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Give us liturgy that is not captive to the printed page

05 July 2019

Allan Sheath sets out an agenda aimed at helping them to engage more fully with the drama of the liturgy

WALKING the South West Coast Path one Saturday, our group of baby-boomers was forced off the track by youths glued to their phones. “Put down your bloody phones and look up!” I muttered.

This was ironic, since at Sunday’s parish eucharist we were as wedded to print as the young are to social media. The book of the Gospels was brought in — with lights, smoke, and alleluias — but few were looking: pew sheets being the favoured medium with service books de rigueur for the liturgy. If the eucharist is a sacred drama, it is one that we fail to engage with as eyes are lowered to the page instead of hearts lifted to God. “Do this in remembrance of me” is reduced to “Read this in remembrance of me.”

Common Worship’s store of options has proved a mixed blessing in a cut-and-paste but liturgically unlettered age. Its overuse — the above parish is by no means the worst offender — not only destabilises the collective memory, it also belies the easy rhetoric of inclusivity (“10 a.m. Family Communion: All Welcome”) and might suggest why the Church of England remains socially monochrome.

A 2011 Government study, Skills for Life, states that there are 16 million adults with literacy skills poor enough “to limit their access to a significant amount of written material”. Yet, our peculiarly Anglican obsession with books abandons them to the tyranny of “What next?”; as it does those suffering from dementia, or with visual impairment. Then there is that number — greater than we might think — who yearn for stability amid otherwise chaotic lives.

SHARED words and rituals build muscle memory by being patterned and rhythmic. They form us, signifying that options should be used with care. As the chairman of the Liturgical Commission, the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, writes in The Good Worship Guide: “Striking a balance between variety and sameness is the art of good liturgy. If everything is different each week, liturgy loses its power to shape heart and memory.” Here it is useful to differentiate between congregational and ministerial texts. The main volume’s Seasonal Provisions aid formation when used year after year, not least because people need only remember the responses, most of which are common to every season.

The middle-class assumptions which inform our institutional captivity to print are evident in Prayer H, the go-to Eucharistic Prayer for all-age worship, introduced as “a conscious attempt to involve the congregation”. Yet on its own terms, it has failed: its varying responses require worshippers to follow the words closely, ignoring the unfolding drama. Far from helping involvement, congregational texts hinder it by fixing eyes on the text. Exceptions are well-known prayers, simple responses, and — given how singing feeds memory — those parts that are regularly sung.

Can we then put down our books for at least the Liturgy of the Sacrament, avoid dependency and discrimination, and employ unapologetic but simple ritual that engages? Some ideas follow (other options are available).

As Common Worship’s offertory prayers lack a cue for the people’s Amen, and as authorised texts are not required here, consider those in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Book of Alternative Services. Have no more than two Eucharistic Prayers, which share a common shape. Similarly, use just two mass settings; congregational, not choir-only.

Individual breads ruin the symbolism of the fraction rite: the breaking of Christ’s body on the cross, and in the one bread the gathering of the Church into the Kingdom. Use large breads (such as those baked by the Community of St Clare) which can be broken into many pieces. Stick to one fraction sentence, and — with “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” a given during Easter — one other invitation to communion. Omit the Prayer of Humble Access. We may be beggars at the feast, but it sits angularly with “We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence”, interrupts the flow, and turns the liturgy inwards.

Keep more than a token time of corporate silent prayer after communion, rather than those plodding congregational post-communions that add nothing to the movement of the liturgy and repeat what has already been said. Given the investment that Common Worship has in mission, rather than talking about being sent out “to live and work to your praise and glory”, why not just do it?

FINALLY, it helps if ministers are at home in the liturgy. When the priest puts down the book to greet, to absolve, to invite — and the deacon to dismiss — the holy people of God will be in little doubt that they are welcomed, absolved, invited to the feast, and sent out to take part in the world’s healing.

In a visual age, where words fail, it should not be too hard to unlearn our fascination with print and experience the sensuality of gathering, hands-free, around the table, engaged and aware of others who may be unlike us — in short, as the sacred, corporate, and transformative drama it truly is.

The Revd Allan Sheath is a retired priest who lives in the diocese of Exeter.

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