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Liturgy as language (part 2)

1984 25 years on

Liturgy of the Eucharist 1984
Liturgy of the Eucharist 1984

This is the second post in a series looking at how we can use fixed liturgical worship to form thriving, vibrant, growing communities. The series began from the contention of a well-informed New Zealand Anglican priest and his assertion 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). Furthermore, this, he sees as originating in decisions made in the 1980s.

This particular post will be part focusing on New Zealand’s Anglican liturgical history essentially over the last two and a half decades as I believe that this period’s history clarifies the situation we now find ourselves in. This will continue in a later post. And then the series will continue by exploring what, in my opinion, is the underlying dynamic that has been lost during these decades. This current post may be of particular interest more to Kiwis. So, if you have no interest in Kiwi Anglican liturgical history go and have a coffee with a friend, or go and watch a sunset, or pray the daily office…

It will become clear that in the last two and a half decades in NZ Anglicanism there has been a movement away from the concept of liturgy as common prayer. The 1984 Liturgy revision began the loss of knowing responses by heart. From this point NZ Anglicans inevitably become more book-bound (pew-sheet bound, or later projector-screen bound).

Kiwis – don’t look it up: what is the response to “The peace of God be always with you.”?

1964 to 1984

New Zealand Anglicans once had had a relatively conservative liturgical life, following the Book of Common Prayer and minor variants of that. In 1964 there began a revision process that resulted in a 1966 eucharistic rite and a further revision of this in 1970. So by 1984 there had been two decades of either the BCP or a well-received, single contemporary revision. In 1984 all that changed. Now, alongside the contemporary revision were new Eucharist rites that, though structurally relatively similar, had significantly innovative texts.

In these innovative eucharistic texts the traditional, ecumenical, internationally agreed English-language texts used throughout the Anglican Communion were replaced. The following are two examples replacing the sanctus/benedictus (“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might…”) in 1984:

Holy God, holy and merciful, holy and just,
glory and goodness come from you.
Glory to you most high and gracious God.


Holy, holy, holy:
God of mercy, giver of life;
earth and sea and sky
and all that lives,
declare your presence and your glory.

One of the new rites intentionally had far more for the congregation to recite, again increasing the tendency to have more time with heads in books.

Every Sunday in the 1984 revision now no longer had a single collect usually drawn out of the great collect heritage shared throughout Anglicanism. Now each Sunday there was a choice of three collects – many of them not following a collect structure or style.

Kiwis – don’t look it up: what is the response to “The peace of God be with you all.”?

A completely new Order for Celebrating the Eucharist was produced and included in the 1984 Liturgy. In this order basically everything for a Eucharist (even responses) could be resourced from anywhere or created locally (excepting the Last Supper story and one paragraph were fixed in any constructed Eucharistic Prayer).

People were not all following the same readings either. As well as the BCP lectionary, New Zealand’s own creation (a two year thematic lectionary), the Australian Anglican revision of the Roman Catholic three-year lectionary was also authorised.

As well as music and singing being central to liturgy in my opinion, singing inevitably aids memorisation. With three completely different texts (for example) for the sanctus/benedictus (not interchangeable between rites) many communities no longer accessed good quality national ecumenical music or international Anglican and/or ecumenical musical settings.

In summary

From 1984 some wonderfully poetic, imaginative, creative, inclusive, and inculturated texts were being presented to regular worshipping Anglicans. It must be remembered, all this is within the context of a very small province of church-going Anglicans. The numbers in church (say about 35,000 in church on Sunday) are probably that of a reasonable size Church of England diocese. Moving from worshipping community to community there was no longer the expectation that the same readings would be followed, that the same collect would be used, that the same responses and texts would be used, that the same musical settings would be found. Even within a single parish, moving from one service time to another one might encounter completely unfamiliar material. Week by week turning up at the same time on Sunday one could be confronted with a different set of responses in rotation.

Creativity and flexibility became values now embodied in the official rites. Saying and singing things “by heart” (in the deepest sense of that phrase) was being lost. Common prayer – in the sense of celebrating Eucharist as the great shared worship action of Christ and his body, the church – was being lost in individualism and congregationalism. The measure of a “successful” service was shifting. The understanding of liturgy was shifting from community actions and celebration accompanied by words with a significant amount sung and by heart – to reciting beautiful poetic words at each other read from books and ever-changing pew sheets.

The Peace of God be always with you.
Praise to Christ who is our peace.
The peace of God be with you all.
In God’s justice is our peace.

Next time you hear either of those particular responses check – is the person addressing you/the congregation or addressing the book (pamphlet) s/he is reading from? And are most in the congregation addressing the presider in return – or do they have their eyes fixed on the book/screen/pamphlet? If in your community you are actually addressing each other and there are no books/screens/pamphlets involved at this point give yourself a gold star liturgical WOF. If you got both the above responses correct from memory your application to lecture on liturgy at St John’s College has been accepted. For the rest of us… this series will be continued…

The next post in this series is found here

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5 thoughts on “Liturgy as language (part 2)”

  1. On my holidays in NZ, I have attended Eucharist services in the cathedrals in Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin. On each occasion the liturgy did not vary greatly from the 2nd order of the Australian Prayer Book to which I am accustomed. However when I visited the parish church in Dunedin which I hope to make my own, the liturgy (which was projected) was very different which unsettled me and made me consider attending the cathedral instead. However I guess one can adapt but I would not like regular change.

  2. This is such an interesting perspective; thank you for sharing it.

    In my relatively liberal/progressive diocese in the U.S., the NZBCP is often looked up to (by those who like progressive things) as further “ahead” than the US BCP, particularly in terms of contemporary language and cultural inclusiveness. When we use some of the services (particularly for evening prayer) I find aspects of it quite lovely and other aspects very distancing/distracting. It is interesting to hear how it is being engaged by the people for whom it was made.

    I’m glad you’re putting words around the nose-in-book phenomenon. It seems to be common to anything that considers itself contemporary and inclusive.

    I wish more contemporary liturgies/services utilized a direct and minimal style that is characteristic of modern language use. So often, they read (and sound) excessively self-conscious and stylistically eccentric. It’s a bad sign when the language in the contemporary liturgy sits more weirdly on the ear than the language from the very old liturgies.

  3. Peter Carrell

    Hi Bosco
    Keep the series going!
    I am largely in agreement with you but:
    (a) would like to learn more about the rationale of the Prayer Book Commission which produced the alternatives;
    (b) appreciate that some of the poetry is outstanding … one of my favourites will be lost in a standardization of versicle and response at the beginning of The Great Thanksgiving (Lift your hearts to heaven // Where Christ in glory reigns, p. 467, 485);
    (c) wonder whether a 1984 common eucharist might nevertheless not have stemmed the tide of desire for variety … as you well know we have churches in our land using eucharistic prayers from here there and everywhere in the Communion.

  4. Very interesting, Bosco.

    I find the same to be the case with music. When some hymns are in regular rotation – keep coming back with some regularity – there’s a greater chance that the congregation can learn to sing them well (and ideally, in parts). The same is true for the Sanctus etc.. In churches that emphasize too much variation in hymns – with few “coming back” – the singing is often a bit muddled, and since there are none that are being learned by repetition, many seem to get the feeling that they can’t sing anyways. That might cause a downward slope for singing in general.

    I’m also much in agreement about the importance of saying things “by heart” – we really need to do it. This can also be criticized – fairly – with epithets like “rote memory.” At times we also have to find ways to distance ourselves from those words, to re-focus and renew our appreciation of what we’re saying every week. This can be done in extra sessions – you know, Sunday School type things – or if the church doesn’t yet have an extra educational program, occasionally in sermons.

    But we do need to have things memorized. This helps “discursivity” – our ability to stay on a topic and move onward in depth – rather than jumping around from theme to theme, getting bored after a few bits of common knowledge or exotic opinion have been expressed. It’s lots of things – patience, continuity, attention, memory exercise, and even connection between the written and the spoken word (which we can miss when we’re not speaking what we’re reading – human speech brings a strange, extra expressive appreciation to the written word).

  5. There’s another important impact of too much variation in response texts, and that is the effect on families with young children. I have a lively four-year old son. There are many Sundays where I would be unable to contribute my voice to the liturgy if I did not have the responses memorized, and when the church switches prayers, it still throws me off, even when switching to another prayer I know. And most 20 and 30 somethings are not as fluent in our liturgies as I am. This is a problem because this is a demographic we need coming into our churches and staying there, if we are going to grow.

    Also, it makes literacy a requirement for full participation. This limits participation from children as well as adults who may have less than full literacy. Children can learn simple responses at an early age, well before they can read, but not if the responses keep changing, and are cued by overly subtle differences in phrasing. And if the responses are too hard to learn, there’s one less thing to draw them in, one more thing to teach them from an early age that the liturgy is not something for them. I’m not sure that’s really where we want to go.

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