Intuitive liturgy at The Garden Centre (Robert Harrison)

Monday, 16 September, 2013

Robert Harrison reflects on intuitive liturgy at The Garden Centre.

Is it possible to have a liturgy that is so intuitive and culturally apt that it doesn't require any service sheets or projectors, introductions or explanations - or repeated attendance - to get the hang of it?

From the evidence of my annual 'pilgrimage' to Greenbelt, it seems that the answer is: no. Assembled musicians and comedians manage to actively engage their followers without any of these artificial 'aids', but Christian worship liturgies - it appeared - cannot.

My mind turned to the faithful, little fresh expression in my own parish - simply known as The Garden Centre.

Every other Sunday, about eight people gather in the café at our local garden centre. They buy a cup of tea and gather round a table for an hour or so of gently guided conversation - usually based on the theme which St John's is exploring that month but always starting with the needs and concerns of those present. If there is a birthday or other cause for celebration, someone brings a cake, and the café staff provide plates and cutlery. Then, when the tea is drunk, the cake eaten, the concerns shared and the theme explored, a poem or prayer offered, people say their goodbyes and the gathering dissipates.

It is a liturgy. From the first hello to the last goodbye there is a familiar pattern of action and interaction that holds the event together and ensures a helpful balance. But this liturgy is so natural that it doesn't require any artificial aids to maintain, and is free enough to respond swiftly to the needs of those present. It is a liturgy that is natural, intuitive and culturally apt.

Casting my mind across the gospels, it seems that Jesus habitually employed such natural liturgies. The temple of the Sadducees and the synagogues of the Pharisees had complex liturgies which required scrolls or memorisation to keep them going, and were subject to all manner of rules and traditions. Jesus, however, engaged with people around the common patterns of ordinary life.

He was not attempting to re-imagine temple or synagogue for a new generation; he was showing people that the realm of God was right where they were and all around them in the reality of their own lives. This is no less true of the way he engaged his disciples at the Last Supper, when he subtly tweaked the established pattern on Jewish table fellowship to such dramatic effect that we are still reeling from its impact.

Imagine a day, a century or two for now, when devout religious folk at some future incarnation of Greenbelt might try to revive the worship of the Hillingdon Garden Centre group. They will have to source the tea and the furniture though specialist ecclesiastical suppliers; the cake will be baked to a 'traditional' recipe and be quite unpalatable to the tastes of the day; and the opening responses:

  • Minister: Hello, how are you?
  • All: Good thanks. And you?
  • Minister: OK

will need to be written out and explained because half the words may no longer exist in the language of the day.

All too often, we over-complicate our gatherings. We want them feel special (holy), so we add unusual stuff. We want them to echo the traditions of the past, so we add old stuff. We want them to express an incomprehensible God, so we add incomprehensible stuff. But the special, traditional and divine stuff doesn't naturally resonate, so it requires scripts, explanations or patient experience in order to fully take part.

This is what Jesus did not do on the hillsides and lakesides of Galilee.

Hillingdon's Garden Centre group grew, like many fresh expressions, from a desire to reach out to practical needs within the local community. It started life in a council-owned shop front providing tea and friendship to isolated pensioners, and relocated to the garden centre when the council closed the shop. It didn't really intend to become a 'church'; that only happened because the folk enjoyed talking about God and life so much that they asked for more.

Whether or not it counts as a 'church' now can remain a matter of opinion. It doesn't matter to the people who go. They break cake instead of bread. They sing, 'happy birthday' instead of the Sanctus. They listen to each other's concerns instead of explicitly praying. They drink tea instead of red wine. And I, the vicar, make a conscious decision not to go - in case I spoil it.

When I walked around Greenbelt, pondering to myself that a natural liturgy would require no service sheet, no PowerPoint, no explanation, no instructions, and no hard-won familiarity, I had already promised to write this piece about our wonderful little Garden Centre gathering. It was an unexpected turn of events to discover that this - perhaps - is a natural liturgy, and is more akin to the ministry of Jesus than I had expected.

About the author: 

Robert Harrison is vicar of St John the Baptist CofE Church, Hillingdon.


A fellow pastor (Lutheran ELCA) and I started a group called Bibles and Brews at a local craft brewery in Colorado in the USA for folks who had faith questions but had been hurt in some way by the church in the past. We gathered around a table, we heard one another's joys and concerns, we studied something and happily got side tracked to what really needed to be discussed that night. We drank a beer or something softer together and shared popcorn and snacks.

As a pastor I always wanted to get them to move eventually back into a worship service, back into the "real" Church. Only after I had moved away and had some distance and perspective from that experience did I finally realize that gathering was more the Church and more authentic liturgy than almost all of what I had ever done in a church building. I am as slow to catch on as any disciple has ever been but I hope one day to stumble upon the chance to be a part of that kind of authentic liturgy again. Blessings on your ministry!

Thank you, Robert, for your insights in what we do when we have a service in church. This also reflects our way of doing in the Dutch Churches in wich I work as a pioneer minister.
I would like to share with you how we had a inter-religious service on the beach. I think it had the same feel as what happens in the gardenshop. People came to the beach sharing their stories and inviting others to have a taste of their religion. This is a non-institutional initiative. You can find more on the website:
Hope you will share some more insights with us on the Fresh Expressions website. Wish you: the wind in your back and the sun in your face, as a blessing of God-under-us

For me it is a question what makes a liturgy a liturgy. I myself are experimenting with the children in my house in a very different way.(I'm looking after 9 children who came to live in my house in Suriname in Latin America and sometimes some other children or grown ups come along and I am a Mennonite pastor) They are singing but most of the time by head and many times just one of them start singing and the other(s) join or not. Yes and children who do not know the song play the tambourine. I'm telling story's and reading from the gospel and in between we talk about that and sing. Sometimes some children want to dance and they put some religious music on and dance. There are singing books and sometimes people propose a special singing or two. I know it is a type of service but when we start it is free and open and there is no program how the service will go on. It is an open liturgy and many times I asked myself if this is a good way of liturgy, but reading this reflection I start to understand, that this is may be just a way of intuitive liturgy. Yes I forgot to say at the and I always ask for what we shall prey, that also is open. I know it is a form of liturgy, but rather open and everyone feels free to see what he or she think. Even when we have an other way of liturgy like the one described. This reflection of Robert gives me power.

The comment about 'real church' is very revealing and shows sometimes we need to see things as God does. Some people think God only shows up to a church in a 'proper building' only on a Sunday and at 10am....when in reality he is wherever people meet in his name.

I have been a Christian nearly 40 years and I am constantly being surprised by something that God is doing. One of those things God might be showing us with church is that bigger isn't always better, especially when we start talking about issues to do with discipleship.
When a group is small you can get to the big issues and help people relate Jesus to them as you have time to discuss them - it becomes more personal and isn't this what people seem to want - personal attention.. Praise the Lord!

There are lots of ways of 'doing church' and the cafe experience is valid, but it is a fact that many folk like to worship within the structure of a written liturgy, be it traditional or more contemporary, as they have since the early days of Christianity.
I have seen research somewhere that many seeking a more fulfilling spiritual life are actually being drawn to traditional forms of worship.

Your comment obviously fits exactly with the "Mixed Economy" framework with which we at Fresh Expressions have always been working. There are indeed lots of ways of doing church and there are still many for whom more traditional forms are entirely appropriate. Some even are growing such as Cathedral worship. But also liturgical structure is not just about inherited forms of church. Many fresh expressions of church re-interpret liturgy and there are many fresh expressions from the sacramental tradition with highly creative liturgical interpretations.

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