Friday, January 12, 2007

Personal Journey 18: Rethinking Liturgy

Where is January going? It still feels like New Year's day! Reading over these past few posts, I am conscious that I am focusing on liturgy. There was, of course, much else that was happening. The reason for focusing on liturgy is that it was such a key issue in the life of the Church and required me to think hard about my attitude to it and to worship in general. I am also aware that it was an issue in many other local churches and, indeed, in the wider church. I don't want to give the impression that it was, or is, the only thing that mattered, but what we feel and think about liturgy affects many other areas as well.

Have a good weekend! I'll try to post over the next couple of days.

Personal Journey 18: Rethinking Liturgy

When I arrived in Banchory, I could basically say in sermons just about anything I liked as long as I did not touch on the liturgy. If I had said that the trinity was a later theological construction that was fundamentally flawed, I doubt if anyone would have cared. I could have said that you need good works if you are to be saved, no-one would really have minded. To suggest, however, that the Book of Common Prayer was not the right way to worship God, in this and every generation, would have been to risk the wrath of – well, certainly the choir!

I had become a Christian - if any of you can remember that far back - through people who believed that God had stopped working when the apostles had died and had only resumed a little at the time of the reformation. Now, however, He was really back in business working with them, in particular, and with the charismatic movement more generally. This did not incline a person such as me to take traditional forms of worship very seriously. Charismatic styles of worship were simply so much more fun and enjoyable. What is more, my experience of traditional Anglican worship at St Andrews, which had been predominantly Prayer Book Mattins and Evensong, wasn’t exactly positive. I found them deadly: truly awful.

At LBC (I know some of you think I idealize LBC!) I came to believe that a balance was possible. My theological studies led me to believe that, whatever the reality in the present, the Eucharist should be the main service when the Church gathered for worship each week. I have to say this remained for many years a theoretical concept. At Moreton, it actually was the main service, but I felt torn between what I saw as a superficially charismatic form of worship and Anglicans going through the motions of the liturgy without really appreciating it. I was spared the conflict at Bedford when I had to find a way of talking to people who couldn’t spell the word liturgy let alone know what it meant! And why should they?

At Banchory, I found myself caught up in the problem in a truly personal way. On the one hand, there was the pressing and urgent problem, as I saw it, of mission, that is, of reaching out to people who did not come to church, but who were not ignorant of it. And, on the other of those who had attached themselves to one view of Anglicanism centred on the Book of Common Prayer. As many of you will know, this was created by Archbishop Cranmer in the sixteenth century.

The former, those new to the Church, I found more willing to adapt than many credited them being. I constantly heard people within the Church, mainly clergy, saying that liturgy must become relevant, that it needed to be updated, and that we must connect with people were they were by changing the way we worshipped. Their argument was that unless worship and liturgy addressed modern day concerns in modern day language and ideas, then we would alienate people and drive them away. In short, we would be failing in mission. My experience was that this was just not true. The people we were reaching out to wanted to understand what was going on, they wanted someone to explain it to them, but they rather appreciated that the Church was offering something different and permanent, something that was not transient and simply a product of whoever was in power at the moment.

The latter, that is the tradionalists in the Church, I found not to be traditional enough. That is, that they had sanctified a specific relatively modern and radical liturgy, which was as new and as innovative in its day as were many of the ones they despised in ours. The Book of Common Prayer, after all, was meant to be a revision of the liturgy of the previous one and a half thousand years of Christian worship, translated into the vernacular, that is, into English from Latin. What is more this had been undertaken by one small section of the Church, that in England.

Simply put, the conclusions I came to were:

that the Eucharist should be at the heart of the Church’s worship and that this was non-negotiable

that the liturgy for the Eucharist should be recognizably in continuity with the liturgy that the Church had always used. For we worship not only with the saints on earth, but with the saints in heaven and with angels and archangels

that the liturgy should be understood by those who were using it. Understood, I have to say, did not necessarily mean, in my opinion at least, in the language of! (I think we all understood Pope John Paul’s funeral service and that, coincidentally, was in Latin.)

Working from these conclusions, I felt that a Latin Mass challenged all of us:

For me, the challenge was to see the need to think more broadly about worship and to learn from the whole of church history and not just a short period of it.

For the choir, and for those who shared their outlook, the challenge was to see the way that liturgy had changed and that use of the word traditional raised serious questions of definition.

For newcomers, the challenge was to see the relativity of modernity and the emptiness of secularism.

Well that was the theory.

On a personal level, it also involved a steep learning curve in other ways. I needed to get my Latin and my use of the ceremonial accompaniments (incense etc) right. I had already been learning ecclesiastical Latin at Aberdeen University with a wonderful man, whose name I can use here, since, tragically, he died recently: Morton Gauld. Morton was a lover of the Latin Mass, a deeply devout Christian, a Catholic, but not simply a Roman one, and a generous spirit. He was very dear to me, and Morton, if you can read this, thank you for all you gave me and shared with me. I hope one day we can again share a glass of port in another place.

+Rest eternal grant unto him, O Lord,
and let light perpetual shine upon him.

I shared with Morton my intention of holding a Latin Mass. My idea was to ask the choir to sing a setting of the Mass, but that it should be within the context of a proper liturgical celebration and not a concert. Morton was very enthusiastic, and offered help in all the practicalities. The choir was also enthusiastic and worked exceptionally hard to get it, not only right, but good. We held the first Mass on a Friday in February, 1997. The setting was Palestrina’s, Missa Aeterna Christi Munera. We had a good number in the congregation, who entered fully into the spirit of the occasion, and even forgave my pronunciation. It was a very special service. More followed.

For my next two posts, I will publish two of the homilies that I wrote (in English!) for the Masses. They give an indication of my thinking both at the time and now!

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