Liturgy is an anchor — don’t brush it aside

by
03 May 2019

Parishes that have dispensed with centuries of tradition need to consider what is being lost, argues Ines Hands

IN MANY Anglican churches, liturgical worship and close observance of the Christian year are rapidly falling out of use. The lectionary is replaced with sermon series; communion is not celebrated weekly, with the preferred eucharistic prayers being those that are linguistically simpler; days such as Ash Wednesday are afforded ever less importance.

The aim is to make church contemporary, relevant, accessible. Given the nature and speed of these changes, it is urgent to reflect on whether they are effective and whether they are sustainable, and to pause and consider the value of what is being set aside.

 

DISPENSING with set forms seeks to make visitors feel included. But I have observed quite the opposite. Families who do not habitually attend church, but who have brought their child to be baptised, frequently appear perplexed and alienated by deconstructed forms of worship. Without a printed order of service (everything is projected, often out of sync, on to a screen), visitors are unable to orient themselves. The progression through praise, penitence, absolution, instruction, intercession, thanksgiving, and blessing is blurred.

Liturgy, in contrast, evolved with participation and clarity in mind. It acts as an anchor of familiarity and universality. The words, often repeated, become a touchstone even for infrequent worshippers. They ensure accuracy and economy of language. They are a repository of scripture, a tool of instruction.

Current trends have reduced the number of days to which special importance is ascribed. What seems to underlie this is a suspicion that rites associated with these days no longer hold meaning. Last Ash Wednesday, I was shocked at the sparse attendance at the service. Has the imposition of ashes ceased to be eloquent of our mortality? Has the stripping of the altars ceased to be moving, midnight mass and dawn resurrection services ceased to be joyful and numinous?

If this is the case, it is because we no longer believe that there is such a thing as shared symbolic value. Interpretation has become personal, not communal; subjective, not objective; subversive, not authoritative. The great irony is that, while the Church is giving up on the symbolic, the world of branding and advertising feeds off a subconscious communal store of symbolic association.

The rejection of structure suggests that structure is per se repugnant and limiting: immediacy and authenticity of response are elevated to virtue status. In reality, this places enormous pressure on the believer to feel elation, ecstasy, or contrition, to sense the presence of God viscerally and mystically, and on the priest to seek tangible evidence for this. Is this not the error of St Thomas? Yes, in Charismatic worship there may be energy, but this in and of itself is not evidence of the action of the Holy Spirit any more than an eight-o’clock communion, attended by two or three, is evidence of his absence.

In liturgical worship there is the danger of idolising the form rather than heeding the content, but this is no less true for Evangelical worship: humans are quick to create habits. In Christian life, as in commitment of any kind, there are times when feelings are keenly and spontaneously perceived. The rest of the time, steady commitment needs an anchor. The structure of liturgy is that anchor, guiding the believer when intense emotional response is not forthcoming or accessible.

 

IT IS painfully indicative of how valuable our traditions are when we observe non-denominational pastors reinventing the very things that we are discarding. I know a non-denominational pastor who conducted a dawn resurrection service while his Anglican colleague down the road refused to, because he was “too fond of his mattress”. Even as the Church of England tries to make the eucharist comprehensible, non-denominational pastors are using the raw biblical texts of the institution of the eucharist as a communion blessing, returning to the very origins of the eucharistic prayer.

I do not have an unqualified objection to Charismatic forms of worship. Even a superficial knowledge of church history is enough to know that the forms of worship that we consider traditional evolved in response to new needs and new problems, and I recognise that this is a time of great change, with its particular needs and problems.

What I question is the wisdom of hurriedly brushing aside centuries of accumulated tradition, and whether the forms of worship currently in vogue are robust enough to bear the burden of the tasks that they must perform: to encourage the faithful, comfort the distressed, rejoice with those who rejoice, beckon the wayward, console the penitent, help us mourn the death of our Lord, and celebrate his resurrection.

By so rashly abandoning the liturgy, we are casting aside pearls. Let new forms of worship submit themselves to the crucible of time, and, if they prevail, find their place in the canon and enrich rather than impoverish — or, worse, obliterate — our tradition. It is incumbent on us to be wise custodians of the wealth that we have inherited.

The author writes under a pseudonym.

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