You just can’t help it!

So we’re thinking about why growing churches in the UK tend to avoid the use of liturgy in their worship, and how many growing Anglican churches look to the casual glance like New Churches or Vineyards. So why are people like me and a very few others banging on about the value of liturgy?

Where to start? I think I’ll begin with the well-proven fact that whether we like it or not liturgy is inevitable. You may think that you’ve dispensed with all that ‘vain repetition’ stuff in favour of openness to the Holy Spirit, but the fact is you’re almost certainly highly liturgical anyway.

It was my great honour to study liturgy at King’s College under that great Anglican scholar Geoffrey Cuming. I’ll always remember his first lecture, when he talked about personal liturgies (the fact that we always tie our shoelaces in the same order, or we always shave in the morning  in the same way) and social liturgies, such as football terrace chants and the like.

(By the way, I’m not really that into football, but I love the poetic beauty of this, the greatest example of a football chant, apparently from Leyton Orient:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing,


We hate West Ham and we hate West Ham …

We are the West Ham haters!


You can have that piece of liturgy for nothing.)


Recently we celebrated at a party for my Mum’s 90th, which involved the carrying in of a cake, blowing out of candles (fortunately only a token nine), the singing of a song, a round of applause and calls for a ‘speech!’.  This is pure liturgy, containing what the anoraks like me call ritual (what you say or sing) and ceremonial (what you do), and no birthday would be complete without it. It just wouldn’t be right. In fact life is full of these liturgical acts, so why should church life be any different?

In fact it isn’t any different. I was brought up in the Baptist church, where we were most definitely not liturgical. But each week, morning and evening, the Church Secretary would get up to give the notices. ‘We do extend a very warm welcome to all in church this morning/evening, especially any visiting friends …’ they began, and although secretaries came and went, the wording remained identical for all of the 16 years I was there, and no doubt long into history before that. Church life is riddled with these liturgical formulae, from ‘Now let’s move into a time of worship’ to ‘Please stay for refreshments after the service’. Like all good liturgy these sayings are about finding the words to give what is essentially the same info every week, and tend to be stylised and just a bit archaic.

Secular liturgy can be very helpful: who of my generation cannot still remember the kerb drill, or where ‘I’ comes in relation to ‘e’, or the correct order of ‘mirror – signal – manoeuvre’ ? So my point this week is simply this – if we think we’re not liturgical, we’re quite simply kidding ourselves. And since we are all liturgical, whatever church we happen to worship in, why not be so proudly and creatively, rather than unthinkingly and by default?

So here’s your homework for this week: what pieces of liturgy do you use unconsciously, both in the family at home and at church? Do share!

A bit harsh?

He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Far be it from me to wade in on the ‘wrath of God was satisfied’ debate (personally I have far less trouble with that line than I do with the idea that anger is outside God’s emotional range – has he never heard of sex trafficking?) but we were with some friends and turned, as you so often do, to reminiscing about Aberystwyth.

One year I was invited to lead Holy Week for the Anglican group of four churches which serve the town. I had to speak at 19 different services, but the climax was the Good Friday All-age service, where I was attempting to get over the idea of ‘punishment’. Gathering the kids out the front at my feet, I asked them if anyone had ever had anything nasty done to them. This was in the days pre our obsession with CRB checks and child abuse: nowadays I might be a bit more hesitant about asking that question. Some of the kids volunteered stories of their sisters being nasty to them, a child at school who had nicked their pencil case, and so on. One youngster told us about the person who sits behind them at school who keeps flicking her ears in lessons.

‘So what do those nasty people deserve?’ I asked hopefully. An angelic-faced child stuck up his hand.


They were obviously a well-taught and deeply spiritual congregation, but this wasn’t quite what I was after.

‘Yes, of course it would be good to forgive them’, I conceded, ‘but that isn’t what they deserve, is it? Think about it – they’ve been so nasty to you. They’ve been rude to you, they’ve stolen your stuff, they’ve even flicked your ears – that must really have hurt! So what do they deserve for being so horrid?’

The same little angelic face lit up with comprehension, and the hand shot up.


Hanging on to God in Grim Times

And now for something completely different. Let’s leave liturgy aside until next week, and consider instead the subject of hanging on to God in grim times (#godingrimtimes). At the moment my life is in a bit of a mess, if I’m honest. I’ll spare you the details, but the past few months have seen me bullied out of a parish to the point where I could go on no longer, then being diagnose with cancer, and a lot of other stuff you don’t need to know about. So what is a Christian to do? I’ve written a book on the subject, which is due out next year, but I thought it might be helpful to share a few insights as to how I have managed still to believe in and love God when just about everything in my life has crumbled. I know there are a lot of hurting people out there, but it does seem to me to make it harder when you’re supposed to follow a God who can work miracles, who loves you and is supposed to be for you. All I can offer are a few hints as to what is getting me through the night.

I’m very aware, of course, that all this could come over unbearably twee and nice. I have no idea, dear reader, what you are going through at the moment, and I’m sure it could be even worse than my situation. I have been through the stage of finding all the pat Christian answers unconvincing, but somehow I have come back to the point of hanging on to God. So let me tell you some of the stuff which has helped me, and maybe you can come back to me and tell me if it has helped you or not.

The first thing to say, and you won’t like this any more than I do, is that real though it is your pain is relative. A few years ago a friend and I wrote a Grove Book called ‘Hanging on to God’. We were a pair of charismatic Christians who were going through hard times, and we wrote up a series of dialogues we had had trying to make some sense of it all. At the time I was reflecting on a period of joblessness, almost homelessness, and what seemed like utter rejection and abandonment by God. My friend had just lost his wife in the most cruel way to MS. I acknowledge in the book that I felt unworthy even to be bound within the same covers as him: what was my temporary unemployment compared to the tragic death of your wife? Yet the fact is that suffering is unique and personal, and doesn’t hurt any the less because someone else’s suffering is worse or different. But what I have found is that it can be a good discipline to find things, even from the depths, for which to thank God.

Tomorrow I will be journeying back to the church of which I was vicar in the 90s to the funeral of my successor, who dropped dead of a heart attack. I may have been diagnosed with cancer (everyone’s worst nightmare), but at least I’m getting over it. John’s life ended just like that, in a moment. I may face homelessness, but millions around the world live their entire lives like that, including many in my own country. On one level that doesn’t help me, but it is useful exercise to look for items for praise. It keeps the cynicism wolf from the door.

More tips next week!

Surveying the Liturgical Scene


OK, here we go with this blogging lark. I’m going to try and do three per week (#rodformyownback), one asking some questions about the current liturgical scene in the C of E, one with some biographical hints on hanging on to God in bad times, and hopefully something a little bit lighter too. It won’t be deep or scholarly, but I hope it might make people think, and at times be fun too. So let’s begin with liturgy.

Many years ago now I wrote a book called ‘Liturgy and Liberty’, which seems to have become something of a standard text. It was written from the context of a large evangelical/charismatic church which was nevertheless proud of its Anglican heritage, and its these was basically that liturgy and openness to the Holy Spirit were not opposites, but that the two could go perfectly well together. I then attempted to give some practical tips for how this might be made to work. The book was republished as ‘Living Liturgy’, and you can still get it off of Amazon for 1p.

Well, that was many years ago, but as I look around the Anglican church now I see very little evidence that anyone took much notice of it. Of course I caricature, but there are growing, Spirit-filled, disciple-making churches, and there are liturgical churches. (There are of course growing Cathedrals too, but I think they’re a special case. I’m currently worshipping at a cathedral, and it’s very nice, but trying to ‘join’ it is a bit like trying to join a cinema. As to how well it is forming Christian disciples, citizens and leaders I have absolutely no idea, and I don’t know if anyone else has either.)

But visit yer average thriving evo/charismatic church and you’re likely to find that worship = singing songs. This has become institutionalised in the ubiquitous ‘Now we’re going to move into a time of worship’ 20 minutes into the service. If any liturgy at all is used, it is likely to be for the confession, thus proving that unlike Yellow Pages liturgy is only there for the nasty things in life.

At times this neglect of our Anglican liturgical heritage is held up as a virtue, and rhetoric reminiscent of the early House Church days is used to explain that all liturgy is ‘vain repetition’ and a human device to quench the Spirit. But most often liturgy is omitted by default rather than by design. This is reinforced by the festivals of different networks, where what is modelled is essentially un-Anglican, if not anti-Anglican. My sense is that the younger people particularly in such churches have unwittingly accepted the idea that liturgy and life can never go together.

This is of course not without some justification. In the early days of the House Church movement many people from what they would have described as ‘dead’ Anglican churches found new life and freedom elsewhere, and it became easy to believe that the liturgy (usually of the Book of Common Prayer) was responsible for the lack of vitality. The drift towards ‘Anglican’ networks and quasi-Vineyards is the contemporary equivalent, and of course these tend to be the kinds of churches which are growing and disciple-making. But is there a cause and effect thing going on here? is it possible to have a thriving church which is profoundly and thoroughly liturgical? That’s what I want to explore, and I’d be glad of any help anyone out there could give me.