Liturgy

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There are times when sad geeks like me look at the lectionary with awe and wonder. It takes a very special person to put together the right balance of readings and without repetition, hesitation or deviation. It’s a bit like being a slightly interesting combination of train spotter and signals engineer.

Last Sunday, the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary (used by us Anglicans, but also by the Methodists and the Roman Catholics) put together the lectionary readings which fulfil a liturgist’s dreams. Isaiah 58:9-14 speaks of the importance of keeping the Sabbath day for worship; Hebrews 12:18-29 suggests that worship should be offered in reverence and awe; and Luke 13:10-17 shows how Jesus honoured the Sabbath by offering an act of worship which included a healing. Not everyone was impressed – the healing certainly disturbed the awesomeness of worship, but it did inspire the worshippers to turn to God.

Worship needs to balance awe with relevance. There is no point in creating beautiful worship if God is not allowed to meet the needs of the worshippers. There is no point in relevant worship that fails to honour God. How exciting to envision worship that encompassed both Sunday by Sunday.

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I have been thinking with great affection lately of the hymns that I sang as a child. My youngest is just beginning to learn the great hymnody which school impresses on the primary age mind and heart, and as he bellows out “All things bright and beautiful” it leads me to wonder whether I chose hymns that reflect my spirituality, or whether my spirituality was formed under their influence?  Would I have been a different sort of Christian if I had sung different hymns?

We went swimming weekly in junior school, and as I was often ill, I would stay behind alone or with 2 or 3 others. To entertain us, the teacher would teach us hymns, and help us understand their meanings. I remember well the revelation that in “Lord of all hopefulness” balm did not mean the same as barmy! I loved the universalism of “In Christ there is no east nor west”, and the romantic valiance of the knight who won his spurs in stories of old. For many childhood years, I was that knight, gallant and brave, noble and true (though perhaps less strong on the gentle part!).

Of all the hymns that I loved as a child, it was “He who would valiant be” and “O Jesus I have promised” that really stirred me and made my eyes shine. To be honest they still do.  If you know me, then you’ll know that these hymns epitomise my ideals of faith – hard work, honesty, truth, loyalty and courage. Did these hymns choose me, already a conscientious child, or did I choose them and model my life around them?  

We need to be careful about the diet of hymnody we offer children. Whether they choose me or I chose them, those childhood hymns are an integral part of my adult faith. We must not dumb our faith down in our sung worship, and leave future adults bereft of hymnody which feeds the soul, inspires the heart, and challenges the mind.

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Advent

I’m not sure how one should greet another in Advent.  I can’t say ‘Happy Advent’ when I am simultaneously hoping for the immediate return of Jesus.  I mean, that event will not necessarily be happy, certainly not for goats.  ‘Blessing at Advent’ sounds naff and pretentious – I know I often do, but I do try not to…  So, some sort of greeting, of a pleasant and benign sort, be with you and yours for the purple season!

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

I’ve been impressed this week by the liturgical dexterity of the Dean and my prison boss Fran, who both managed to say the Advent collect with grace and aplomb, and as though they understood every word.  Some liturgy is very difficult, and this is a piece of Cranmer’s finest.  Very magnificent, and very theologically and grammatically complex.  Not like the collect for Holy Innocents though, which is just crass and theologically up the creek (without a paddle, or any other form of implement to save it…).  I don’t know about you, but my life is far from innocent.

Heavenly Father,
whose children suffered at the hands of Herod,
though they had done no wrong:
by the suffering of your Son
and by the innocence of our lives
frustrate all evil designs
and establish your reign of justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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The church is full of snobs.  I don’t know why or even how we encourage it, but we clearly do.  The worst of the snobbishness presents itself in hymn choices.  In the place I work as a chaplain, I am always being asked for ‘All things bright and beautiful’, Morning has broken’, ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’.  I can’t say I enjoy any of these very much, certainly not week after week.  But music has such an important place in worship that I believe it is vital that we include music that people know, and warm to, whether thay come to church regularly or not.

This morning in church I was asked what we should sing – there had been a bit of a breakdown in communication and no-one chose the hymns until 5 minutes before the service.  Luckily, we had a musically literate vicar who covered on the organ!  When I was asked what we might sing (as Junior Church leader today) I suggested ‘All things Bright and Beautiful’, only to be asked if I was serious. One of the clergy told me how much they hated it.

The fact that the children know it, it links with their school worship, it is often known by strangers in our midst, and it makes ecological sense was irrelevant to musical snobbery. Very frustrating! The same snobbery prevails in prison, diocesan services, everywhere I seem to go. No wonder our church is so often empty of strangers in our midst.

Must stop being so cynical…  It’s summer holidays – perhaps that’s why no children other than mine were in church.  And we did sing ‘All things’; Hugh said, ‘We sing this at school’…

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