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Animating Liturgy, by Stephen Platten

11 May 2018

Insights into worship and sacrament here, says David Stancliffe

WHILE many of these essays have a fairly recent genesis and reflect current interests in, and concerns about, the way in which “liturgy”, as we broadly know it, is related to many expressions of the Christian life, one at least dates from 1981. This witnesses to Stephen Platten’s long and continuing reflection on the main themes of this collection, which we could broadly summarise as how we experience and share our communal experience of symbolic action.

Near the surface of Bishop Platten’s concerns lies his interest in the sacramentality of things. He introduces the first essay with a reflection on the way the great railway termini in London were not only beautiful in themselves, besides working functionally and socially: they also pointed beyond themselves to offer a comment and critique of the society in which they were embedded. So, how do our church buildings fare as sacraments?

He moves on, beginning from Gerald Durrell’s experiences of the grace and freedom of Corfu, to how we pattern and absorb eucharistic living, in an essay full of poetic allusions to this experience of newness of life. The mood and style change sharply as he examines forensically the cultural mismatch between what people expect from a christening and what the Church provides. Here we are on more technical ground, and a number of dead ends in the continuing discussion of what constitutes Christian initiation are disposed of.

In the second section of this collection, Platten moves from specific liturgies to the ecumenical context, and addresses the question of relativism through the prism of time, space, and community, drawing reference points from Quakerism, the analysis of sacred space, and a sociological exploration of public discourse.

A specific example — re-animating sacrifice — leads into a chapter on the Bible, symbolism, and liturgy, where he explores the nature of imagery, and reminds his readers that all language is essentially an exercise in allusive discourse. These central essays are to me the least satisfactory part of the book, where the exploration of a fascinating and important series of interconnected subjects is served less well by a collection of disparate essays drawn together from previous writings. This is always a potential hazard with collections like this. However interrelated the individual pieces may be, their juxtaposition does not quite result in the development of a coherent argument.

Much stronger to my mind are the final chapters, with a perceptive essay on mimesis — how we learn by performing — at the start. This is followed by a more substantial historical reflection on the way in which what became the Book of Common Prayer was designed to form, and succeeded in forming, the common life of Church, State, and individual citizens, in “all such good works as . . . [God has] prepared for us to walk in”. The penultimate essay picks up this thread and charts in reminiscence and novel its slow dissolution in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Understanding what Matthew Arnold called the sea of faith’s melancholy, long, withdrawing roar is important for appreciating Platten’s elegant and elegiac reflection on the uses of the liturgy in nourishing mission. This is the Bishop at his most characteristic and best: perceptive, well-read, and able to hold our attention, but always surprising us with insights nourished by a deep pastoral sensibility.

The book finishes with a piece on Reinhold Niebuhr’s public theology, and asks where the great questions that the Christian faith seeks to address and the public discourse of society — or a society as we envisioned it before 2017 and international diplomacy began to be conducted on Twitter — find a point of crossover.

This is a timely question, but events are moving so fast on the world stage that this seems to me a churchy note on which to conclude an invigorating and thought-provoking collection.

The Rt Revd Dr David Stancliffe is a former Bishop of Salisbury.

Animating Liturgy: The dynamics of worship and the human community
Stephen Platten
Sacristy Press £14.99
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