Leach, John Leach


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.