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Liturgy as language (part 1)

Peter Carrell is an Anglican priest in New Zealand who usually has a very good grasp on what is happening within our province. He writes in an interesting post on Anglican Down Under that he cannot think of a single congregation that follows our official liturgy that is either growing, or thriving with a good mixture of ages (especially including younger people). This, of course, is a dire claim (Peter repeats it on his site Preaching and Worship). What is more, there has only been a single Kiwi disputing his claim in a comment. Whether I can think of a congregation that conflicts with Peter’s claim is not significant. What I want to do is attempt to analyse this situation and what we might be able to learn from this and move forward. I believe that this analysis and my proposals will be just as relevant beyond New Zealand – so please don’t tune out of this thread you non-Kiwis ☺

Peter’s strong assertion comes with little analysis. The conclusion that liturgy cannot sustain a thriving community within our culture he shows to be false through highlighting (in a comment) that Roman Catholics in this country would not dream of departing from liturgy in the way that Kiwi Anglican churches do, yet Roman Catholic communities are not only more than three times as committed in worship attendance, Peter highlights that Roman Catholic communities do not exhibit the problems with lack of flourishing whilst being liturgically faithful.

I contend that liturgy is integral to Anglican identity. The danger of Peter’s barely-hidden subtext is that a community can only thrive here by abandoning Anglican identity.

Peter maintains (again in a comment) that his observation has been perceptible for at least fifteen to twenty years. In that, already, I think, is a clue to analysis. In this series I will look at the way we learn and use language and from that develop a model that I believe is pertinent.

Update: part 2 is here

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11 thoughts on “Liturgy as language (part 1)”

  1. I can see the point Peter Carrell is trying to make. Though I do not necesarily agree with him. I do not have the facts either.
    But I do see that the most obvious growing churches are those who have opted for a simpler liturgi with less “rules and regulations” for a modern way of worship.

    I struggle often with the question how much of the liturgybook we should use in our services.
    Especially with youth from a non-church background there is a lot of educating to do before they “understand” what we do in a churchliturgy.

    Liturgi can definitely enrich a worship experience, of used as a window to God.
    But I have been in enough services where liturgy was used as a straightjacket for the priest and congregation and acted as a iron gate for newcomers.

    So I think education about good use of liturgy, understanding where the liturgy comes from (i.e. not just a banch of poetic words put together by some lost for the world priest, but words straight from the Bible) and how we can use these words to lead the congregation closer to God and catch a view of His Kingdom!


  2. Peter Carrell

    Hi Bosco
    Perhaps for clarity’s sake I might be allowed to make the following contribution for I wonder if you read a different sub-text into my posts than intended by me!

    It’s a matter of description that very few Anglican congregations in Kiwiland are growing in numbers and decreasing in average age of congregants. (The “and” is important). This description I would be more than glad to be proven wrong on, but, as you observe, just one commenter came up with a counter example (and that not the main mid morning service of our of our larger city suburban parishes).

    My own prescription for our future is that Anglicans should re-find their prayer book liturgies, take a leaf from current Kiwi Catholic practice, and rejoice in a lively Anglican identity grounded in the liturgy. Thus I look forward to the next posts in this series immensely …

  3. I’ve heard similar things said in the UK, for more than one denomination. But that strange area where the Anglican Communion using the Tridentine Rite, and RC (Tridentine Rite) overlaps seems to be showing some growth. I’m not advocating a return to the Latin Mass, but I wonder if folk are looking for stability in tradition?

  4. We are rather seeing a reversal of what may be happening in New Zealand churches. I attend a small Anglican Church in which the median age in low 40s, and several of the families (mine included) have come to the Anglican Church from low-church backgrounds *because of* liturgy. We use the 1928 US Prayer Book rather than the more modern 1979, and we celebrate High Holy Days and other Anglo-Catholic modes of worship. I am hearing of more evangelicals converting to the Roman Catholic Church than vice-versa, a trend that seems to be increasing in the US. Among the Internet community I have been part of for the past ten years, a third of the women have or are converting to the Roman Catholic Church, some from mainline denominations (Presbyterian, etc.) but others from Charismatic and Vineyard Churches as well. It’s a pretty amazing trend.

    Susanne in Southern California, US

  5. Hello Kiwi Cousins in Christ!

    A friend from America here. Roman Catholic and Franciscan.

    Churches that have gone pop-culture are failing. No matter what one’s denomination is. Padre mentions “identity.” I think that’s key.

    One thing I’ve found fascinating is how much people (especially the young) are drawn to structure, reverence and a sense of participation in the church. Many have embraced traditions that fell out of use with Vatican II. Prayers in Latin, the scapular, daily mass, daily rosary and one’s “Sunday best outfit.” Even the chapel veil is popping up more often.

    Churches with the most “old school” services are thriving. Frugal Dougal mentions the Latin Mass. While it is wonderful that the pope has allowed more freedom to use the Latin Mass, one can say an old school service in the vernacular and get the same “congregation growing” results. It’s all about reverence.

    I recently moved from California to Las Vegas. Here in Vegas one would assume a “free-for-all.” It is “Sin City,” right? And yet, surprisingly enough the churches are packed to the gills and even more old school in how we have mass than back home. Some churches have even instituted a dress code. And they’re booming!

    At old school mass, we understand that our prayers are united with those of the priest. We *assist* at mass. It’s not television. We aren’t to just sit back and watch the show. So too, people are hungry for a spiritual connection. True worship of God in the liturgy makes such a huge difference. A slight nod of the head when one says Christ Jesus during the liturgy. Silence in the sanctuary reminds people that this is God’s house. Not Starbucks.

    I’ll stop there and not prattle on further.
    God bless!

  6. When liturgy is well done it allows people to encounter God in a way that is not usually done in the low Protestant and Independant denominations. My Liturgy professor repeated over and over that ‘If it’s not good theater, it’s not good Liturgy.’ When I’ve made that statement to some of my low church friends I’ve usually gotten an immediate disagreement, but in discussing what good theater actually is they quite often change their minds.

    When I go to the theater, if scenery is protuding through the curtain before the curtain is open, I’m distracted. If actors forget their lines, I’m distracted. If actors speak in a voice I can’t hear or understand, I’m distracted. If the play is poorly written with meaningless dialog, I’m distracted. If the action is not concise, I’m distracted. On the other hand when everything is done well, I no longer see the stage or the actors; I become one of the characters and experience the emotions they are experiencing and think what they are thinking. I become lost in the play. I leave the play having experienced an aspect of life in a way that I often miss in my day to day life.

    I experience liturgy the same way. If the Liturgy is not one cohesive and coherent event, I am distracted. If readers mumble and servers stumble around looking for what they should do next, and people are sloppy in their movements and the sermon is an intellectual discussion of the meaning of some scripture reading, and the Eucharist is not celebrated with intensity and the symbolism has not been presented meaningfully, I am distracted. I end up seeing a bunch of people fumbling around instead of seeing God. But when the Liturgy is well performed I am caught up in the wonder of it all and find myself having encountered God in ways that I do not encounter God in my day to day life.

    My experience has been that the Catholics on the whole do Liturgy well and unapologetically whether they are doing a high Latin Mass using the great ancient music and artwork of the Church or a Mass for youth using music and art forms that are current with that age group. Just like good theater, good Liturgy moves people.

    One Sunday morning about three years ago I visited St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. Liturgy is my passion, but as I knelt at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer I was suddenly struck with the realization that I had been oblivious to the Liturgy. It had been so well done that nothing called my attention to any person participating in the service. Instead of seeing the Liturgy I had spent an hour in Jesus’ presence.

    It takes a lot of effort to do a Liturgy well. Good Liturgy never falls together by accident.

  7. i’m a Baptist, so I realise that i’m probably considered a liturgical philistine by many commenters. but i am one who has introduced seasons, lectionary readings, etc in baptist worship.

    I used to think that lectionary readings were fixed. The more I research, the more I have realised that different churches use different lectionaries. The much vaunted RCL is in fact a recent invention. The “prayer book” includes lots of variations.

    It seems to me that those who defend liturgy suffer cos they parade themselves as being a defender of fixed words.

    Yet surely the reality is that all liturgy we inherit has evolved. So shouldn’t the commitment be to encourage authentic evolution. That will demand coherence, rigour, sensitivity and as such can be used to critique the “non-liturgical.”

    It seems, to me, as an outsider, a bit like a group of actors who run the risk of defending a script (when in reality there are multiple scripts); and who run the risk of forgetting that the point is “theatre” and that is script + context + performance + a knowing audience etc.

    i hope I’m not being offensive – it’s just my opinion –

    a baptis philistine 🙂

  8. Steve has highlighted how many understand liturgy – as some sort of fixed verbal script. This series (of which this is part 1) will highlight that liturgy is not that primarily at all. Liturgy is defined as the “work of the people” – so it is primarily a communal action – something done by the people. The opposite of liturgy is magic – which is something done to or for the people. Certainly good liturgy (community action – accompanied by some words) should, as you say, critique the “non-liturgical” – magic. Baptist services are as much liturgies, one would hope, as other Christian services.

    The RCL (Revised Common Lectionary) is a wonderful very recent international ecumenical treasure that has some ancient traditions incorporated into the possibility of many Western Christians sharing similar scripture readings week by week. It dates from a 1994 revision of a 1983 ecumenical revision of the Roman Catholic lectionary introduced after Vatican II in 1969.

    Thanks Steve for moving the discussion forward. Your points will be picked up more in part 3.

  9. Hi Bosco,

    I appreciate your response. One question I hope you will explain, which has always puzzled a free floating Baptist is this: if liturgy really is defined as the “work of the people” – then why are they given the words to say?

    Surely by telling the people when to stand and when to sit and what to say, isn’t liturgy actually the work of the Liturgy Commission and the presider who choose the words?

    I hope my bluntness is not seen as disrespectful, but as a thinker seeking clarity,


    1. People, Steve is a real person and not my alter-ego “making up questions” that I can then appear to reflect on in – I think it will be – part 3 of this series 🙂 The question is a very good one – in the end there will be a grey section between the black and the white. Whilst for most of our Christian history lex orandi, lex credendi – prayer shaped believing – there was a recent moment when believing shaped praying. But, as this series will explore, there are reasons why we appear to be stuck at that side of the equation here.

  10. I already feel uplifted bywhat I have read above, on Liturgy.
    As today I felt the people of God in mycommunity couldn’t care less about doing things well within the liturgy. My defence was, if it is for God then lets do the best we can.
    I do feel however we have become just like the nonchristian community in attitudes and actions, which amount to gripes but no actions on those gripes.
    St.Paul, would however be in there boots and all, telling, no ordering people to get stuck in!
    At the end of the day our reason for attending worship, is to do just that and to the best of our ability.
    Thanks , to those letter writers, I ask God’s blessings be heaped on each one for I see now what I couldn’t even feel this morning.
    Agnes Lehrke.

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