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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

28 July 2017

Malcolm Guite sounds out some new liturgy

I LOVE the way liturgy lifts the ordinary for a moment into the eternal, and everyday actions, so often automatic and unnoticed, coruscate in the divine light and are enacted with complete attention, full intention.

It is not only during the central acts of the eucharist — the breaking of bread and pouring of wine, eating and drinking — that the daily veil that covers the sublime is lifted. Even an everyday handshake is elevated to something more in sharing the Peace, and smaller things, peripheral and unnoticed, are given the kiss of life with liturgy.

There is a verse or a prayer for putting on a stole, for washing one’s hands, for preparing to leave the vestry and enter the church. I have friends who remember the scourging of Christ as they do up the buttons on their cassocks.

These moments of liturgical attention are the accretion of centuries, and I sometimes wonder how long it will be before some of the routines of contemporary church life are dignified with a verse from scripture and a moment of prayer, especially the routines that we all witness and often experience as interruption rather than prayer.

The clipping and unclipping of a radio microphone on to vestments. The awkward moment when a priest fumbles in his or her pocket for the switch to turn the microphone off for the singing of a hymn (this may be a genuine work of mercy). And then fumbles again to turn it on for the next collect.

Perhaps in 50 years or so there will be a new little vestry ritual: a versicle and response for the verger as they switch on the sound system. I amuse myself in odd moments wondering what those versicles and responses might be; for the scriptures (especially in the Authorised Version) are replete with possibilities.

For putting the rechargeable battery back in its charger:


V: They that wait upon the Lord
R: Shall renew their strength (Isaiah 40.31)


For clipping on of the microphone:


V: I will magnify thee O Lord
R: For thou hast set me up (Psalm 30.1)


And for that discreet little fumble to turn the microphone on:


V: Let not thy left hand know
R: What thy right hand doeth (Matthew 6.5)


These idle fancies may never come to pass, but something better is already happening. For I have found that the discipline of mindfulness, of attention to the ordinary in liturgy, to taking, breaking, sharing, pouring, raising, drinking, has an effect that lasts through the week.

That full presence to what I am doing at the altar sometimes spills over, through and beyond the church doors, and I find myself more aware of the beauty and power of a gesture in the rest of the week: sharing food with a friend, pouring wine for a guest. Perhaps there is no need to add to the liturgy when the liturgy itself has helped me to find heaven in ordinary.

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