Thursday, June 17, 2010

Read it!

It has become common in some parishes of more liberal and/or Catholic bent in Australia to omit one or more of the set readings from the Lectionary, on weekdays including feasts, and sometimes even on Sundays.

This is a very unfortunate development, for many reasons. It undermines the Catholic Anglican claim to present an appropriate relationship, 'both/and', as it were, of Word and Sacrament. It reflects and deepens a wider problem of biblical illiteracy. It undermines the intentions of the lectionary framers, and often particularly suggests a quasi-Marcionite view that downgrades the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (since this is so often what gets dropped).

The reason? Apparently nothing more profound than that the liturgy 'takes too long' with all the readings.

This is breathtakingly bad reasoning and practice, but there are a few factors to consider to understand it.

One is that the Revised Common Lectionary, commonly now in use in Anglican circles, has been ineffectively introduced and is poorly understood. The lack of connection across the readings of a given day (as opposed to the readings from week to week) makes it easier to dislodge one or more of them, without a deep sense of loss for the congregation. And without a pattern of preaching that engages with the Lectionary as a whole, the disparate lections are all the more precarious. So there is a serious unmet need for teaching about the Bible, and the Bible in the liturgy - its natural home!

Yet the concern about excessive length or boredom suggests a problem of performance, for the readings and for the liturgy more generally. If participants are not engaged with the readings, or with any aspect of the celebration, attention needs to be given to how they are presented.

There is no rubric, printed or arcane, that requires readings to be done badly or inaudibly just so people can have a turn. There is no rule that says anyone equipped to mow the lawn or do bookkeeping has the duty or right to mangle complex rhetoric in the NT Epistles. If a music group can rehearse, so can a reader - but we just don't seem to care as much.

In other words, this problem suggests not only some difficulties about our interest in the Bible, but about our seriousness regarding the liturgy as a whole.

Our plea, then, is 'Read it!'. The Lectionary is there for a reason, and those who treat it in a sloppy manner will be ill-equipped to defend use of any set pattern of readings against the critical and the ignorant who think it more 'biblical' to pick and choose whatever they want.

If the reading of three disparate pieces of scripture and the Psalm presents a challenge, treat it as a positive one, and consider how to train readers, how to expound the course-readings from the OT/HB in preaching, and how to use other liturgical opportunities to 'read, mark, learn and inwardly digest'. This process of serious engagement with scripture is essential to Anglicanism, and we are on weak foundations without it.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Welcoming those in attendance has become a particular sort of alternative or additional opening to the liturgy. I have written elsewhere about the importance of opening liturgically and theologically, rather with banalities or information focussed exclusively on the community itself, and those comments apply here as well.

There is a particular problem or pitfall with welcomes, however. Not that it is unimportant either that visitors are received warmly, or that the character of God’s gracious hospitality is communicated.

I have come to wonder, however, whether there is an inverse relationship, in Anglican congregations of liturgical and sacramental character, between the likelihood of a pained welcome to visitors by the presider and the likelihood of there actually being any visitors. Welcoming people has often become a shibboleth of inclusiveness for congregations which are not really lively enough to attract or keep newcomers.

To get to the heart of the matter, though: Percy suggests that it is not appropriate for a minister or presider normally to welcome the (other) members of the community to the celebration of the Eucharist. This would be to suggest that the minister(s) are themselves the hosts, and the other participants guests. Doubtless such welcomes are well-intended; but the message conveyed is less hospitable than clericalist. The Eucharist does not belong to the ordained, but to the baptized; the baptized do not need to be welcomed by clergy to what God has already made their own.

Some may object that the clergy—or at least a presiding priest—may be acting in such a way as to represent and communicate God’s continued gracious and open welcome. Percy does not dismiss this idea, or the notion of "priesthood" that it implies, i.e., that the ordained may have the particular calling and charism in the liturgy of representing God and people to one another. However these elements of priesthood are secondary to the more fundamental and biblical sense that the people themselves are a holy priesthood; it is for them to welcome newcomers, seekers and so forth. The ordained priest does so too, but on their behalf.

This does not mean there is no room for expressing warm greeting, or "welcome" to one another in the mutual rather than hierarchical sense being addressed here. And the presider can offer words that express this mutual welcome and the joy of being present. How about:

"The Lord be with you"?


These entries are relevant to the celebration of the Eucharist:

Percy discusses the very opening words of the liturgy at this post.

A more specific reflection about welcoming the congregation is found here.

Some critical notes about the Ministry of the Word are found here.

The orientation of priest, people and altar (ad orientem, versus populum etc.) are discussed here.

In this post Percy reflects on the "one bread" of the Eucharist, fraction and such.

A reflection on the matter of the Eucharist and the necessity (or not) of using wheat bread is found here.

More soon.

Let's Start at the Very Beginning...

The opening words of the liturgy are crucial. One does not have to think in sophisticated dramaturgical terms to realize how these words set the tone; they express and create the priorities, the atmosphere, the direction of what is to come. The folk at ‘Ship of Fools’ pick this up nicely in their ‘Mystery Worshipper’ reviews, which always note those words.

Percy suggests that it is profoundly important that these words be theological – that they express the commitment of the community, and orient the celebration to God whose service is being performed.

More and more often however we see or hear liturgies that open with reference not to God but to the community itself, or just as likely to the weather, or the time of day. Some will tell a joke, or otherwise "warm up the crowd". At one celebration I attended not long ago, the opening words invoked a trinity of sorts: the absence of the Vicar, the arrival of the locum priest, and the presence of today's presider.

Of course this is a sort of theology too, but it is a kind of insipid idolatry: we exchange the glory of God for banality, and particularly for clerical self-referentiality.

The reasons for this malaise invite some reflection, but space does not allow a complete treatment here. I note that for Australian Anglicans, the form of A Prayer Book for Australia tends to colludes with bad  liturgical theology, insofar as it contains many good texts but offers insufficient guidance on choice and use, at this point above all.

The opening rite of APBA seems caught between the Eastern-style invocation ("Blessed be God..."") borrowed from the Orthodox via the US Episcopal Church, and the more typical Western-style greeting ("The Lord be with you"). These are both potentially profound and appropriate ways of beginning, but they work in different ways. Some celebrations end up using both, but since the book offers no guidance for what is being achieved at this point in the liturgy, it is not surprising that some end up using neither. "Good morning", indeed.

Most of these set words have an actual function which seems frequently to have been forgotten. "The Lord be with you" is a greeting, as is "Good morning". The latter is very often more appropriate, but the Eucharist is not a random encounter in the street or the shops. If and when the set words that serve to greet the congregation (or dismiss it) are used, but framed by chatty or prosaic ones drawn from other kinds of encounter, the set words are being deprived of their significance and function - they are just churchy code-language that we are used to, but serve little real purpose.

There can admittedly be real needs, or at least concerns, which are relatively prosaic but whose acknowledgement at a very early point may allow fuller commitment and participation in the event. Page numbers, locations of children’s activities, even emergency exit arrangements, can in various ways allow or prevent fuller engagement,  or may simply be required.

These can often be dealt with by other means, with a little imagination or common sense. A minister (if one leading the liturgy, not yet vested in stole or at least not in chasuble) can address the congregation before the entrance or the introit. Ushers or welcomers can communicate a lot of this factual information, if they understand their role properly beyond handing out books or leaflets.

And should circumstance or custom require it, the presider can even offer announcements or directions within the liturgy but after the opening words, or at an appropriate early point. This ought not to happen however, before acknowledging and invoking the one who is the real host and guest and centre of our gathering.

Which words, then? Percy does not go so far as to prescribe. Where your liturgical book makes it clear, follow it. Where it does not, as in the case of APBA, use the wisdom of your local and diocesan community - past as well as present - to set a pattern and stick to it (with seasonal variations by all means). But remember - it's not about you.

The Lord be with you.