Monday, June 14, 2010

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.


  1. Andrew - This is interesting reading. Could the background be toned down a bit, it is not an easy read? Thanks.

  2. Does Percy have a view about the proposition that the formerly authorised An Australian Prayer Book (1978) is the embodiment of orthodoxy (in the proper sense of the word) wheras A Prayer Book for Australia is somewhat flawed?

  3. Percy might be inclined to see strengths and weaknesses in both books, but they're certainly different. AAPB was less risky in that it was prescriptive about order and words to a greater extent - but its words were not that inspiring or challenging. Having lived among the Episcopalians for some time, Percy finds the BCP 1979 of TEC amenable, in its preservation of the dignity of the language of the earlier books at least as an option, and some more catholic additions (via the Scottish books and the Non-jurors etc).