it was last week.

While I am having a rant about such trivia, perhaps it is time to mention the habit of preachers who like the idea of beginning their sermon with “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but feel a bit anxious about doing so, and say instead: “May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This change might be intended to sound humble, but from the pew it comes across as a pious hedging of bets, as though the preacher is really afraid that the Holy Trinity might disapprove of what he or she is about to say. It also draws attention away from the congregation (who are implicitly included in the conventional In nomine), and focuses it on the preacher. Own goal, I would say.

These words are not governed by Canon B5, and preachers can say or pray what they like before the sermon, or not say anything at all; but it is another thoroughly annoying habit. Like “Let us go,” it suggests a reluctance to accept the authority that is part of any minister’s position, with all its risks and opportunities.

By the way, if you want to soften “Go in peace” at the dismissal, try smiling. Body language has more impact than words.

 

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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