Liturgy Coming to Life

I’ve been buying copies of books to fill gaps on my shelves – the gaps left by books I once owned and read that have gone missing. The gaps they leave are partly emotional and nostalgic. They have also become gaps in knowledge and information that I have felt a need to fill. So a copy of Liturgy Coming to Life by John A. T. Robinson, published in 1960, arrived on Tuesday. Stamps inside show that it was previously owned by The Josephine Butler Memorial House and then by St Aidan’s Library, Church House, and then the Radcliffe Library, Liverpool Cathedral. But I wanted to know what the Bishop of Woolwich had to say about the liturgy that he had overseen the creation of as Dean of Clare College, Cambridge between 1951 and 1959.

The blogs I’m writing at the moment are each exploring an element of some basic ingredient of Christian life and practice that to my mind has gone missing when compared with my memory of its presence in my younger days. In the last two weeks, I’ve come to believe, with the help of conversations with friends, that these missing ingredients are of fundamental significance to my experience of loss in the church, and far more significantly, of voids where some of the foundations of my faith used to be. My recent blogs about authority describe one element of the void. This blog about liturgy explores a second. More will follow.

Robinson admits that he left his “theological college liturgically clueless.” He never attended a single lecture on the subject. Given what he then set about doing as Dean of Clare, this might have been an advantage. The first chapter describes The History and Theology of an Experiment:

“If . . . one really wanted to show people the Gospel in action, the manner by which the kingdoms of this world were being challenged and reduced by the transforming power of God and his Christ, would one immediately point them to the sacrament of Holy Communion as administered in one’s own church? Would this be one’s working model of the Gospel? That was the question I found myself asking. And I knew that in my own experience the answer was ‘no’. In fact, I began to realise with dismay that anyone looking at the typical ‘Anglican eight o’clock’ of my own tradition might naturally suppose that this was how I understood the Gospel. It was, in fact, about the last embodiment of it to which I should have wished to point them. For there could be hardly anything that would strike them as more individualistic, more pietistic, more unrelated to the stuff and muck of the world where the redemption was meant to be taking place.”

These things ought not to be, wrote Robinson. He thought it an intolerable weakness that the Church should be content to live with such a contradiction at the heart of her evangelism. He set about reforming the college liturgy, working with the student body. It was liturgical reform with a difference, not seeking an alteration of what was said so much as bringing to the service an adequate expression of what was done (though he wished he could have revised the order and language of the 1662 Prayer Book. Something like the Liturgy of the Church of South India would have been a more adequate vehicle of expression).

First, he said, let us make sure we know what we are doing, and then let the words give it the most articulate and splendid expression of which we and the past are capable. “The road to living liturgical reform leads from the bottom upwards, and that is why controlled experiment in the local worshipping community, especially at the sub-parochial or house church level, is so vital to the health of the Body of Christ.” I want to note that the reverse is now true. Everything is top down, and those I know who have experimented, in consultation with their congregation, at the local level have been dumped on from above.

The newly-ordained deacon who arrived from Cambridge at my church in South London, St Barnabas Southfields, in 1961, must have read Robinson’s book and might even have encountered him when at College. In his second year as a curate he organised a demonstration of how communion might be celebrated by moving the altar to a central position and emphasising the four-fold action of the liturgy – taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. These changes, the position of the altar and the four-fold action were key elements of Robinson’s reforms at Claire.

The curate went on to become Rector of a parish on the outskirts of Gloucester and to implement liturgical reforms with his congregation, from which I learnt some of the basics that I wove into my own ministry. The Rector’s reforms weren’t, I think, approved by the bishop, but no-one complained back then that something was being done that transgressed the Canons and approved forms of liturgy.

As a lay person and youth group leader at St Barnabas, I pursued experiments with the bemused consent of the vicar, organising a youth mass and moving all the chairs (thank goodness they were chairs and not pews) to create a square in the middle of the nave with the altar at the centre, the priest behind the altar and the youth group on all four sides. Two decades after I had left St Barnabas, the then incumbent, Bertrand Olivier, began to move the furniture around, creating a gathered space by reconfiguring the furniture in the nave.

I moved from Southfields to Basingstoke, where the newly-created team ministry began their weekly team meeting in the parish church, often introducing new elements and exploring possibilities. One of the team members celebrate an entirely silent Eucharist on one occasion.

I never worshipped with the Community of St Hilda who met every Sunday evening from February 1987 in the chapel of St Benet’s in Queen Mary College, East London. A year and a half later the Bishop of London took legal action to evict them from the chapel and from then on they worshipped at Bow Road, a church both Methodist and Anglican. The vibrant body of women who together explored what women longed for in the church created prayers and liturgical material that many others in the national church came to use because of its poetic, inclusive language. Much of their material was published in Women Included: A Book of Services and Prayers published by SPCK in 1991.

Jim Cotter both wrote the most beautiful prayers and liturgies and also devised forms of worship for which no provision was made in the approved liturgies of the Church of England. Memories of Jim’s creative liturgies in varieties of places are legion. My memory is of a conference Eucharist in the round on the grass outside Sarum College. When vicar of St Faith’s Wandsworth in the 1980s, I was involved in designing and building a new church - my ideal sacred Eucharistic space - and with the congregation creating a pattern of worship that used material from the St Hilda Community, Jim Cotter, and the Anglican Prayer Books from Canada, the USA and New Zealand, involving the congregation more directly in the actions of the Eucharist. Some of this was most probably illegal, but led by the Spirit and inspired by Bishop John Robinson and others, we did what seemed right “as a controlled experiment in the local worshipping community . . . so vital to the health of the Body of Christ.”

More recently, Clive Larsen transformed the environment, worship and community life at St Agnes, North Reddish, evolving liturgies and varying the furniture layout frequently. The congregation became more fully and deeply involved in the Sunday morning communion and found a voice and an authority often denied to the laity. Visiting clergy valued the worship but hesitated to experiment with their own congregations – the Archdeacon disapproved strongly, and when Clive moved on, the old guard took control, reinstating old guard rules and practices.

In the 1960s and 70s three successive revisions of the Eucharistic liturgy were published, Series 1, 2 and 3. These were eventually gathered together with other material and published in 1979 in the form a new prayer book, the Alternative Service Book. Work on additional material continued, being published in separate volumes, and this was gathered together and published as Common Worship in 2000. At that moment, liturgical reform, renewal and experiment effectively came to an end. If there are experiments, they have to be conducted in an acceptably authorised way conforming to approved usage. The dead hand of authority ensures that only such experiments as those defined by the Reform and Renewal and Fresh Expressions programmes are acceptable to the hierarchy. Clive’s experiments in North Reddish were among the casualties, once the authorities got wind of what was going on.

I came to realise this week that the church has, as a result, lost an essential ingredient that energised and inspired me in the decades from the 1960s to the end of the 90s – the church lost the vital ingredient of creating liturgy, by clergy and congregations following the leading of the spirit and evolving new images and forms that respond to local experience and expectations – a form of baptism that isn’t alien to the family bringing their child, or a form of blessing for same-sex couples. If the theology of the Church of England is to be found in its liturgy, then the liturgy we have is deficient and as result, so is our theology.

Of course, people are still creating new liturgical forms, and in truth considerable latitude is granted by the Canons and rubrics, but clergy are far more cautious and inhibited now. For example, members of the OneBodyOneFaith Facebook group often ask what they are allowed in relationship to same-sex marriages, and whether action might be taken against them if their bishop or Archdeacon found out what they had done. Indeed, action is taken and the threat of CDM is held over people. If the CDM had been in operation in the 1950s and John Robinson had conducted his liturgical experiment in a parish church and not a university chapel, he would almost certainly have been suspended and investigated.

The creation, evolution and reimagination of the Eucharist in partnership with the congregation that was a core dimension of Christian life and witness that energised and inspired me in the decades prior to 2000 has been diminished in the Church of England. The bottom upwards freedom that so inspired me to create living liturgical reform and controlled experiments in the local worshipping community, experiments that John Robinson described as so vital to the health of the Body of Christ, has been all but vanquished.

In a second blog on this theme to be published next week, I will explore the metaphor of a depth charge as evoking the energy potential of Communion when we break the body and share the cup with Jesus’ revolutionary fervour.