Why don’t we always use authorised liturgies?

This is the first of three sermons in response to questions I’ve been asked in recent months relating to worship at St Mark’s.  It is now nearly two years since our last major worship review, the outcomes of which relating to this service were gathered together in the leaflet, Worship at St Mark’s: Foundational Insights, Aspirations and Commitments, which is readily available on the card stall and which has largely determined our course during the intervening months.

But nothing stands still for as I commented in that document:

Worship is the beating heart of a church – vital, life-giving, resourcing everything else we do.  In certain respects, it is like a living organism with shape, structure and inner coherence.  And it is one that needs to evolve and mature as we journey on in faith and make fresh discoveries of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in this time and place.

So it is within this context that I offer these sermons in the hope that they will stimulate further discussion and discernment.  Today’s question is this: ‘Why don’t we always use authorised liturgies?’

Come back with me to the evening of 2 June 2009 when I was instituted and inducted into the living of this church and parish.  During that service, I was required to make various oaths and declarations, including one relating to only using forms of service which are authorised or allowed by Canon.

Aware of the range of worship materials then in use at St Mark’s, which extended well beyond official Church of England liturgies, I was not willing to make a commitment that in all likelihood would not be honoured so I decided to omit the word ‘only’.  An omission which I thought had gone unnoticed (certainly neither the Bishop nor the Archdeacon commented on it) until, after the service, I was surprised by how many members of the congregation approached me to express their appreciation and, in some cases, relief.

Since then, our worship has continued to evolve and, perhaps, increasingly to draw on material from other sources including home grown.  I hope this process hasn’t been accidental or arbitrary, but is a response to the particular characteristics, needs and aspirations of this congregation.  And it is a response that has been guided by a foundational insight informing Anglican worship from the outset, namely, Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi, that is, ‘the law of praying is the law of believing.’

This dictum is worth unpacking because it bears witness to the conviction that there is an intimate relationship between what we believe and how we worship.

By contrast, I remember a comment made by a Fellow of a Cambridge college, when, as chaplain, I had just recited the Grace in Latin at a formal dinner, he turned and whispered in my ear, ‘I didn’t understand a word of that – excellent, just as I like it!

Well, that is not the Anglican way and it is not the St Mark’s way.  As the legend of our logo expresses succinctly, we aspire to ‘living thinking faith’.  Faith that is reasonable and relevant yet pioneering and fearless, informed (but not constrained) by the orthodoxies of human inquiry.  Faith that is willing to live with the complexities and uncertainties, the opportunities and challenges, characterising the human condition.  And it is this approach to faith which needs to find expression in our worship and which, in turn, feeds our discipleship in an on-going process of reciprocity and growth.  Put simply, the words we use in worship matter, because faith relates us to matters of ultimate concern.

Yet even more fundamental than Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi, the link between what we believe and how we pray, is the conviction that at the heart of Christianity is a person of faith and not a set of beliefs about that person.  You sometimes hear churches categorised as either ‘Jesus churches’ or ‘Pauline churches’.  By this is meant, I think, that in the case of the former, the ministry of Jesus as attested in the Gospels is the principle source of inspiration whereas in the case of the latter it is the letters of Paul and the teaching they contain.

Of course, these need not be mutually exclusive, but there is value in this distinction and, unless I’ve formed the wrong impression over the past three years, then the majority of us relate and respond to the authority of Jesus and his kingdom vision, more readily than to Paul and his attempt to express theologically the significance of the risen Christ.  And this emphasis, as you would expect, inevitably shapes our liturgy.

In a moment, I will offer one or two examples to illustrate this distinction, but before doing so, let me underline another Anglican insight into worship which we seek to affirm, namely its formative function.

We are familiar, perhaps, with the expressive nature of worship – we sing hymns and offer prayers to give expression to inner convictions, concerns and hopes.  But the content of those hymns and prayers can also, often subliminally, shape our beliefs, inform our outlooks and orientate us to God, one another and all creation in a particular way.  Few understood this better than the archetypal Anglican, Charles Wesley, who recognised the importance of hymns as a means of teaching the faith and forming beliefs.

But the formative function of worship embraces all components of a service.  And this recognition, along with our rootedness in the ministry of Jesus, are two of the reasons why we sometimes part company with authorised liturgy.  Prayers of confession are a case in point.

I think it’s fair to say that most Jesus scholars would maintain that Jesus believed human beings possessed a capacity to do and say wrong things, but not that they were inherently sinful – evil to the core. Otherwise, he is hardly likely to have recruited into his number some of the characters that he did.

To reflect this insight liturgically, we need prayers of penitence that challenge us to acknowledge wrongdoing in terms of what we have actually said or done rather than to engender a sense of all-pervasive unworthiness or inescapable depravity.  This distinction is vitally important.

Think for a moment, if children grow up in a climate where they are regularly told by their parents that they are worthless and capable of no good thing, the likelihood is that they will end up believing it, to their own personal detriment as well as, in all probability, the detriment of others.  But if children are affirmed and valued and, within this climate, disciplined when they err, then they are more able to address their mal-practise without feeling worthless or disempowered.

Now is not a similar dynamic at play in worship?  If every time we come to church we are told that ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under [God’s] table’ or, to borrow a phrase from the General Confession of the Book of Common Prayer, that ‘there is no health in us,’ then the chances are we will end up inhabiting the role, with all that implies in terms of self-loathing and lack of confidence that God could love us and entrust to us the kingdom.

And what is at stake is no less significant when it comes to forgiveness which in Jesus’ ministry is the generous outpouring of God’s graciousness not in response to repentance, less still as a reward for it, but as a means of transformation.  For Jesus, forgiveness comes first (as the English word implies) and liberates – enabling us to break free from whatever diminishes or prevents us from inhabiting the fullness of our God-given humanity.  As Jesus demonstrates repeatedly, God is energisingly and unconditionally present, ever calling us into covenant and collaboration.

But is that the impression you gain when a priest pronounces, ‘Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent’?  or when, during the intercessions, the bidding and response is used, ‘Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer’?  After all, why wouldn’t a gracious, forgiving God wish to receive our prayers?  Do we really need to beg God to do so?

And the commitment to being true to Jesus and rooted in his ministry, rather than in theological reflections upon his death and resurrection, also accounts for why we often use alternative eucharistic prayers or Great Prayers of Thanksgiving as we tend to call them.  The authorised prayers of Common Worship pretty much all articulate the same theological conviction, namely that Jesus’ death was a substitutionary sacrifice to atone for human sinfulness or, to express it in another way, Jesus died in our place to deal with our inherent malevolence and deviancy.

Prayer A, ‘Through him you have freed us from the slavery of sin, giving him to be born of a woman and to die upon the cross;’ Prayer B, ‘And so, Father, calling to mind his death on the cross, his perfect sacrifice made once for the sins of the whole world;’ Prayer C, ‘All glory be to you, our heavenly Father, who, in your tender mercy, gave your only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world;’ Prayer D, ‘In love you gave us Jesus your Son to rescue us from sin and death;’ Prayer E, ‘So, Father, we remember all that Jesus did, in him we plead with confidence his sacrifice made once for all upon the cross; Prayer F, ‘As we recall the one, perfect sacrifice of our redemption;’ Prayer G, ‘He offered his life for sinners, and with a love stronger than death he opened wide his arms on the cross … Father, we plead with confidence his sacrifice made once for all upon the cross;’ and, finally, Prayer H, ‘He opened his arms of love upon the cross and made for all the perfect sacrifice for sin.’

And yet for all this emphasis upon Jesus’ death as a substitutionary sacrifice, it is highly questionable whether he would have shared this understanding.  After all, throughout his ministry, Jesus had been freely and without condition extending to secular and profane alike the blessings associated with God’s favour without any recourse to the sacrificial economy of the Jerusalem Temple.  For Jesus, God’s presence was not mediated by priests and animal holocausts, but by lives responsive to grace and ready to live in its light.

And this conviction of Jesus about the goodness of God being available here and now for all who will receive it, is realised and celebrated through his practice of hospitality – of feeding the hungry, even the ‘undeserving’ poor, and welcoming the lonely, even those rightly ostracised by their communities, and attributing to those of no or low estate the dignity of being the subject of divine attention and good will.

For Jesus, the open-table of hospitality is the new altar where God is encountered in the sacrifice of sharing and through the communion of food and friendship, available for all.

But there is almost no reference to this wonderful inheritance of Jesus in the authorised Eucharistic Prayers which interpret the last supper as a Passover meal in which the bread and the wine symbolise his body and blood, the new sacrifice for our redemption.

I ask you, it is likely that this was Jesus’ intention?  Jesus, whose ministry embodied God’s presence, freely accessible for all without any need for blood to be spilt or lives to be taken?  Jesus, a Jew, for whom the consumption of blood would have been abhorrent?

Is it not more likely that Jesus, at table with his apprentices, aware that his own life was in danger as a consequence of his vocation, entrusts his ministry, his life’s passion, to those whom he had prepared for that task?

And what would have been more natural and profound than to have done so using the raw material of the kingdom vision they had shared, the bread of sustenance and the wine of celebration.

One final time, in the company of his own, Jesus took bread, blessed it in God’s holy name, broke it and gave it to them, saying: This is my body – my vision, my life – I entrust it to you.

Later, he took a cup of wine, gave thanks, and offered it to them, saying: This is our new relationship with God, forged from forgiveness, sealed with my blood.

Now there is so much more that I would have liked to offer by way of an answer to why we don’t always use authorized liturgies, but hopefully I have managed to present at least a little of the rationale behind our current approach.  And I invite you to respond so that we can gauge whether the worship that is currently offered here is helping to satisfy your sacred hunger and spiritual needs.

For, in the end, whether we use authorized services or draw on material from other sources, liturgy is the servant of the people, not its master, whose sole value is as a vehicle for worship in spirit and truth.  For Sunday and its rituals, very much like the sabbath and its observances, was made for humankind, and not vice versa.

Ian Wallis

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