28 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (19) Liturgical Revision

The variety of liturgical resources now available is enormous and ranges from some very fine prayers to others that are paltry and trite. One liturgiologist has described the task of the modern clergy or worship team as having moved from being supplied with a complete TV dinner to being given a package of frozen peas and told to go ahead and make a meal. As a result, a great deal more creativity and thought is being demanded in the preparation of worship from local churches, their worship committees and the clergy than might have been the case a generation ago.

While there is no longer a set of common words, there is agreement across the Anglican Communion in what the shape of the liturgy should be and in what it should contain. At the Anglican Consultative Council meetings in 1973 it was agreed that any celebration of Holy Communion should contain eight basic elements: (1) The Preparation (including a greeting, a prayer for the Holy Spirit’s help, an act of praise and an act of penitence); (2) the Ministry of the Word (one or two Scripture readings, with the Gospel, a sermon and the creed); (3) the Prayers (intercession and thanksgiving, followed by a confession of sin if not already said, and the Peace); (4) the Offertory; (5) the Thanksgiving over bread and wine; (6) the Breaking of the Bread; (7) the Communion, with a post-communion prayer or canticle of thanksgiving and dedication; and (8) the Dismissal.

The outcome of all this is that, while you may not be able to walk into any Anglican service and follow it blindfolded, you should be able to perceive a pattern that is recognizably Anglican.

In his posthumously published Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis urged that the task of liturgical revision be carried out slowly and imperceptibly—“one obsolete word replaced in a century”. The intervening forty-three years have taken us too far for that. However, Lewis states an important principle if revision is to be successful:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice…. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

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