handsIt was inevitable, as I hinted, that my post on chaos about liturgy rules and agreements would result in questioning why have these agreements at all? Why have common prayer? And in one version of the question: can’t we have some flexibility in liturgy?

Let’s deal with the flexibility question first.

It’s a straw man. Good liturgy, by its very nature, is flexible. It is not cooky-cutter/cloning.

What happens when there is little to no liturgical study, training, and formation? Then, when people hear or read the word “liturgy”, what springs to mind is The Book of Common Prayer – only one way to do things, etc, inflexibility…

As I wrote in my book Celebrating Eucharist (Chapter 1):

Services in The Book of Common Prayer have often been likened to “meals on wheels.” They were centrally prepared, and then warmed and dished up locally. One began at the beginning of the service, reading most of it until one reached the end of it. Services in A New Zealand Prayer Book are more like “frozen peas,” or maybe a basket of groceries and a recipe book. A core of essential material is provided with some further resources, other content is added locally. Many will be surprised that the obligatory material from any of the eucharistic liturgies (pages 404-510) takes only about six minutes to recite. Most of the rest of the service is locally chosen. The quality of the meal is now much more dependent on the local “cook”!

The idea that liturgy equals inflexibility, rigorously unhuman ritual that makes no real connections with real people is so deeply ingrained that a discussion about lack of clarity about agreement on “common” prayer is in danger if it does not address the assumption/prejudice/misunderstanding that liturgy = inflexibility. The problems with the word “liturgy” are not dissimilar to the word “God”. The word has been so abused and misused that it is almost impossible in many places to use it usefully. I continue to use the word “God” and the word “liturgy” – conscious that I am misunderstood when I use those words.

In New Zealand the decision was made to place a lot of the options and choices within the main text in the Prayer Book. In a Eucharistic Liturgy in the Prayer Book the word “may” is often to be found three times in the rubrics (instructions) on a page! Yet “may” is often treated more like “must” (three greetings; three collects…). Bishops and diocesan services may not even give leadership in good modelling. We are so verbally glutted in the over-cluttered “gathering” vestibule that I then regularly see a reduction of what we (in theory) have been preparing for – hearing what the Spirit is saying to us, the church, in God’s word in the scriptures! Often this is reduced to merely a single reading!

What is happening is that people are replicating, cookie-cuttering, cloning the Book of Common Prayer “meals on wheels” approach with contemporary liturgy, starting at the beginning and basically using everything in the text until they reach the end. Hence, it is totally understandable (tragically) when people hear the word “liturgy” that they think inflexibility.

To be continued…

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