Reflections on Discipleship – Highs and Lows

Reflections on Discipleship – Highs and Lows

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

I have three traditions about what I do on Good Friday. Under the general heading of trying to feel miserable I have baked beans on toast at some point in the day (a tradition which dates back several centuries to my incumbency in Coventry where a friend always looked after our kids during the three hours meditation service and fed them the aforementioned delicacy), I listen to at least some of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which is a great antidote if I have experienced a service earlier with jaunty songs about lighthouses carrying me home, and I end the day by reading my very fave poem ever, the aptly titled Good Friday Evening by Margaret Louisa Woods. I’m am inevitably in tears at this point, so I go to bed, spend Holy Saturday doing nothing in particular (which is exactly how it should be spent) and then get ready to celebrate on Easter Morning.

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One of the things I love about being an Anglican is the liturgical calendar, a new discovery for me as one nurtured in the Baptist denomination. I love the highs and lows, the austerity followed by celebration, the way we’re usually so good at rhythm and ‘occasion’; I love it that we feel OK about a stripped back, austere approach in worship without feeling that every week has to be more Spirit-filled and celebratory than the week before, and I love ‘Ordinary Time’, those long swathes of the year when nothing special happens and we just get on with it. It distresses me when I am expected to be jolly on Good Friday, and in particular when the church seems to believe that to engage with children we need to be upbeat and lively.

In other words, churches which take liturgy and the calendar seriously are reflecting real life, with its highs and lows, its moments of grief and wonder, and the endless slog of a spirituality for the long haul. It concerns me that some of those which don’t are subtly giving us messages about our discipleship, our walk with Jesus, which are ultimately destructive. Jesus himself warned those who were thinking about following him that it would not be a picnic. He never promised an easy life, and those of his disciples who ended up as martyrs could certainly not sue him under the Trades Descriptions Act (not least because they were dead, but you know what I mean). If the way we choose to construct our worship as local churches appears to promise that following Jesus is all about walking in faith and victory, we set disciples up for a crash sooner or later. So much better to let our worship contain all the ups and downs of real life and real life discipleship.

Leach, John Leach

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OK, so I’m not always absolutely 100% on the cultural cutting edge, but I do catch up eventually. On a recent holiday we took, as is our wont, a laptop and some DVDs, and finally I got round to watching Skyfall, the latest Bond offering. I was expecting an evening of light entertainment with a few explosions and the like, and indeed I was not disappointed, but in addition it turned out to be a profound meditation on church, and indeed liturgy, which had us discussing as we lay around the pool for days afterwards.

What we had watched was in fact a ‘Fresh Expression’ of Bond. For those less familiar with the term, the ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement (often known as ‘FX’) is a quest within the church to reinvent ourselves for the current culture, or rather cultures, by keeping, as it were the ‘contents’ the same, but the ‘wrapping’ more up-to-date. The art is somehow to keep church recognisably Anglican (or Methodist or whatever) but to rethink new ways of expressing the eternal and changeless truths of the gospel, so that they will connect more readily with the target generation. FX has famously manifested itself through Messy Church, Skater Church, Goth Church – you name it.

There is no doubt that Daniel Craig is Bond (some would say the best ever – discuss!) but in Skyfall he is subtly different. I can’t tell you whether the directors deliberately set out to reinvent him for a 21st century audience, but I suspect that is exactly what they did, and I think they have done a really great job of it.

But what of the liturgy? There is loads which we could learn from this endeavour in our attempts to plan and lead worship. First of all, the general shape is the same – a short sub-plot to begin with, with the ending of a previous adventure, followed by the main course with the usual rhythm of highs and lows, tension and resolution, fights and explosions, leading to a climactic ending. Nowadays liturgists will tell you that worship is much more about shape than text: less about set forms of words than about the framework and structure of an act of worship.

But there are texts too: when Daniel introduces himself as ‘Bond: James Bond’ all feels right with the world and we know we are home ground. But more subtly there are allusions to texts which are never actually used. One beautiful moment occurs when we see a cocktail waitress shaking, but not stirring, his martini. ‘Perfect’ he says with a smile as she hands it to him, and indeed it is, as an example of liturgical allusion. We all know the ‘text’ and no-one actually needs to say the words.

We have already noted the tendency to think of liturgy simply as a route-march through the words in a book, a march which strides roughshod over creativity and openness to the Spirit. But maybe 007 can encourage us to think differently. There are more subtle ways of being liturgical, of drawing on the rich traditions of our past but making them accessible for people now. Shape, text, allusion and nuance are powerful tools in the hands of worship leaders, and can help immensely as you plan for next Sunday’s blockbuster.

Is Liturgy Biblical?

We’re thinking about liturgy and whether it has any enduring value in a church which has, at least in part, rejected it in favour of singing songs. One of the big questions which I’m asked from time to time is whether liturgy is ‘biblical’. Lurking behind this question is the suggestion that if it isn’t, if it is merely a human invention, then we shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

Firstly I point out that data projectors aren’t biblical, but we don’t seem to feel that they are a problem. But underneath this is a much deeper and far more complex truth. In order to understand it we’ll have to take a trip back to childhood, and then beyond that to the 15th century.

So here are some pieces of liturgy – see if you can complete the responses:

‘What big teeth you’ve got, Grandma …’

‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and …’

‘Who’s been sleeping in my …’

‘Cheer up, Cinderella, you shall …’

You get the idea. The fact is that even in our post-book culture we imbibe little bits of ‘liturgy’ with our mothers’ milk, and they stay with us, woven into the fabric of our memories. Different editions of children’s books may tell the stories slightly differently, but those little ‘punch lines’ are eternal and unchangeable, and it is those which we remember. If that is how we work, how much more would that have been the case for pre-book cultures.

The fact that when we think ‘liturgy’ we think ‘book’ is due to an event in history which shaped our world more than just about anything else. Somewhere around 1450 (the exact date is disputed) Gutenberg invented the printing press, and this simple piece of technology changed the world, about as radically as information technology has changed it in my lifetime. Before that the technology available for producing books was called ‘monks’, which meant that books were expensive and rare. Producing books took years, not least because the monks would insist on doing little coloured doodles in the margins instead of just getting on with the job. You used books to store stuff you already knew in safe keeping. But now things were different – you could produce hundreds of copies very cheaply and quickly. The role of books changed: they were now where you found out stuff you didn’t already know.

The church was quick to use this technology: Archbishop Thomas Cranmer set every parish a copy of the new Prayer Book with the instruction that from Pentecost 1549 only these liturgies were to be used in English parishes, thus establishing the Reformation and Protestantism in the land. But how different this approach from that of the Early Church. With its Jewish liturgical heritage early Christianity would have functioned much more like the nursery rhymes above, with short, pithy and highly memorable words which everyone would have known by heart.

So to the question ‘Why is there no liturgy in the Bible?’ the answer is that it is full of the stuff! We have fixed acclamations, often in a foreign language: Amen, Alleluia, Maranatha, Abba. There are doxologies and blessings: 1 Tim 1:17, Rom 11:33-36, hymns: Eph 5:14, 1 Tim 3:16, and creeds: Rom 10:9, 1 Cor 8:6, 15:3-5. There are also physical gestures and postures: 1 Tim 2:8, 1 Cor 16:20, Ax 21:5, and there are festivals: 1 Cor 16:8. These are just a selection of the ways in which liturgical worship would have been part of the Early Church. Basically if you look in the New Testament for bit set out as poetry rather than prose, the chances are you’ve got a liturgical text which would have been well known in the church. Early Church worship was liturgical worship.

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.)

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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!

Surveying the Liturgical Scene

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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.