Where I am Now: 3. Liturgy and the Eucharist – Part One
Thank you to those who sent good wishes on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a priest. I really, really appreciate your messages.
Today I post Part One of the third blog about where I am now. I was ordained just after the Alternative Service Book (ASB) had been published initiating a time of great liturgical change in the Church of England. As I began to write about the Eucharist, I realized that I couldn't let the process of liturgical change go without comment. My apologies to those who think that liturgy is a thing of the 'world and the flesh', if not of the devil. In Part Two, I intend to write more about the Eucharist itself.
Where I am now: 3. Liturgy and the Eucharist - Part One
Services when I first went to them were not Eucharistic. In the Anglican Church, they were mainly Mattins and Evensong and in other traditional Churches a mixture of hymns readings and prayers with a sermon thrown in. In the House Churches, services were much more exciting with just about everything happening - except Communion. Communion did, of course, happen at times in all these different Churches, but it was very much peripheral and easily missed. In none of the Churches I personally attended did the idea that you needed a priest before you could have worship make any sense at all. We believed in the priesthood of all believers.
It was while at London Bible College that I became convinced through Bible Study of the centrality and importance of the Eucharist. (I am using the word Eucharist as the most neutral of the available terms.) It seemed clear to me from 1 Corinthians 11 that what Paul refers to as the Lord’s Supper was frequent and central.
This was also the time of liturgical revision in the Church of England. Liturgical revision sought to translate the Church of England services into English. Well, from an English that no-one used to one that at least they could understand. It also placed far more emphasis on the Eucharist. In many Anglican Churches, this was a time when they switched to making the Eucharist the main service of the day on Sundays. I was very happy with this and still am.
One of the problems with liturgical reform in the Church of England, of course, was that it has always had people who believe different things about the Eucharist and about what is happening in it. This undoubtedly made liturgical reform harder. In the Roman Catholic Church, liturgical reform was more radical and more easily accomplished. In the Church of England, however, there was much resistance to change.
This said, however, much of the resistance to change had nothing to do with theology. People had developed a sentimental attachment to the Book of Common Prayer and to its archaic English. Attempts, normally initiated by the clergy, to change to a modern English service, which was often in every other way the same as the old service, were met with passionate resistance. The bandwagon against change was often joined by people who hardly ever attended Church, but who liked to think of it as a sort of religious museum preserving the traditions of the past to be viewed at will.
The attempt to change to a Eucharist rather than a Morning Prayer service for the main service of the day was more interesting, though no less divisive. The reason for the problems is interesting and instructive. For many, it was one thing to substitute an archaic language Morning Prayer service with an archaic language Communion service, but something altogether different to substitute an archaic language Morning Prayer with a modern language Eucharist. What mattered was keeping the language, the old language. Many churches were severely divided and damaged by the whole business of liturgical change.
Ironically, while those responsible, at Synod level, for re-writing the services may have cared about liturgy and theology most people who entered the battle in the Churches rarely cared about theology. It was all about language whether it was to be old or modern. It is a further irony that the reason for change often given by the clergy instituting it was that it was to aid mission, making our services more accessible to outsiders, and yet the process of change used so much energy that there was often little time left for mission or for anything else. Some of the arguments were very bitter indeed and some of the divisions went very deep.
There are still some pockets of resistance, but the modern language debate has largely been won by the modernisers. Concessions have been made and the old services are still used, but not normally as the main service of the day. You have to go at a different time of day or on a different day altogether if you want the old language and services. A significant number of Churches have made a modern language Eucharist the main service. How has this affected mission? Not in the slightest. Fewer people now attend the Church of England, for example, than ever. Does this mean that liturgical reform should not have been undertaken? Yes and no. It illustrates I think the danger of imposing liturgy on people politically without a concern for theology and for the reason why we are doing it. All too often the reason for change seemed to be fashion and trendiness. Nevertheless, liturgical reform was needed, I believe, not in the first place because of language, but because of the need to put the Eucharist at the heart of the Church’s worship and because of the inadequacy of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer.
This is a long and complicated subject and it has been much written about. I won’t repeat it all here! The Communion service in the 1662 Prayer Book was a much emasculated service coming as it did out the debates about the meaning of Communion arising from the time of the reformation in the sixteenth century. Much was a reaction to and rejection of the Roman Catholic Mass. I felt that the attempt by those responsible for producing the new Eucharistic liturgies to go behind the controversies of the reformation and learn from the liturgy of the early Church was right. I also liked the fact that the resulting service was very similar to the modern Roman Catholic service. I liked it, not because it was modern, but because it restored what had been lost and gave us a fuller more complete service that brought us closer together.
I could live with the new Eucharistic liturgy in archaic English even if I preferred it in modern English, simply because it was a better service with a fuller understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist. I used to say that ideally we would have a Latin version given that this is the language underlying many of the texts we use in the service. I am mildly surprised to see that many Roman Catholics now feel the same and there is a return to the Latin Mass in some churches. Those with good memories will remember my own attempt to make use of the Latin Mass.
To those who say that Latin is a dead language that is irrelevant in the age we live, all I would say is that the Funeral Mass for Pope John Paul seemed to be very relevant and powerful. It was also in Latin. The loss of Latin at the reformation in the Protestant Churches and the subsequent near loss in the Roman Catholic Churches after Vatican II has meant that those in liturgically based churches have lost a common language that could have been a symbol of our unity worldwide. Of course, people must also worship in a language they understand, but you don’t need to be a classicist to know that ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ means ‘Glory to God in the highest’! But I digress.
The process of liturgical reform in the 1970s and 1980s at least gave us a Eucharistic liturgy that put the Eucharist at the heart of the Church’s worship and which brought the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches closer together in their official liturgies. I am less happy with the ‘pick and mix’ approach of more recent liturgical change, where liturgy is seen as a menu of texts that you choose from and put together locally as you see fit, but that is another matter. The Eucharist is still very much at the heart of the Church.
Now I realize that for those brought up in more charismatically inclined Churches or in non-conformist Churches all this sounds like another language in and of itself. Worship should be Spirit led and spontaneous not written and fixed. Well I wouldn’t want to exclude that. It is interesting, though, how quickly spontaneity takes a fixed form. We all have a liturgy of sorts consciously or unconsciously. What I think is a very fair criticism of liturgically based Churches is that the liturgy can become an end in and of itself and its purpose, to enable us to worship God together, forgotten.