October 30, 2011
(Daniel 7, 1-3; Luke 6, 20-31)
I don’t think we’re supposed to have favourites among the Christian festivals – we’re supposed to approach them all with the same anticipation. But, being human, I suspect that we all have our favourites, and All Saints is one of mine.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I was baptised, confirmed and married in churches dedicated to All Saints (or All Hallows in the case of the last two). I know it has something to do with the good hymns we get to sing on the festival, particularly the All Saints hymn, ‘For All The Saints’, with its splendid Vaughan Williams tune, and inspiring words by Bishop How.
But I think that most of my fondness for the festival comes from the fact that this commemoration of all the ‘little’ saints – those not considered important enough to have books, or days, or even in most cases, churches, named after them – does lead me to believe that the name of ‘saint’ could really be applied to all of us, as it was to all members of the congregations of the early church. That somehow through persistence and through God’s grace, and perhaps because of one particular act, we too could attain that ‘blest communion, fellowship divine’ of which today’s hymns and prayers speak.
For the great saints – the giants of the church who wrote gospels or major works of mysticism, or founded religious orders or reform movements – do seem so very distant from the rest of us mere mortals, don’t they? How well Bishop How sums up our feelings when we read about them: “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine”!
The ‘little’ saints we remember today seem much more in our league; achieving sanctity perhaps by one act of courage, one supreme time of witness for their faith, or a lifetime of holy ordinariness. Now remembered only in the small communities in which they lived, and by the wider church on just this one festival.
It is therefore ironic to remind ourselves that the commemoration of saint began, not with the great leaders of the early church, but with these little local saints.
From about he second century, the inspired pastors and martyrs of the early Christian communities began to be remembered by services at their tombs on the anniversaries of their deaths. Then churches were built over these tombs and dedicated to them; but these festivals were all local ones. The first patron saints of churches were remembered only by their friends, families and local communities – as most of us will hope to be after we die.
It was only later that the major church figures were allotted their ‘feast days’ and the celebrations extended to involve the whole church. This continued until the church calendar became choked with these feast days, with one or more saints to be remembered on every day of the year.
All these early saints were ‘patron saints’. They served as an example and an inspiration to those who worshipped in the place that bore their name; and if saints have a function in the life of the Church, this task of inspiring and exemplifying would seem to be it.
One of the things the Pope did on his recent visit to the UK was to declare Cardinal John Henry Newman ‘blessed’, the first step on the road to sainthood. Since the Reformation, the Church of England has had no machinery for canonising its leaders and heroes. However, the need to designate those who were felt to provide a proper example for others to follow continued to be felt. In 1958, a commission reported to the Lambeth Conference on what should be taken into account when choosing those who might be commemorated in the official calendar of the Church. Apart from stating that they ought to be people whose lives and histories were well attested (that’s when we lost St George, who turned out to be largely mythical!) and of whose sanctity there was no doubt, the commission also advised that they should be people whose lives have ‘excited other people to holiness’ people who so manifested the light of Christ in their lives and achievements that the Christian community can learn about it from them.
Those early church communities had their ‘patron saints’ chosen for them by the fact that he or she lived and sometimes died among them. But how, I wonder, should we go about choosing a patron saint for ourselves today?
At one time especially in Roman Catholic countries, a child would be named after the saint on whose feast-day it was born – and that saint would automatically become its patron saint. When a French penfriend gave me a full list of saint’s days, I discovered that under this system, I should have been called ‘Honoré’ – a saint of whom I was not able at that time to discover anything further! I now find (thanks to Wikipedia) that he was a 6th century bishop of Amiens, and patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. Not really much like me, I have to say!
Using the same system with the ASB and Common Worship calendar, my birthday saint turns out to be
George Herbert – priest, poet and pastor, 1633 – again, not a very appropriate role model for a twentieth century working wife and mother!
If you are given a fairly traditional name, you can adopt the saint with the same name as your patron saint – even if, as in my case, it turns out to be someone whose life story is wholly apocryphal. But what of the Tracys, Emmas and Darrens – where are the saints for them to follow?
Another traditional way of choosing a patron saint was through your occupation. All the mediaeval trade guilds had their patron saints, and some of the connections are still remembered today. I attended a school founded by a member of the Haberdashers’ Company, whose saint was Catherine of Alexandria, and we were told the story of her martyrdom each year on her feast day, 25th November. Doctors can look to St Luke and carpenters to St Joseph, and tax collectors to St Matthew, musicians to St Cecilia. But what of more recently invented trades and professions? A review I read of Butler’s ‘Lives of the Saints’ suggests some appropriate choices. St
Basillissa martyred in the third century, and patron saint of those with chilblains, might serve for chiropodists; and St Appollonia, and aged deaconess, who had all her teeth pulled out, and who is usually depicted clutching a pair of pincers which hold a tooth, might be appropriate for dentists; and since carpenters are now not so common, perhaps St Joseph, who is also, I’m told, the patron saint of house hunters, might be persuaded to transfer his patronage to estate-agents!
All very entertaining! But this rather light-hearted survey of possible patron saints does highlight a serious difficulty for us in making the choice. If the function of saints is that their lives should ‘excite us to sanctity’ then surely there needs to be some real point of contact between their lives and ours. Yet, the problem with most of the saints who we are offered as role-models is that they lived so long ago, and in such a different world from the one we inhabit, that those essential points of contact are lacking.
This is particularly so for women. If you look through the old calendar of saints almost all the handful of women mentioned there were either nuns or virgin martyrs. The ASB improved things a little: its calendar had 10 women out of 76 saints; Common Worship
has 47 women out of 238 individuals worthy of being commemorated as examples of sanctity by the church. Are men really that much more saintly than men?
The ASB calendar had only three women who were not either virgin martyrs or celibate religious: Anne the mother of the Virgin Mary ( whose live is entirely legendary); Margaret, who was queen of Scotland as well as ‘wife and mother’, so not much of an example to commoners, and the most recently introduced, Josephine Butler, social reformer, wife and mother – the only person in that calendar of saints and heroes of the faith whose life style was anything like what modern working wives and mothers might experience. It was no surprise to learn she was the most modern of the ASB women saints – she died in 1907. Common Worship added more women to the list – but still very few modern married women or mothers: Mary Sumner, founder of the Mothers’ Union and Henrietta Barnett, social reformer alongside her husband Samuel are two of the few who lived in the early 20th century.
The commission who completed the list was instructed that no-one should be included who had not been dead for at least 50 years; but this
attempt to preserve the list of heroes and heroines of the church from ‘the cult of the passing moment’ has also left it bereft of role models for working mums, employees of multi-national corporations, and all those who try to live the Christian life in an era of mass-communication, the internet, multiracial societies and space travel.
For some, perhaps most Christians, this is not a problem, and they do find man and women whose lives ‘excite them to holiness’ in the official approved lists of saints and heroes of the church. But for others, including me, the official ‘saints’ are almost all too remote to be inspirations for our Christian pilgrimage.
Perhaps we should, then, go back to the example of those second century congregations, whose festivals and dedications began the whole business of ‘saints’ and pick our ‘patron saints’ from among those who live our sort of life in our sort of community, in our own time – with or without the official blessing of the church.
What do you think?
October 23, 2011
Sermon for Bible Sunday 2011 (Nehemiah 8, 1-12; Matthew 24, 30-35)
I’m going to read you some bits of the Bible.
houtos ên en arche pros ton theon. Panta di autou egeneto kai choris autou ou di hen.
And here’s another bit.
In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum.
Omnia per ipsum facta sunt et sine ipso factum est nihil quod factum est.
Did that make any sense to you? Well, that was the first three verses in the Gospel of John – “In the beginning was the Word” etc. first in NT Greek, and then in Latin.
And if it didn’t make any sense to you, you now know something of how the Jews assembled in the square before the Water Gate in post-exile Jerusalem felt. They had been in exile in Babylon for between 50 and 150 years. Many of them had lost the ability to understand Hebrew, and were unfamiliar with the traditional Jewish Law. So, when Ezra the scribe read the Law to them, they needed the other scribes to explain what it said in a language they understood, probably Aramaic, which was the common language of Babylon. Following on from this initial reading of the Torah, Aramaic translations were written, called Targums, so that those who never regained fluency in Hebrew, were able to understand what was read.
Although Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, the literature of the New Testament was written in Greek, and most of the early Christians would have understood some of that. Later it was translated into Latin for the Western Church, and most people would have understood a little of that, at least until the fall of the Roman Empire. But from then on, until the Reformation and the translation of the Bible into the languages people actually spoke, most members of the congregation were in exactly the same position as many of you were when I read those passages at the beginning – hearing something they really didn’t understand.
You may think we’re in a much better position than those ancient Jews, or pre-Reformation Christians in this country, since we have the Bible in the language we speak, and freely available in a number of forms. But understanding a written document is not just about understanding the words. You also need to understand the sort of writing you are dealing with and the context in which it was written if you are really to get the message. Many Christians don’t have that knowledge and their understanding of the Bible and how to use it is weakened because of this.
Much of the Bible in its present form was put together around 2000 years ago; some of it was written down about 1000 years before that, and much of that contains oral traditions that were in circulation for many hundreds of years previously. We need to understand that, if we are to judge how applicable the actions and attitudes they advocate are to our 21st century world. Added to this is the fact that the words of the Bible are all translated from the original language in which they were spoken or written, sometimes many times, and each translation will be subtly affected by the assumptions of the translators. I have put some copies of a passage from the New Testament in Greek as it was originally written at the back for you to see – all in capitals with no punctuation and no spaces between the words. So think how difficult that makes it to understand what was being said and to recapture the original meaning of the text.
In primary school, our children are now taught to recognise different genres of writing, so that they can better understand what they read. We believers need to do the same with the different genres of writing in the Bible. It contains many different sorts of literature – stories, legal documents, history, prophecy, poetry, myths, letters, philosophical questioning – and we are failing to show it proper respect, and in danger of misusing it, if we don’t recognise this.
So, on this Bible Sunday, I would urge you to take every opportunity of getting to know the Bible better; not just the text, but also the background and the genre and the context of each of the books, and especially of the books of the New Testament. You will not truly be able to hear God’s Word speaking though its pages unless you do this.
One common mistake is to treat everything in the Bible as if it is direct instruction from God, as if it was all preceded by the words: “Thus saith the Lord”. In fact, very little of the Bible is written as direct words from God. Most of it is human reflection on the mystery of God, or accounts of people trying to understand and communicate God to their contemporaries. They do this both by their words and their actions. Some groups of Christians say only the words matter; in the presentation at Deanery Synod on Women Bishops, one of the speakers said his group in the church would always take a direct command in the Bible as more authoritative for our conduct than an action, even when the action was by Jesus. I can’t understand that. Would we judge by what a person said, rather than by what they did? I don’t think so.
Another common mistake is to take single sentences or passages out of context, and demand that they be applied to quite different circumstances. Whole theologies have been based on this sort of selective reading of texts. For instance, one of the ‘proof texts’ for those who says the whole Bible is literally true, inspired and infallible is 2 Timothy 3, verse 15. This says (depending on how you translate the original Greek) either ‘all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching etc.’ or ‘every Scripture inspired by God is useful for teaching the truth and rebuking error, etc.’. This passage is someone (probably not the Apostle Paul) writing to Timothy to give him advice about how (in his opinion) to use the Jewish Scriptures in his teaching and pastoral work. It is not making an authoritative statement about everything contained in the Christian Bible, some of which probably hadn’t even been written at the time the letters to Timothy were being circulated. Other passages, which are more definitely written by the Apostle Paul, criticise the written Scriptures, saying only faith in Christ brings life, whereas the Torah brings death. Jesus himself challenged those who followed the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Which of these is the example for us to follow?
The Bible is not so much a text book or a code of conduct for us to slavishly follow, as a continuing conversation between human beings and the divine. Like all conversations, things can be misunderstood, and misheard, particularly when we are listening in to someone else’s conversation from some distance away. And people may express different opinions at different times ( that certainly happens with the Bible).
When we read the Bible, we need to think of it as like a conversation with a group of trusted friends, whose advice and experience may inform our decisions about important things. We will need to think about which friend we ask about different problems – some may have something valid to say to us; others, we know, may not have any experience at all of what concerns us. On some issues we may have to consult other people outside this circle, who have more expertise in the subject of concern. Finally, we will need to weigh up all the advice before we make our decision, based on all we know about God’s will for us from many different sources.
On this Bible Sunday, we honour the Bible and the insights of previous generations that it shares with us. At the same time we remember that we are not, as Jews and Muslims are, ‘People of the Book’. The Bible is not the Word of God for us: the Word of God is embodied in a person, Jesus of Nazareth. That person is part of God the Trinity, the God who continues to be revealed to us through the Holy Spirit, day by day and in our own time. We need to recognise that some passages in the Bible most definitely do not reflect the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ.
Anglican theology is not based on ‘sola scriptura’, Scripture alone. It is based on scripture, reason and tradition. This is often spoken of as ‘a three-legged stool’, which is a useful analogy to keep in mind, since a three-legged stool is no use at all if one of the legs is a different length to the other two. Only if all three are equal is it stable enough to bear the weight of what is placed on it!
So, when we read the Bible, we need to take account of the tradition of the Christian church, which is still evolving, and use our God given reason when we interpret it.
We need to remember that we are called to live the Word of God, but that Word is a person, not words on a page.
October 16, 2011
( Isaiah 45, 1-7; Matthew 22, 15-22)
Jesus was in a very tricky situation. He was under attack from an unlikely combination of allies. On the one hand there were the Pharisees, the religious purists, who insisted that every last letter of the religious law had to be obeyed. On the other hand there were the Herodians, the political party who supported Herod Antipas, the puppet ruler installed by Rome.
To the Pharisees the coinage used to pay taxes was a blasphemy; it bore an image of Caesar, and therefore contravened the prohibition in the Ten Commandments on making a graven image, which they interpreted literally – no pictures of any living thing; and since the Roman Emperors claimed to be gods themselves, to use the coinage was tantamount to worshipping another god, in their view.
The Herodians knew that King Herod’s position was very insecure. The Romans had already deposed his brother Archeleus for mismanagement of Judea; any hint of rebellion in Galilee, and Herod might be deposed too.
So, if Jesus said you should pay the taxes, he could be accused by the Pharisees of blasphemy; if he said you shouldn’t, he could be accused by the Herodians of stirring up rebellion.
Jesus however, replied in typically enigmatic fashion. He didn’t answer the question directly, he did not give a binding ruling, but challenged his listeners to make up their own minds: “give ( in Greek it says ‘give back’) to the Roman Emperor what belongs to the Emperor and give to God what belongs to God”.
We’re in a very sticky situation too. We live in a society and a world whose financial systems are in crisis. The cost of housing and the cost of food are constantly increasing. We seem to be paying over more and more of our income in taxes. We are constantly bombarded by advertisements which seek to convince us that we cannot be happy unless we buy this or eat this, or travel to this place or the other. Yet every post brings us desperate appeals from charities for more money to support their work – and even in church we cannot escape appeals for more funds. We are obliged to pay taxes, we need to support ourselves and our families, we want to support our favourite charities and the church. How are we supposed to decide how to allocate our limited funds between these competing demands?
Does Jesus’ reply to his questioners help us in our dilemma? Well, no, not a lot! He’s saying to us too, as he so often does: “I’ve taught you about God’s kingdom; you have the Bible to give you guidance; listen to the Spirit, use your God-given intelligence, and make up your own minds.”
Nobody likes paying taxes. We all moan about how much we have to pay. Although we may not, like the Galileans and Judeans of Jesus’ time, be paying taxes to an occupying power, we still tend to see it in terms of ‘them’ taking from ‘us’. Perhaps it’s the element of compulsion we don’t like; there’s no way we can choose not to pay, unless we don’t work, or don’t buy food or goods, and that’s pretty impossible in the modern world.
Or perhaps we feel we don’t have much control over how our taxes are spent; (though we have a lot more say than people in many parts of the world, and if we choose not to use our vote in national or council elections, we can’t really complain.) We tend to concentrate on the government and council projects we don’t approve of, and this will be different for every one of us: foreign wars, armaments, the Olympic Games, another airport or motorway, more generous social security payments or pensions. Whatever it is, we feed our resentment of ‘our taxes’ being used for something we dislike.
We feel we have much more control over our charitable giving, because we give to charities whose aims and methods we approve of, and not to those we disapprove of. There is a tendency to treat the church as just another charity, to which we can choose to give or not; and perhaps we sometimes have similar attitudes towards giving to the church as we do to taxation. Again, we can see it as ‘them’ ( the Archbishop’s Council or the Diocese or the PCC) taking money from ‘us’, the ordinary people in the pew, and using it for things we don’t wholly approve of; or perhaps we don’t actually know what it’s used for, so can’t see the point of giving.
We can transform our perception of paying taxes if we look at things from the other end, from what we get out of it. I am very grateful for the education in school and university I, and my children have received, at virtually no cost to ourselves. I am thankful that I live in a county with one of the lowest crime rates in the country. I have had reason again and again to be thankful for the NHS, when my children were small, when my parents were old, and for myself in recent years. And now, as a pensioner, I can even benefit a little from my National Insurance contributions and my taxes and Council tax with a small personal pension and a free bus pass! When I’m not thinking straight, I may still moan as much as anyone else about the taxes I pay – but when I’m thinking about all the benefits I’ve received from the taxes paid by me and others, I am happy to give to Caesar ( or in our case, Mr Darling) what Caesar asks for.
In the same way as we can transform our perception of paying taxes, we can transform our view of giving to the church, by seeing it not as about what ‘they’ demand, but what ‘we’ have been given. If we think about it, we are all so richly blessed. We live in a part of the world which is beautiful, which is prosperous, which is secure. We have enough money to have a choice about what we do with it. We have inherited a church tradition with a wealth of beautiful buildings and music of all kinds, and inspiring literature from every age. We have been taught by Christ that God loves us, however inadequate and sinful we are, and by Paul that nothing can separate us from that love. We have freedom to practice our faith, and to preach it to others. The example of the church in caring for the poor, the sick, and the elderly, and in providing education for the young has inspired the state to do likewise.
We know the generosity of God; it is in thankfulness for all we have been given, that we are asked to share that generosity with others through the work of God in the church and the world. Jesus told his hearers to ‘give to God what is God’s’. One of our offertory prayers reminds us that everything comes from God; both what we give back to God and what we do with our lives are signs of our awareness of that.
Some people think that, like politics, what we do with our money is nothing to do with our faith. But it is everything to do with faith. Money is not good, or evil; it is morally neutral. But what we do with our money can be good or evil; and how we allocate our money is a very clear sign of our spiritual health – whether we consider it to be ‘ours’ or whether we really acknowledge that it belongs to God.
Of course, we can ‘give back to God’ in many ways.
Our Old Testament reading tells us that legitimate governments may sometimes be put in place by God, to carry our God’s purposes (whether they acknowledge it or not). When we pay taxes to a legitimate government, to be used for the benefit and security of everyone with whom we share our country, we can see it as ‘giving back to God’. When we give money to, or work for charities that preserve the planet, that help the unfortunate in this country and abroad, that pursue medical research for the greater happiness of people everywhere, we are giving to support the work of God.
When we buy fairly traded goods even when they are more expensive than standard brands, we are giving back to God what is God’s. When we support mission agencies overseas, we are obviously giving back to God what is God’s, for God’s work.
But we also have an obligation to witness to the Gospel in our local community. Bishop David Jenkins said the task of the church is to ‘hold the ramparts’ – to provide a visible statement of God’s presence in society, to remind people of the reality of God, and God’s demands on humanity. What sort of statement of God’s presence are we providing if the church is shabby, church activities are limited to Sunday and the diocese cannot afford to pay for a full time priest in each parish? Of course we need to provide for our families and pay our taxes and support charities – but our appreciation of God’s generosity to us should also demand that we support the local church, too.
When Jesus was asked the question about paying taxes, he asked for a coin, and asked people to look at what was written on it. If you take out a coin from your purse or your pocket, you will find it has the head of the monarch on it. But in the inscription around that head it has the letters DG. That stands for ‘Dei gratia’ which means “by the Grace of God”; but it could equally well stand for ‘Deo gratias’ which means “Thanks be to God”.
Which means that every time we look at a coin, we can be reminded that when we choose give away some of our money it is not in response to a demand, or an obligation, or a membership fee, but is an expression of our heartfelt thankfulness for all God’s generosity to us.
October 9, 2011
Today some of us are going to spend the day thinking about worship.
But what is worship?
Here are some definitions to ponder:
Worship is bragging to God about God.
Worship is an act of freely giving love to God.
Worship is the experience of being in touch with the deep wholeness in life.
Worship is when humans meet the divine.
Worship shows us to God and God to us.
Worship is the submission of all our nature to God, the quickening of our conscience by the holiness of God, the nourishment of our minds by the truth of God, the purifying of our imagination by the beauty of God, the opening of our hearts to the love of God, and the surrender of our wills to the purposes of God. (adapted from William Temple)
Of course,we do not have to be in a religious building to worship.
If we are on a mountain top and say “What an amazing view!” we are worshipping, especially if we then say “Thank God for it”. When we wonder at a new life, or the complexities of nature, when we are moved by an act of love or compassion, we are worshipping. It is something that comes naturally to us.
But it is also something that we lose the ability to do naturally or well, especially as we get older or more sophisticated. Worship is a relationship, and like most relationships, we need to give time and thought to it if it is to flourish.
That is what today is about. If our worship is to help us grow in our relationship with God, if it is to transform our lives, we need to work at it.
And all of us need to work at it. Worship is not only the concern or clergy and lay ministers, organists and choir; it lies at the heart of what we are, and who we are as Christians. Anyone, with or without faith, can study the Bible and theology; anyone can do good works and serve their fellow human beings; it is only people of faith who worship God, and only Christians who worship God revealed through Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
When we worship, we can do so on our own. But Christianity is not a religion of individuals. At our baptism, we become part of a community, the Family of God, the Body of Christ. Worshipping together is crucial in forming and reforming who we are. It links us with other parts of the Body across space and across time.
Whenever we meet around the font, to baptise a new believer, we form a community with everyone baptised throughout history. Whenever we read or hear Scripture, we join the great community of disciples – learners – through time. Whenever we meet around the Lord’s Table and share bread and wine, we are joined to the whole community of believers who have been fed with Christ’s body and blood, and strengthened to be sent out to be Christ’s hands and feet and voice in our world.
This is what we believe true worship to do; but it is always possible to indulge in false worship. False worship is worship of the things which are not part of the deep wholeness in life – things like money, power, status and other idols. False worship is worship that seeks silence and peace for yourself as an escape from the world, ignoring the needs of others. False worship is worship that manipulates people, which uses rituals and rites to mould people regardless of what is healthy for them. False worship is worship which embodies the belief that only if you approach God in a particular way can you be in a right relationship with the divine.
When we meet for worship, we could re-invent what we say and do from scratch. But we find it easier to worship together if we have some sort of framework. A clear structure helps people to know where they are going. This is liturgy.
Liturgy comes from a Greek word meaning ‘a public work done for the benefit of the people’. Very often, the work was a facility, paid for by a private benefactor, dedicated to the gods, but which was of benefit to the community. So liturgy is first of all dedicated to God, but also builds up the community. Liturgy is not about me and what I want. It is focused first of all on God, and then on the whole community which worships. (Thanks to the recent writing of Maggi Dawn for this insight).
Liturgy is not just about words. It is about words, actions, movement, music and silence used when people meet for worship, and about the space and time in which they meet.. So the music we use is an important part of liturgy, the time of the church year will affect the details of our liturgy, and the space we meet in will both shape and be shaped by our liturgical tradition.
There is a tendency to think that only church which use elaborate ceremonial and ritual have ‘liturgies’, but this is not true. The procession with the Bible at the beginning of the service in a Methodist Church I visit is as much part of their liturgy as the elaborate censing of the people and altar with incense at another local high Anglican Church. In a charismatic church, when the preacher says ‘Praise the Lord’ and the congregation responds ‘Alleluia’ it’s liturgy, as is raising arms in praise or dancing in the aisles.
Different Christian groups have different styles of liturgy, and people are very sensitive about ‘their’ liturgy. It is important for everyone to be sensitive to the liturgical traditions of a different church when they worship with them, to avoid disrupting the worship of the host community. Genuflecting and crossing yourself in a non-conformist church is as much a liturgical solecism as failing to treat the reserved sacrament with respect in a Catholic one.
The different styles of liturgy embody different theologies, slightly different beliefs about who God is and what is our relationship to the divine. The music, the words, the building, the furnishings, the artwork, the positions in which different people stand or pray or speak, and the use of silence, all reveal something about the beliefs of the community which uses that liturgy. And since those beliefs will probably change over time, the liturgy will need to change too. God may not change, but the ideas which humans have of God do change, and liturgy will reflect this. Liturgy is always in dialogue with theology and with experience.
However, people don’t all change at the same rate, so change in liturgy will always need to be sensitively handled to accommodate all who use it. Good liturgy is pastoral liturgy, which takes account not just of current theology, but also of the pastoral situation of those who worship.
Liturgy is also a dialogue between the material world in which Christian communities live their everyday lives, and the mystery of the divine. So liturgical language will tend to be slightly different from everyday language, perhaps more poetic, because it is dealing with the mystery of God. At the same time, it will not be too far removed from the common language, otherwise it risks becoming detached from everyday life and turning into a magical rite, or some sort of spell.
There are certain characteristics which are said to define Anglican liturgy. It has a clear structure for worship. It has an emphasis on reading the word of God. It uses liturgical words repeated by the congregation, some of which they know by heart. It uses a collect, the Lord’s Prayer and some responsive forms in prayer. It uses forms and words which are acceptable across a fairly broad spectrum of Christian belief; and it acknowledges that the Holy Communion is central to our worship. (Introduction to Patterns for Worship. 1995)
Anglican liturgy also recognises that there will be a variety of liturgies dictated by local culture. This is not just a modern, politically correct, multicultural insight. It comes from Archbishop Cranmer, who wrote in the preface to the prayer book of 1549 “It (common prayer) often chances diversely in diverse countries.”
The words we use are often the most obvious aspect of our liturgy, particularly when they are changed. The technical term for the form of words we use is a rite.
During my lifetime, in the Church of England, we have changed from using the rites of the Book of Common Prayer (usually in their revised 1928 forms) to Series One, Two and Three, the ASB (Alternative Services Book) and, since 2000, to Common Worship. Each of these was recognisably Anglican, but embodied a slightly different theology of worship and also a different theology of the church. We have also in that time been given much greater freedom to use a variety of rites, and to devise our own liturgies.
I have also worshipped and sometimes led worship in churches of the Reformed tradition, like the URC, Methodists and Baptists; and planed and taken part in Roman Catholic masses. I have experienced worship from the Celtic tradition through the liturgies of the Iona Community, and worship fed by the European Catholic and Reformed traditions in the chants from Taizé. I have worshipped in a large conference hall, with thousands of others and in a tiny chapel where the congregation was barely into double figures.
Some of those experiences have been good, and others have been disappointing. But those which have been uplifting have illustrated how worship can transform our lives and our faith, can be an essential part of our mission to draw people into a deeper relationship with God, and can be, as worship should be, a foretaste of heaven.