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Time to retreat from throwaway liturgy          

15 June 2018

Under Common Worship, service sheets have started to get in the way of God, says Philip Welsh. He proposes a solution

IT BEGAN with a trivial question: why am I allergic to the weekly service sheets that many churches helpfully provide? After all, they are an undeniably user-friendly single resource at a time of widespread unfamiliarity with Church of England worship.

For one thing, they consume a good deal of parish office time and a shocking amount of paper; and, for another, they give the impression that the Church’s liturgy is something flimsy, provisional, and disposable — throwaway liturgy.

But there is something that touches a deeper nerve, whether we are given weekly sheets or seasonal pamphlets, and it presses on two issues: the way in which liturgical language works; and the Church’s embedded clericalism.

COMMON WORSHIP marked a paradigm shift in C of E liturgy. Its various predecessors, from Series 2 to the Alternative Service Book 1980, had all provided a largely stable set of texts, with a manageable range of options for seasonal or discretionary use. Common Worship broke the mould, and offered instead a common structure, put together from a huge variety of options, both from the basic book and from the various supplementary volumes.

The motivation for this, in relation to the presumed needs of contemporary people, and to contending interests within the Church, is open to debate. The potential for seasonal enrichment is undeniable; yet, all too often, the result has been the restless over-use of the many optional texts, as if the congregation’s attention needs to be perpetually captured by the unfamiliar.

Changing words do, indeed, hold the attention of the worshipper, but what they hold attention to is not the object of our worship but the pamphlet in our hands. We are not so much taking our place in worship as finding our place on the page. There is little chance for words to become known by heart, and held as part of corporate memory: the words in which we worship have moved outside us. The irony is that the Preface to Common Worship eloquently voices this concern: “It is when the framework of worship is clear and familiar and the texts are known by heart that the poetry of praise and the passion of prayer can transcend the printed word.” It would be a brave vicar who put that to the test.

The other problem with throwaway liturgy is that it reinforces dependency on the clergy, and assumes a high view of their liturgical good judgement. The congregation literally do not know what they are missing, and cannot be expected to know their way around the intricacies of Common Worship’s multi-volume provision or online equivalent. They have been dispossessed. A service-sheet edited by the vicar, with everything they need to know that week, is no route to any sense of shared ownership of worship.

It is as if the gains of the Reformation have been put into reverse. The 16th-century print revolution helped to drive the Reformation, as wider possession of prayer-books and Bibles underwrote a wider sense of ownership as church members. It seems that the 20th-century print revolution, with all the possibilities of desktop publishing, is in danger of turning it back.

BUT help is at hand, and from an unexpected quarter. The Book of Common Prayer offers just the advice we need if we are to use Common Worship well, and it is to be found in its little-read, tiny-print Prefaces.

These deprecate the baffling complexity of previous liturgical provision and its local variations, with its “multitude of responds, verses, vain repetitions, commemorations and synodals. . . Moreover, the number and hardness of the rules called the Pie” — the 35-volume almanac regulating the observance of feasts — “and the manifold changings of the Service, was the cause, that to turn the book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.” I am reminded that one of the early aids offered for sale to those using Common Worship Daily Prayer was a set of multiple ribbon-markers.

The Prefaces also assert the need for “publick Liturgy” not to be dictated by individual whim, “notwithstanding all the vain attempts and impetuous assaults made against it, by such men as are given to change, and have always discovered a greater regard to their own private fancies and interests than to the duty they owe to the publick”; and a warning against those “addicted to their old customs” is balanced by a warning that “some be so new-fangled, that they would innovate all things”.

“Decent order and godly discipline” is said to be compatible with “The freedom of the Spirit”, and, indeed, the 1662 Prayer Book introduces what might be the original Fresh Expression of Church, providing an Order of Baptism for those of Riper Years, which “may be always useful for the baptising of natives in our plantations”.

While we are colonising Fresh Expressions, we might appropriate another piece of jargon, “mission-shaped church”, to claim that the key to using Common Worship well is that it should be “Prayer Book-shaped”, characterised by simplicity of use, stability of text, and reticence in variation.

THE most fundamental aspect of being Prayer Book-shaped, however, is to do with memory, and our relationship to the language of worship. This is where we need to listen hard to the experience of Prayer Book conservatives, and, in fact, to get inside their head, because loyalty to the Prayer Book is about far more than fetishising Tudor prose.

Whatever else the Prayer Book stands for, the stability of its text has enabled people over time to internalise and make their own the words in which they worship God, in such a way that they enjoy a quite different sense of ownership of the liturgy than they can find in modern worship. These are the people’s words in a book that most people have always owned for themselves, not words supplied by the clergy from their shelf of liturgical resources.

We cannot recapture the historical circumstances that enabled the Prayer Book to function as it has. But, unless we take to heart some of the lessons of the BCP, and come to have a prayer book that feels like the title deeds of church membership rather than a workshop manual for the clergy, we shall end up thinking that worshipping God is largely a matter of following a script.

Our pressing need, now, is not more new material, but to reduce our multifarious resources into a manageable range of well-tried options held in common, and to do this with Cranmerian radicalism and feel for liturgical language. In that way, we stand a chance, before it is too late, of relearning an older and a deeper way of taking part in the Church’s common prayer.

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

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