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Liturgy on the Edge: Pastoral and attractional worship, edited by Samuel Wells

01 June 2018

Philip Welsh considers how a famous parish caters for all sorts

ST MARTIN-IN-THE-FIELDS has a crisp vision statement: “At the heart. On the edge.” As an eminent church at the heart of London with extraordinary resources, it characterises itself as a church at the edge: at the leading edge as a centre of excellence, not least musically; at the cutting edge as a community with a radical vision of Christian inclusiveness; and as a church that stands alongside those on the edge of society, especially in its notable ministry among the homeless.

In Liturgy on the Edge, Sam Wells, together with other clergy and lay people from St Martin’s, introduces some of the amazing range of non-standard opportunities for worship that they find themselves providing for particular needs or special occasions, alongside the church’s regular round of services.

There are presentations of sacred music with commentary and hymns, which aim to be a bridge between a concert and worship. There is ten minutes’ guided prayer and reflection, provided weekly at their partner church, St Stephen Walbrook, repeated throughout the two-hour period when countless City workers are passing on their way to work. There are events that respond to acute pastoral situations, almost always in response to approaches by external agencies — for those affected by homicide or by suicide; for those who have died homeless or who are missing; for the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act.

There is the St Martin’s version of familiar events — a contemplative service with Taizé music, or prayer for healing; and the unique St Martin’s take on a community carol service, Palm Sunday Passion enactment, St Luke’s Day service, and Patronal Festival. The Crib Service is the only occasion when the inclusion of children is highlighted, perhaps not surprisingly in a parish that contains 150 restaurants, 14 theatres, 15 government departments and three royal palaces, but no school.

This book does not pretend to offer off-the-shelf resources — many events are beyond the scope of most other churches, or reflect the unique position of St Martin’s. Its value lies in describing the thought processes and patterns of collaboration which lay behind them, and their theological and pastoral rationale.

“Right now”, the editor writes, “we’re trying to find appropriate ways to help other organisations make the kind of journey we’ve made; but what we can’t do is offer them techniques for fixing their problems — we can only offer them inspiration and support for entering deeper into their mystery.”

Reading about the experience of St Martin’s — including what it has learned from its occasional mistakes — is a stimulus to think more imaginatively, more collaboratively, more inclusively, and more theologically.

A short section on broadcasting, including webcasts and podcasts, indicates a further dimension of the church’s outreach, though one with more limited transferability. The book ends with brief advice on aspects of leading worship, from How to Welcome to How to Send Out, more in the nature of hints than sustained consideration. It shows, however, a rare appreciation that How to Give Notices is “perhaps the most contentious part of a liturgy”.

Liturgy on the Edge is an enjoyable, inspiring, provocative, and useful book. In one way or another, we all find ourselves (in Francis Thompson’s words) “betwixt heaven and Charing Cross.”


The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.


Liturgy on the Edge: Pastoral and attractional worship
Samuel Wells, editor
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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