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Liturgical Individualism

Everyone says together, “We’re all individuals” – LIFE OF BRIAN

This post is the second in a series – please read Countercultural Worship first.

This series responds to a priest describing Gen Y/Millennials, and people moving from other denominations into Anglicanism, complaining about saying the same words together in worship and deploring the same words, the same prayer, being used for each individual.

Although there was very little public response to that first post, up to a couple of thousand people engaged with it, and quite a few of those had conversations with me about it. A couple of points came through:

  • Those who had a lot of experience with Millennials, those who were themselves Millennials, and those whose primary focus in ministry was on Millennials did not resonate with the liturgical critique – they all tended to find that those in their 20s and 30s appreciated liturgy done well.
  • There was a strong question: what had attracted the people who were now dissatisfied? Why had they come to a liturgical church and denomination? And, having started participating, what precipitated their dissatisfaction that the liturgical church and denomination that they had joined was, in fact, liturgical?

I want to complement these important points with another. Some people obviously appreciate reciting lovely poetic pieces at each other, or to a book, or to a projector screen – but I do not think that is the heart of liturgy. A group poetry recital is not identical to liturgy. Liturgy is a community action focused on God. As such, it only needs a greeting and response, a lot of singing, good, clear action, and the occasional refrain.

There are a few pieces that work fine being said together – our shared, communal confessing of our sinfulness is one that springs to mind, but even then there are plenty of alternative ways to confess which don’t involve saying a large passage together:

Jesus, our deliverer, we take your freedom from others.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Jesus, our hope, we deprive others of hope.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Jesus, God’s shalom, we distort your peace.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa p459

And in the above example, the responses could be sung (in English, Greek, or Te Reo Māori,…) Even the “Jesus, …” could be sung by the presider. [This is not even pointing out that the communal confession of sin is not required in our NZ liturgy – see page 511.]

Sadly, in my experience, many presiders have been very poorly formed in liturgy, so that one often gets two or three greetings to begin a service, often followed by a secular greeting and response (making a third or fourth one) – this is simply not how human groups relate. The collect is often turned into something that all are instructed to say together – losing the point of what the collect is, collecting the silent prayer of the gathering community (as one person regularly does when beginning a meeting or a meal). People are even enjoined to join in parts of the presider’s sections of the Eucharistic Prayer – generally “to give everyone something to do!”

In an ordinary Eucharist, what more is needed to be said together than a response to the single greeting, an ‘Amen’ at the collect, acclamations at hearing God’s Word, agreement with the prayers by some response, a return of the greeting at the Peace, giving the presider permission to lead the Eucharistic Prayer at its opening dialogue, and a declaration that we go in Christ’s name to conclude? The rest can be singing, silence, and physical participation. [It is not difficult to see that new people can soon be joining the rest of the community in saying these things by heart. This approach is described more in detail in my free book, Celebrating Eucharist.]

To be continued…

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