On not taking advantage of lawful liturgical flexibility

There’s an interesting post over at Anglican Down Under exploring what is required of people leading Anglican services in New Zealand, where, it appears, there is a rather confusing mishmash of practice going on (Bosco Peters has frequently weighed in on this situation).

I’m sure we have a certain amount of confusion in Canada too, although I don’t think we’re quite at the level of the Kiwis (but then again, I live a sheltered life, so i may be wrong!).

We Anglicans are kind of attached to our liturgies, because they are the way we express our deepest beliefs about the God we believe in and the Gospel we proclaim. We tend to operate on the principle of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; in other words, we don’t feel compelled to make up new stuff on the back of a cigarette packet, but rather, we assume that the Christians who went before us knew a thing or two, and the worship traditions they evolved probably have a lot of wisdom embodied in them. When we want to make changes to our liturgies, we discuss them for quite a lengthy period of time at meetings of our General Synod, and such changes usually take a number of years to come into effect.

Clergy make promises around this sort of stuff. In the Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land (to which my Diocese of Edmonton belongs) we make the following promise when we are ordained and/or inducted into a new parish:

I, A.B., do solemnly make the following declaration: I assent to the Solemn Declaration adopted by the first General Synod in 1893 (as printed in the Book of Common Prayer), and to the Book of Common Prayer, and of the ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons; I believe the Doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada as therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God; and in Public Prayer and the Administration of the Sacraments, I will use the form in the said book prescribed and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority. (italics mine)

‘Lawful authority’ is understood to mean (1) the General Synod, which has authorized other liturgical texts along with the Book of Common Prayer (principally the Book of Alternative Services 1985, and also some supplementary Eucharistic Prayers and Services of the Word, and a few other things), (2) the diocesan bishop, who has authority to authorize the use of additional liturgical material in his/her diocese (as our own bishop has recently done with respect to materials from the Church of England’s ‘Common Worship’ book).

All well and good, and in fact I’m not particularly infected with what C.S. Lewis called ‘The liturgical fidget’, and I’m not constantly looking around for improved liturgies and prayers, as I’m inclined to think that the atmosphere in which the service is conducted is perhaps more important than liturgical perfectionism.

However, I also think that there is a lot more freedom embedded in our current liturgies than people tend to think. Let me give some examples from the most frequently used service in the Anglican Church of Canada, the Holy Eucharist in (more or less) contemporary language beginning on page 185 in the Book of Alternative Services. Let’s give careful attention to the letters in red; we call them ‘rubrics’, and they give what you might call ‘stage directions’ for the use of the texts.

Firstly, on page 185 ‘the president’ greets the community using the form on the top of the page. Then follows a prayer traditionally called ‘The Collect for Purity’, which begins ‘Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…’ But note the rubric above it, which says ‘The following prayer may be said’. 99% of the time, in my experience, it is said. We are given flexibility, but we don’t use it.

Note what comes next. The rubric at the bottom of the page says, ‘Then may follow an act of praise: one of the following hymns, or a canticle or other hymn’. The rubric then goes on to suggest non-binding guidance as to what might be appropriate for certain seasons of the year. The ‘following hymns’ are not actually hymns in rhyme and metre as commonly used today, but translations of ancient hymns: ‘Glory to God’, ‘Kyrie Eleison’, and ‘Trisagion’. But it seems to me that the most logical way to read the direction of the rubric is that this is the place in the service where the opening hymn should be sung, whether it is one of the ones printed, or ‘a canticle or other hymn’. In our church, we simply sing the opening hymn in this spot. However, most other churches don’t; they have an opening hymn right at the beginning (perhaps a processional), then the opening greeting, then another opening hymn (usually one of the three printed on pages 186-7). So once again, we are given flexibility, but we don’t use it.

Throughout the service there is great flexibility with regard to words of introduction, a flexibility which is rarely if ever used. So, for instance, when we come to say one of the two authorized creeds, the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, we are told ‘the celebrant may invite the people, in these or similar words, to join in the recitation of the creed’. But in practice, the words used are almost invariably the ones set out on pages 188 and 189. And again, when the people are invited to confess their sins, we are told ‘the people are invited to confession in these or similar words‘ (p.191), but I rarely hear anything other than the printed invitation used. We’re also told that the form of confession and absolution on page 191 need not be used at all if penitential intercessions were included in the Prayers of the People (as they often are in the forms on pages 110-128).

Ah yes, the Prayers of the People. I love this part of the service – the part where the people of God fulfil their priestly responsibility of lifting up the needs of the whole world to God in prayer. Note the directions in the rubric on page 190:

A deacon or lay member of the community leads the Prayers of the People after the following model. Intercession or thanksgiving may be offered for

the Church
the Queen and all in authority
the world
the local community,
those in need
the departed

A short litany may be selected from pp.110-127. Other prayers are found on pp.675-684. These prayers may be modified in accordance with local need, or extempore forms of prayer may be used.

It seems clear to me that the closest we have to a required form in this rubric (and the language of permission, rather than prescription, is used throughout) is the outline of suggested subjects for prayer. Litanies are not meant to be the norm; they are one option among several. And yet, when we Canadian Anglicans gather together, those litanies on pages 110-127 are the form we tend to use, I would say, over 90% of the time.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t. I believe that every priest and lay reader should give careful reading to the rubrics in the BAS. We have been given a huge amount of freedom and flexibility in this wonderful liturgical resource-book. We should not allow our worship to get stale! The BAS gives us freedom to adapt for a wide variety of situations, without even examining the various supplementary texts authorized by General Synod or the local bishop. Let’s use our imagination and the freedom that has been given to us, in order to offer regular worship (using an authorized form) that will truly reflect the character of our own worshipping communities and help people to lift their hearts and minds to God and to hear and reflect on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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On using the Psalms as a regular part of Sunday worship

Our own private griefs are, often enough, quite paltry: but we are invited to join in the gigantic earth-shaking laments of the psalms. Our own criteria for happiness are selfish and small: but we are allowed to share in the magnificent heaven-rending joys of the psalmist. Our own love for God is so feeble that we might forget all about God for days at a time: but our hearts are torn wide open as we join our voices to the enormous lovesick longing of the psalmist’s praise. We are safe, affluent, protected, untroubled by enemies or oppression: but we learn to join our voices to the psalmist’s indignant cries for the catastrophic appearance of justice on the earth.

Read the rest here.

What is the Church For?

Over at the Lay Anglicana blog, Laura Sykes has been putting together a ‘wish list’ for the sort of person who should be appointed as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. In her view, very early on in the process each candidate should be required to write their own answer to the fundamental question ‘Who is the Church of England for?’ (in the sense of ‘for whose benefit does it exist?’).

It seems to me that this is exactly the right sort of question that we should be asking, and a change in leadership is the right time to ask it. It’s so easy for churches to get caught up in the nuts and bolts of administrative structure and maintenance. Even worse, we could get caught up in the trappings of leadership (Who should wear what sort of ceremonial clothing? What title should we give them? Should they be male or female or gay or straight? How should we appoint them to their position? etc.) without asking the basic question ‘What is the leadership structure there for in the first place?’

So – what is the Church for? Conventional answers usually have to do with Sunday mornings – the Church exists to worship God, and so it needs trained leaders to lead its worship, preach the word in the congregation, administer the sacraments etc. Certainly in the Anglican branch of the Church, we have made worship gatherings our ‘raison d’être’. In fact, we define our membership in terms of the number of people who ‘come to church’.

But in fact, in the Bible, worship is only one of the purposes of the Church, and you could make a good argument to the effect that it’s not even the most important one. Yes, we know from the Book of Acts and the other New Testament letters that Christians from earliest times have met on the Lord’s Day to worship together (‘very early in the morning’, so the church fathers tell us – because of course, in those days, Sunday was a working day like any other), but nowhere does Jesus specifically command us to ‘hold services on Sunday mornings’. He does tell us to ‘do this in remembrance of me’, yes, but he leaves the timing and the exact nature of those gatherings up to us to work out.

What he is most urgently concerned about, however, appears in the words of commission with which he sends out his followers in all four gospels and in the Book of Acts. We are told to go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us (Matthew 28:16-20). We’re told to go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation, and that all who believe it and are baptised will be saved (Mark 16:15). We’re told that repentance for the forgiveness of sins is to be preached in the Messiah’s name to all nations, and that we are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:47-48). We’re told that as the Father sent Jesus, so now Jesus is sending us (John 20:21). And we’re told that we will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon us so that we can be witnesses for Jesus to the world’s farthest ends (Acts 1:8).

So our work is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to be his witnesses. We are to invite people to receive the forgiveness he offers and to become his disciples; we are to baptise them in the name of the Trinity, and to teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded us. And as this is a supernatural task, we are promised the help of the Holy Spirit, and in fact are commanded to wait for him to fill us before we try to do anything for him!

Why this emphasis on spreading the gospel and making disciples?

Well, it’s related to the central theme of Jesus’ teaching ministry: the Kingdom of God. Virtually all scholars agree that the Kingdom of God was the primary concern of Jesus: the wonderful news that God is setting the world to rights through Jesus and his ministry. And how does this kingdom grow in the world today? Not by political machinations or military prowess, but by the willing submission of human hearts to God’s anointed king, Jesus. The Kingdom of God grows one heart at a time, as human beings respond to Jesus’ invitation and commit themselves to living as his disciples. It then becomes their business to learn to follow the teaching and example of Jesus in their daily lives. As they do so, their lives gradually take on the shape of Christ’s life, the shape of the Kingdom of God, and so, as Jesus taught is to pray, God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

So the Church is primarily a missionary organisation, a fellowship of growing disciples committed to making new disciples for Jesus. And there is nothing mysterious about what the lives of those disciples are meant to look like. The teaching of Jesus is dauntingly clear on the subject, especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7).

It seems to me that everything else in the Church’s life takes shape around this primary theme of being disciples and making disciples. What sort of Christian community do we need in order to make disciples who are a living incarnation of the Sermon on the Mount? What sort of leaders can help grow such a community and help to coach these disciples? What sort of gathering for worship and teaching will be most effective in shaping us into such a community? Once we put discipleship and mission at the centre of the Church’s life, these questions take their most fundamental and helpful shape. The sacraments, too, find their place naturally around this central purpose of the Church: baptism is the way we become disciples of Jesus, and Holy Communion recalls for us the death and resurrection of Jesus and nourishes us in his grace so that we can then go out and do the work of mission, of making and training new disciples.

What sort of buildings do we need? What sort of robes should ministers wear? What kind of liturgy should we use for our worship? Should we use organ music or rock bands? Should it be only an ordained priest who presides at Holy Communion, or should a lay reader be allowed to do it too? These are all fascinating questions, but in the end they also have the potential to be fascinating distractions. The more fundamental questions for us to answer are these:

  • What is the good news of Jesus Christ?
  • What does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like? What is his/her lifestyle? How do we train people in this life of discipleship?
  • How do we equip every single member of the Church to be a witness for Christ and to participate in the work of making new disciples?
  • What sort of Christian communities do we need in order to grow disciples of Jesus who will transform the world and further the kingdom by the way they live their lives at their homes, at their schools, at their places of work, and in their leisure time?
  • What sort of people do we need to lead those communities and coach those disciples?

Confession…

Deep down inside, I am an old-fashioned, low-church evangelical Anglican.

That means I like a simple liturgy, a spiritual worship, centred on what Donald Coggan called ‘the Sacrament of the Word’, without excessive ceremonies piled on.

I like good hymns (not mindless drivel), and a service that’s accessibly led by a minister who loves and relates to people rather than slavishly following rubrics. I like intelligent preaching that leads me into the biblical text and helps me apply it to my life; I like to learn something new from the sermon and I like it if it gives me a challenge to take home with me. I like a simple celebration of Holy Communion that’s not so cluttered with extraneous ceremony that there’s no space for me to sense the presence of God.

What I don’t like is ritualism. I find ritualism at times distracting, at times annoying, and at times amusing (i.e. in the ‘what on earth are they getting up to now?’ category). What I never find it is ‘helpful’.

My attitude, in fact, is almost completely in line with that of the author of the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (probably Archbishop Thomas Cranmer), who wrote these words in his section on ‘Of Ceremonies, Why Some be Abolished and Some Retained’.

‘This our excessive multitude of Ceremonies was so great, and many of them so dark, that they did more confound and darken, than declare and set forth Christ’s benefits to us. And besides this, Christ’s Gospel is not a Ceremonial Law, (as much of Moses’ Law was) but it is a religion to serve God, not in bondage of the figure or shadow, but in the freedom of the Spirit; being content only with those Ceremonies which do serve to a decent Order and godly Discipline, and such as be apt to stir up the full mind of man to the remembrance of his duty to God, by some notable and special signification, whereby he might be edified’.

Nowadays ritualism (under the general heading of ‘enriching our worship’) is so all-pervasive in the Anglican Church of Canada that people like me are sometimes accused of not being real Anglicans – surely we must really be a sort of species of crypto-Baptist, or Calvinist, or Puritan? So I find it oddly comforting to reflect that in 1549 – and indeed throughout the next three centuries, until the beginning of the Oxford Movement – I would have just been a standard Anglican. I certainly was when I was a child.

If memory serves me correctly, in St. Barnabas’, Leicester (the church where I was baptised on December 28th 1958), we had Holy Communion at our main Sunday service once a month. The rest of the time the service was Morning Prayer. I remember palm crosses on Palm Sunday when I was growing up, but I never saw ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday until I moved to western Canada in 1979. The first time I saw footwashing on Maundy Thursday was in 1985. In my childhood, incense was only used in extreme Anglo-Catholic churches, and I never went to one of those. The minister raised his hand to bless the people, but did not make the sign of the cross (and neither did they, in response).

What we did have, week by week, were good hymns led (not performed) by an enthusiastic choir, a service saturated in scripture (i.e. the Book of Common Prayer), prayers of intercession that connected with the real needs of the worshippers as well as the wider world, and good preaching. My Dad became a minister about the time I started paying attention to the preaching, and my Dad was an excellent preacher, with a way of explaining the text that somehow held your attention. There were many times when I was a teenager (and fairly new at being an intentional Christian) that the Holy Spirit spoke to me through one of Dad’s sermons.

Given the strong role model I had, and given the fact that I was trained in an evangelical institution, I suppose it isn’t surprising that when I became a minister I aimed at the same sort of simple liturgy that had nurtured me as a young man. But it isn’t as ‘simple’ as that. I’ve done a lot of revisiting of theological positions that I imbibed in my youth, and have discarded more than a few things along the way. I’ve tried my hand at ritualism, too, in some of its milder forms. But the older I get, the more unsatisfying I find it. To me, it’s not the way of the simple carpenter rabbi who walked the roads of Galilee calling people to follow him.

And so I find as I get older that I want to simplify things even further. I’m not sure why we Anglican clergy feel we have to dress in these ancient robes to lead worship; after all, originally they were just modelled on the formal robes worn by Roman state officials. How Christian is it to elevate one form of ministry – that of pastors and bishops – and dress it up in albs and stoles, copes and mitres (and even have our bishops sitting on ‘thrones’), while we give no such symbolic recognition to the ministry of the vast majority of our church members?

I heard a minister a few weeks ago say words to this effect: ‘Church is really very simple. We preach the gospel, we pray, and we love people. That’s all. It’s not easy, but it is simple’.

I agree. And the older I get, the more I want to keep it simple.

Jesus Christ, Inc.

I haven’t had time to do the research for my third post on lay-presidency at Holy Communion. However, I was delighted by John Richardson’s fine post on the theology of Holy Communion. Here’s how he concludes:

So when the ‘one bread’ of the Lord’s supper is broken and distributed, it is not eaten by individuals. Rather, like food going into our mouths, it feeds the organs and limbs of one body.

The message of holy communion is therefore not just that Christ died for us individually (though of course it is that) but that Christ thereby ‘incorporates’ us into himself and thus joins us to one another.

I cannot therefore make ‘my’ communion. I can only join with making ‘our’ communion where the one Body feeds through the Head on the healing fruit of the true ‘Tree of Life’.

Read the whole thing here.

‘Who Presides?’ (Part Two)

(See part one here).

Who presided at celebrations of Holy Communion in the early church?

Truthfully, it’s hard to know. And one of the problems is that we have such a hazy idea of what actually went on.

We tend to assume that the early Christians did things pretty well as we do them – getting together on Sundays, sitting in rows facing the front, taking part in a service led by someone at the front, which included Bible readings, set prayers, a eucharistic prayer and so on. And I think you can make a good case for something like that by at least the mid second century. But is it in the New Testament?

In 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul describes the Lord’s Supper, it actually sounds a lot more like a pot-luck supper than a liturgical celebration.

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! (11:20-22).

True, he does go on to describe something like what we know today as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, in which the bread and wine are eaten and drunk in obedience to Jesus’ command at the last supper:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (11:23-26).

Taking the text as a whole, however, it seems most natural to assume that at Corinth, in the mid-50s, the Lord’s Supper was still being observed as the last supper had been – as part of a communal meal, with the bread and wine of the Eucharist being shared as an integral part of the meal, perhaps at the beginning and the end as they had been at the last supper, at least in Luke’s account (see Luke 22:19-20). Worship at Corinth, it seems, was much more like a real supper with prayers, teaching, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper attached, whereas today it is more of a liturgical celebration with a tiny bit of food and drink attached to it! And Paul’s directions for who will speak, who will prophesy or speak in tongues and so on (see 1 Corinthians 14) seem to assume that there is not usually just one person ‘up front’; rather, worship seems to be taking place ‘in the round’, as it were, with many different voices contributing.

So it’s not entirely clear from the New Testament that Christian worship looked anything like what we think of when we use the term today. And neither is it clear that Christian leadership looked anything like our concept of ministry, or priesthood, or the pastorate.

For one thing, the term ‘priest’ is never used to describe a Christian liturgical minister – which is striking, as it was one of the most commonly used terms for religious leadership in the Gentile world, and of course had a good Jewish pedigree as well. But the Greek word for ‘priest’ – meaning a mediator, a go-between, one who brings God and people together – is used in the New Testament in only two ways: first, for Jesus himself, our great high priest (see the Letter to the Hebrews), and secondly, for the whole people of God, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9-10). The word is never used to describe what we might today call ‘Christian ministers’ or ‘pastors’.

We have a clear indication in the Book of Acts of the sort of leadership that was commonly exercised in the young churches founded by the early Christian missionaries. In Acts 13 and 14 Paul and Barnabas went on a missionary journey through what is now Syria and Turkey, preaching the gospel and gathering the new converts together into Christian congregations. On their way home they retraced their steps and established a leadership structure of sorts in these little churches:

After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch.There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’ And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe. (Acts 14:21-23).

In establishing this ‘eldership’ structure, they were consciously imitating the way Jewish synagogues were organised. Each Jewish synagogue in those days was governed by a council of elders (the word used in the Greek New Testament is ‘presbyters’); their functions were not only liturgical and educational but also organisational and administrative. It does not seem to have been their job necessarily to give the teaching every week; rather, it was their job to make sure someone was there to do the teaching (and so it was natural, for instance, in Acts 13:15, for the ‘officials’ (clearly the elders) of the Jewish synagogue to invite Paul and Barnabas, who were obviously travelling preachers, to instruct the congregation that day).

What the early Christians set up was obviously something similar. J.B. Lightfoot, in his influential essay ‘The Christian Ministry’ (1868), pointed out that

The duties of the presbyters were twofold. They were both rulers and instructors of the congregation… Though government was probably the first conception of the office, yet the work of teaching must have fallen to the presbyters from the very first and assumed greater prominence as time went on.

However, not all of the presbyters in each congregation were necessarily preachers or teachers; this is clear in 1 Timothy where we read ‘Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching’ (5:17). Clearly, then, not all of the elders were teachers, but they were all involved in the ‘ruling’ of the congregation. And clearly, also, they worked as a team; Luke says that Paul and Barnabas ‘appointed elders’ (plural) in each church (Acts 14:23), just as each synagogue had been led by a team of elders.

It seems to me that these elders were something like a combination of our modern Anglican offices of ‘lay reader’ and ‘vestry member’ (U.K. readers: ‘PCC member’). They were obviously not seminary-trained, and although Paul does mention the idea of remuneration in a couple of places, it seems unlikely that they were all full-timers. It seems much more natural to assume that they earned their living in their normal jobs and worked together as a team to guide and rule the congregation committed to their charge.

One thing that is very striking, however, is that at no point does the New Testament ascribe any liturgical function to them. They are not mentioned as leading the congregation in prayer, nor are they mentioned as taking turns to preside at the Lord’s Supper. The only specific functions given to them in the New Testament are teaching and ruling, and the qualifications required of them are mainly that they be people of exemplary character (see 1 Timothy 3:2-7).

This does not necessarily mean that they did not do these things. It may mean quite the opposite; it may mean that their liturgical function was so well-known that no New Testament author felt it necessary to mention it. But it does seem somewhat strange, if presiding at the Eucharist is the primary function of the priesthood (to use later terms), that this is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament.

But even if it could be clearly demonstrated – and I do not think that it can be – that in the New Testament only the presbyters/elders presided at the Lord’s Supper, we need to ask ourselves whether these New Testament elders are in fact the same as what we now call in the Anglican tradition ‘priests’. And the answer to me is clearly that they are not. Some of them, but not all, are preachers and teachers; some are presumably primarily involved in governance and are much more like churchwardens and vestry members. And even the ones who teach don’t usually do it full time or as ‘lone rangers’; they do it as part of a team. So in fact, as I have said, the ‘presbytery’ of the average New Testament church appears to have combined the functions of what Anglicans today would describe as vestry members, lay readers, and priests. Even an argument, then, that in the apostolic and post-apostolic church it was the presbyters who presided at the Lord’s Supper does not necessarily mean that only priests should do so today, because the New Testament and post-New Testament ‘presbyter’ and the modern ‘priest’ are not necessarily the same thing.