Appalling bits of liturgy

The recent memes on CCM worship songs and on traditional hymns have got me thinking about bits of the liturgy I find the most appalling.

I should say that for the most part I’m very satisfied with the liturgy we use in Canada in our Book of Alternative Services (our church doesn’t use the Book of Common Prayer at all, although personally I don’t dislike that either). I’m what used to be called a ‘low churchman’, so I use it in simplicity rather than in what I personally think of as elaborate ritual fussiness, but I’m still grateful for it. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t bits of it that irritate me. I’l mention two: one humorous, one serious.

First, the humorous one. Am I the only one that finds the collect at ordination services wordy, pretentious, linguistically confusing, and (most serious of all) only vaguely relevant to ordinations?

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light,
look favourably on your whole Church,
that wonderful and sacred mystery.
By the effectual working of your providence,
carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation.
Let the whole world see and know
that things which were  being cast down are being raised up,
and things which had grown old are being made new,
and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord;
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

My observations about this prayer:

  1. Sorry, but isn’t it a bit pretentious, and more than a bit redundant, for the Church to ask the author of the plan of salvation to ‘carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation’? As Malcolm Muggeridge observed a long time ago in a different context, isn’t that a bit like saying ‘carry on eternity’ or ‘keep coming tomorrow’?
  2. There are times when I think that the Church is a mystery all right (!!!), but I’m not sure if it’s a ‘wonderful and sacred’ mystery, or if it’s just being intentionally confusing (example: what does it say about the commitment of the Anglican Communion to communicating the Gospel that the only words on our international flag are in New Testament Greek – a language no one speaks?).
  3. Am I the only one who hears the word ‘Tranquility’ and thinks immediately of Neil Armstrong and the first moon landing?
  4. Apart from the fact that we undoubtedly ordain some rather strange people, what does the whole part about cast down things being raised up and old things being made new etc. etc. have to do with the rest of the ordination service?
  5. Didn’t any of these people learn how to write decent English prose before the Church made them liturgists?

Thus the humorous part. Now, the serious bit. Undoubtedly the part of the liturgy that irritates me most is the lectionaries – both the Revised Common Lectionary that we use on Sundays and the Daily Office Lectionary that we use on weekdays.

Every Sunday we read four scripture readings – an Old Testament reading, a psalm, a New Testament reading, and a reading from the Gospels. Often, especially with the New Testament readings, the passages take the form of ‘short snippets’ plucked out from the middle of a flowing argument and somehow expected to make sense to the hearers, many of whom have never read the whole argument and are only vaguely aware of the original context at all (example: the New Testament reading in a couple of weeks is 1 Corinthians 4:1-5).

When the ‘Common Lectionary’ (since ‘Revised‘) was first introduced in the Anglican Church of Canada in the 1980s, much was made of the argument that ‘over three years, if a person came to church every Sunday, they would hear the vast majority of the Bible read out loud in church’. Does anything demonstrate the naivete of many professional liturgists more than this – that they base a liturgical provision on the assumption that twenty-first century people are going to come to church every Sunday? How’s that going in your parish? In mine, most people come to church once or twice a month, which means that not only will they only hear five verses from 1 Corinthians 4 when they come on Feb. 20th, but they probably won’t have heard the nine verses from 1 Corinthians 3 (again, not the whole chapter) that was read the previous week. And when we get around to reading the second part of 1 Corinthians next year (1 Corinthians is read throughout the three years of the lectionary in January/February), they certainly aren’t going to remember the first part that was read this year!

And let’s remember that, for well over half the liturgical year, the four readings have nothing to do with each other (well, that’s not quite true – the psalm usually follows the theme of the Old Testament reading). I know, I know, it’s a favourite sport of preachers to try to find that elusive connection, but if there is a connection there it’s entirely accidental, because for Ordinary Time the three main readings are on independent cycles.

But there is a wider issue here. In one of the earliest descriptions of Christian liturgy we possess, Justin Martyr describes how, when the local church assembled on a Sunday in Rome in the second century A.D. the writings of the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles were read ‘as long as time permits’ (First Apology, Chapter 67). Now we might quibble as to exactly what that means, but it seems plain to me that substantial readings were in view here. And this goes along with the nature of the books being read. If I receive a letter from a friend, I don’t read it in isolated paragraphs, a week at a time; I read the whole thing in one go, or at least in substantial chunks. And surely the reading of scripture in substantial chunks would allow the hearers to make better sense of its original context?

So I have a modest proposal toward this end: over the three years of the lectionary cycle, let’s cover the same amount of scripture, but have fewer and longer readings. Yes, we’ll always have a Gospel reading, but let’s preface it with either an Old Testament or a New Testament (i.e. a reading from the letters, Acts, or Revelation) reading – but a longer one than we currently use, so that we cover the same amount of scripture over the three years. I think its good to remember that chapter divisions are older than verse divisions in the Bible; maybe we should have stuck with the chapter divisions and left it at that!

As for the Daily Office lectionary, the compilers of our B.A.S. had the faint hope that people who pray the Daily Office were going to stop and do a meditation on the readings, so they intentionally shortened them to make this easier. I wonder how many people who pray the Daily Office actually do that? When Cranmer put the old Prayer Book daily lectionary together, he had a more modest aim: getting people familiar with the content of scripture and the big sweep of its message. To this end, most of the Old Testament was read once and the entire New Testament three times in the course of a year, and the Book of Psalms was prayed through once a month. Furthermore, realising that the moveable date of Easter made it very confusing to base a daily lectionary on the liturgical year, he made the very sensible provision of basing it on the calendar year – which makes the 1662 Church of England Prayer Book daily lectionary the simplest to use in the entire Anglican Communion. In my view, the sooner we go back to that philosophy of daily Bible reading, the better. I am sick and tired of reading small snippets of the Bible in my daily readings, and in fact I now rarely use the Daily Office lectionary at all.

So these are my personal ‘irritants’ when it comes to liturgy. I’d be interested to hear other people’s candidates!

4 thoughts on “Appalling bits of liturgy

  1. Well, by far my biggest irritant, liturgically, are the bits of the Baptism service we discussed over here. Otherwise, we have a Eucharistic prayer that contains the phrase “garden of your delight” (Common Worship Prayer F), which I think was written for a different clientele than me.

    Like you, I get frustrated by the way the Lectionary uses short chunks of scripture and flits around. (True to form, the CofE has its own modified version of RCL). I have heard others criticise the Daily Office lectionary, though I don’t have as many gripes with it myself. Current church attendance patterns exacerbate the sense of fragmentation, that the Bible is a collection of short pieces we dip in and out of.
    In this, the lectionary seems to take the worst aspect of daily reading schemes produced by the likes of Scripture Union, BRF and IBRA (which are otherwise extremely good and worthwhile and to be commended), and destroys the sense of (a) narrative continuity and/or (b) carefully built, logical argument. What, one might ask, was the point of the Gospel writers editing and presenting their material in the way they did, or of Paul using the rhetorical structures of his day, when lectionarists (is that the word?) then go and destroy those structures so comprhensively?

    In preaching I do try to rebuild a sense of continuity where possible by referring back and forward, with a summary for those who may not have been present the previous week (and it helps those who were, too). Our current few weeks in the Sermon on the Mount is a case in point, where there is a distinct trajectory that needs to be appreciated.

  2. On a more positive note, I would just want to add that the present Eucharistic lectionary is way better than the two-year one in the 1980 Alternative Service Book. That one was thematic, and by the time one had preached through it twice the sense of deja vue was very strong, and the sense of missing out on a vast swathe of biblical teaching likewise.

  3. Jim Pratt

    I like your suggestion on the RCL — longer and more substantial readings. I find myself more and more in my sermons putting a reading in context, and quoting extended parts of the reading. A couple weeks ago — I forget just what the reading was — the lectionary cut it off abruptly at what I thought was a very illogical and inconvenient place. In other places it seems to start in the middle of a train of thought. The worst offenses seem to be in the epistles.
    I also find that if I want to preach on the epistle, it can be too easy to repeat myself two weeks in a row (and I have personally heard a preacher preach an identical message on two consecutive Sundays, using the 1979 American lectionary), because one point or argument in the epistle has been chopped in two.

    As to the daily office lectionary, I am reasonably content with it. But I do follow the rubric that allows lengthening the lessons, when doing so eliminates gaps in the continuous reading. And I allow myself time to reflect on the readings. I appreciate the seasonal linkages (Isaiah through Advent, for example). But I do get frustrated at times like the last week of Advent, when the readings tend to jump all over the OT.

    My biggest irritant: the prayers of the people in the BAS. I don’t know who composed them (they certainly have the feel of compositions by committee). There are some wonderful individual lines, but you really need to cut and paste because there are some terrible ones as well. But what irritates me most is that they don’t even follow the general rubric — some don’t have any petition for the sick and those in need, some omit petitions for the civic order, one has this odd petition for “scholars and research workers”, which might be appropriate in an academic chaplaincy, but doesn’t seem relevant to the average parish.

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