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!