Time for liturgy to find a different 'voice'? (Kim Hartshorne)

Monday, 22 October, 2012

Kim HartshorneKim Hartshorne asks whether it's time for liturgy to find a different 'voice'.

I lead a small missional community in a small market town that is socially and economically polarised. The aristocracy are often present in the parish church on Sunday mornings, reading the lesson with cut-glass accents gleaned from an elite education. On the other hand, a national survey showed our town to have very low levels of literacy and numeracy with many people barely able to read at all. 

At the Upper Room, we serve and journey with people who find themselves at the bottom of the heap and we are learning to walk slowly together towards Christ. We are presently going through a Bishop's Mission Order process and are committed to the Church of England as the part of the Body we live within. But there are many tensions and dichotomies that we wrestle with in our calling to this context, with conflicting family groups.

We are sure Christ would have spent time listening to the difficult stories of our people. He would have used the language of their everyday lives to weave his story into theirs, showing compassion to those who hung on to him to find hope and healing. We depend on the Holy Spirit for creativity to tell that story in ways it can be grasped and made available, for Christ was accessible to all.

This brings us to a thorny issue, for the Church of England is very dependent upon its liturgy and use of authorised texts for worship, believing that these shape us into God’s people as we say the words together. However, we find many of these are words we cannot say as a community, as they do not reflect our experience of life, or of God. These are not our words; culturally they have not come out of our hearts, our streets or our struggles, and so cannot easily come out of our mouths. What happens in this situation is that many fresh expressions or new forms of church do not use the authorised texts and forms of worship, but creatively frame their own liturgy, empowering people who use indigenous language and expression to find their own authentic voice in lament and worship. 

There have been some surprisingly savage critiques evaluating new forms of church and I wonder if this is one of the unacknowledged reasons: 'If these new expressions keep exploding and growing, while some parts of the parish system shrink and close, will we lose our liturgy, identity, tradition and all we hold dear as a Church?' This is a real question which perhaps needs to be aired much more openly. 

These questions are about power, accessibility, and who writes liturgy – who is allowed to determine how we will speak of God, and to God? Much of the language beloved of the Church historically has been written by people who are white, male, middle class, likely to be privately educated, and perhaps middle aged. It is unsurprising that the language does not reflect my life experience or that of friends in our community. All those descriptors bring with them perspectives – liturgy or theology are not written in a vacuum, but in a context that brings a certain slant and set of assumptions to bear on the words. 

In recent years, the area of theological reflection has bourgeoned as many others voices have begun to be heard. Second- and third- world theologians (labels that are now themselves rejected!), feminist and Marxist theologians, the voices of the marginalised and dispossessed are being exercised. The dominance of the northern hemisphere during Modernity and its academic system is probably over, and as such fresh expressions are not causing this to happen, only following the leading of the Holy Spirit into broader pastures, as many more voices begin to be heard. 

Liberation theology from other parts of the world brings a fresh and vital perspective on living through the struggles of life. In this it shares a similarity with life in a British 21st century small missional community affected by issues of powerlessness, worklessness, debt, hunger and chronic sickness. 

The scriptures do express much of this range of emotion found in the Psalms and the minor Prophets, urging society and the Church to express the justice and mercy that God requires. If we had liturgy which voiced this more urgently, then perhaps we as the Church of England would be changed and shaped, even radicalised, by these words and spill out from our pews to change the world again. Maybe the Liturgical Commission would give up power to groups such as ours to shape our own poetic cry to God, or hire pioneers to help it to listen. Until then, we will do the best we can to honour God, our people and our life experience, and our mother Church and its traditions.

About the author: 

Kim Hartshorne is leader of the Upper Room Community in Cirencester.


Kim, can you give us some examples of liturgical expressions that don't reflect the world view of your 'upper room' group?

David - it isn't so much a case of listing examples from these Collects or Doxologies, as much of our Anglican liturgy is lifted from scripture, as thinking about where is the starting point for our liturgy and expressions to God, and also thinking about what we wrap around it the words and what that does to people. At the moment, the liturgy seems to assume we start from a place of equilibrium, of ability to understand it and participate in it and my point is that many people don't.

Our starting point in our stance towards God in the authorized liturgy is usually that we are sinners and God in his mercy has saved us. Factually of course this is always true - but the people journeying here start from below that place, in that we are not so much sinners as sinned against first. Some have been abused, raised by addictive parents, grown up in religious cults, put into care at an early age, have formed no stable attachments in early life, suffered mental distress and ongoing psychosis, suffer PTSD, wrestling with a weight of debt, be addicted themselves, have had no education and be illiterate etc.

And yet by the grace of God they do draw near him as Saviour, but they come with many issues and questions. They have to be able to express these to God somehow. Where was he when these things happened to them? How can they trust him? Does he still love them despite their doubts? Will they be healed from what has happened to them? Does anyone believe them? Will the Church, (in its traditional or its newer shapes), be a safe place for them? Can they join the church and participate in its life if they can't read? Why do the booklets contain lots of words we don't say? Why does it all take so long? The whole action is not designed for people who are starting from this place.

There is no reason why new words and rituals can't be created that start from this place, that are shorter and simpler, allow the truth of the struggle and the injustice to be voiced, then move onto the action of God who saves, redeems and re-creates.

One example I had recently was a minister who was obviously well to do himself (from his signet ring, watch and cufflinks anyway) praying a prayer asking God to ensure a fair re-distribution of wealth and the worlds resources, and to help 'us' to help the poor. We had five people with us at the service who were desperately poor, several on their way to the local Foodbank after the service. The liturgy seemed to assume that it would be prayed by wealthy people. Should it have challenged further the wealthy people praying to be the answer to their own prayer and begin to re-distribute their excess?

Sorry, probably too long of an answer.

Sorry to interrupt. Obviously, I have stumbled into the wrong place. I am an old-fashioned Anglican - a dinosaur,perhaps - who draws much comfort and inspiration from the Book of Common Prayer, King James bible and the like.
I am from very 'humble' stock, and remain so, I hope. I agree with the principles of a broad church, and the church providing a good variety of forms of service (unfortunately, mine tends to be flung to the outer verges of the normal day and are allowed to raise their heads above the parapet (sr should that be ,pulpit, only one per month.
I strongly object to the flavour of much of this correspondence in decrying the efforts of the so-0called 'elite'

David - please feel welcome here in the conversation, and I'm sorry if any of this is objectionable to you. No-one is saying that the traditional forms should be abandoned or taken away - only that others be allowed to find the same comfort and inspiration in other forms, all in the one catholic church.

I think Kim makes a lot of sense here. I can understand many, especialy the unchurched, not being able to relate to our C of E liturgy. But isnt part of being a Fresh Expresion about meeting people where they are. If that is the case the there is huge need for liturgy that does the same, enables people to engage with it in their context, and maybe not the church's context as we know it!

Eddie - yes the new forms are trying to engage with people where they are, of course. There is an assumption that this is not 'public worship' but is being done in other places or at other times. If it were to be advertised as public, it would supposedly legally still have to use authorized forms of wording for its worship, as there is no exemption for fresh expressions.

This seems like a bit of a fudge to me, and is causing an issue for traditionalists who fear that some of what they love and own will be lost if public worship declines and the new forms of 'private worship' in small groups, cafes etc continues to grow.

I think the new things will continue to push the boundaries and use language apropriate to their context, and perhaps unsurprisingly not be too troubled by the issues around authorization. But the whole church could be enriched, changed and challenged, if we addressed the situation by expanding our liturgies to include wording that would reflect the struggles of other people groups.

The 'preferential option for the poor' as expressed in liberation theology is an important issue here - the theological perspective that sees everyone having a piece of the wisdom we all need, everyone having a voice that needs to be heard, and so the whole idea of authorization and who is the keeper of our truths needs to be talked about. Not easy but rewarding I think.

Kim is making a vitally important bid for the Church to engage with a wider range of people. Those of us who have benefitted from education, are white and middle class and have been brought up in the bosom of the Church need to work harder at making real the truth of the core of the Christian faith, and allowing others to express it in new ways. My experience is that Bishops even will endorse such brave endeavours so long as there is mutual humility and loving care. Both new and old must travel together under Christ's leadership.

It absolutely staggers me that people are still trying to "re-invent the wheel" when it come to the liturgical content of church services! This is an argument that has been clattering around the rafters of a catholic church (please note the small-case "c" in both words) for hundreds of years. Poor Martin Luther must be swiveling in his grave! The use of refined language has ever been there in order that only an "elite" in society shall have access to the understanding of concepts. For the ill-educated, the sonorous incantations become nothing more nor less than magical mumbo-jumbo put in place to impress, but, by no means to educate. Jeremy Martineau is naive if he believes that the Bishops in the church will "endorse such brave endeavours". It is the Bishops who, through their synods, have traditionally subverted the word of Christ which can be summarised (in a fairly facile phrase) in "bring the truth to mankind!"

Ouch. All the parts of the body need one another to form the whole!

Surely the words were formed and written down in order to hang onto the truths and allow them to educate and inform so the 'ordinary' people to have access to them at the Reformation?! I guess the issue is that there is a chasm has opened up between the use of modern day normal language and the understanding of what many religious words mean.

BTW, there are definately growing numbers of Bishops, priests and missoners who are risk takers with all these new forms these days.

I frequently write new liturgies (esp. Eucharistic prayers) and use them.
Be inventive. It's best to use them first and say "sorry" afterwards to such as bishops, rather than trying to get permission in advance.
BTW, what is a "missional community"?

Do you have a webspace where these can be shared Vic?

A missional community is a group of people who have committed to one another in a place, to journeying together intentionally for the purpose of mission in that place. So the idea of mission shapes how we worship together when we gather - not to suit ourselves but to suit those who may join us and may be seeking, to listening to them and incorporating their needs into our life together. It's not always easy but it is very enlivening and challenging, and deeply healing.

I have a blog: vicspencer.blogspot.com but, since I was forcibly "retired" for disagreeing with the bishop once too often, it's more personal. The older posts (more than 2 years ago) record my last parish experiences. I have not published my liturgical experiments (other people were involved and I don't want to get them into trouble.)
FWIW, I would never use words like "missional" being absolutely foreign to normal conversational English or phrases like "journeying together intentionally" (though I realise that being "intentional" is the latest buzzword.) You know what you mean, but your hearers may each understand differently. Which is not good communication. The sooner we can leave "in" jargon to lawyers and accountants, and use plain, straightforward language in common usage, the better we shall communicate.
I was once offered the job of leading a Lee Abbey Community near Birmingham (but circumstances at the time made it impossible) and it seems that your group is similar, firmly rooted in the local community with all its problems, hangups and glories. If there's one near you, you may gain a great deal by making contact with them.
Every blessing.

Hi Vic, thanks. Sounds like you've had a bumpy ride, sorry to hear that.

I would never use the desciptor of small missional community and associated language to people who were not 'churched' of course, but I assumed as you were reading here that you would be able to access the terminology.

For nearly 50 years I've lived in Africa where, for the vast majority of people, English is neither a first language nor a first culture. Translating liturgy into African languages (and cultures) which have no heritage of churchy jargon has meant re-visiting the English. For instance: I was told by Bishop Alphaeus that the Athanasian Creed makes more sense in Zulu than it does in English. We could improve English liturgy by translating it back into English from foreign languages.
I must give this more thought. Thank you for provoking this train in my mind.

mmm ... so much to chew over from Kim and all others, and still I wonder if liturgy is the problem or the cure since liturgy assumes a church of believers; the 'in' not the 'out'. Afraid of evangelism, it's nevertheless what I'm called to with all Christians, bringing the 'out' in and helping them own their own liturgy of worship, which ought to be scriptural but from that part of scripture that sings their own song.

Kim, thank you so much for the thought provoking post, and perhaps it might be a topic of conversation at Stokenchurch when we next meet ;-) (Delighted in Feb that we will have Fr Simon of Blessed fame... a great creator of liturgy to be found at http://frsimon.wordpress.com/ but I guess you know that!)

I fear this is something that most of us who are training for ministry are not actually being taught to grapple with, because it's all sooooo 'illegal' (as far as church Canons are concerned). I am rapidly discovering that though language isn't a live consideration (though arguably it should be), many of things we do in worship in my open-evangelical church are 'illegal'! I hope and pray you get your Bishop's Mission Order and with it the encouragement to create liturgy that connects with the challenges of your community.

As a personal anecdote at a very simple level: I changed the order of the Pentecost readings at a service this year, where I anticipated that as well as a QC at one end of the educational spectrum, the congregation might include local residents from a community with learning difficulties (they often come). All I did was to put the Gospel for Pentecost before the Acts reading, so that as a story it flowed and made sense, blogged it, and upset a member of the Liturgical Commission! As it was the group I aimed it at couldn't attend as they were unpicking their Gold Medal winning Chelsea Garden and the QC loved the readings done the 'wrong' way round!

I'm afraid I decided not to be demotivated by the member of Liturgical Commission (who liked other things I did, to give him his due), and rather took encouragement from the congregation's positive response.

Thanks Kim for some very stimulating thoughts and a clear articulation of some of the tensions in all this. I write as a member of the Liturgical Commission (though definitely NOT the one mentioned above!). We are currently meeting and have just finished an evening session which consisted of a conversation with a Fresh Expressions practitioner - the latest of a series of such conversations with those from the Fresh Expressions world. I hope this is encouraging news.
However, I would suggest that the real problem is not with the Liturgical Commission, because the Liturgical Commission does not make the rules (nor does it exist to police those rules). My personal opinion (not the official opinion of the Liturgical Commission) is that the problem is a liturgical control system within the C of E which is based on law, and which fosters a legal approach to worship, rather than an approach based on trust. Until we address that systemic issue the rest is just tinkering.

Thanks Mark - and please forgive me if I caused offense to the real flesh and blood people who work with the LC, it was not my intention but I understand charicatures are rarely wholly accurate. I'm glad to hear that there are two way conversations taking place with pioneers, thats great.

I agree that the legal is the root of the issue, coupled with an authority structure that upholds it - and one of the difficulties is congregations, who will not give up what they like best, irrespective of whether is is comprehensible to newcomers. What may continue to happen in practice is that the traditional system will continue doing what it does and the new groups will do new things, and never the twain shall meet. That seems a shame.

Thanks Kim - but no offence was taken (at least, not by me). I know how frustrating all this stuff can feel.

This is a really useful discussion which needs to be kept going. Thanks to Kim for kicking it off. I won't repeat what's already been said, because so much of it makes sense, and sociologically it is true that liturgy has been one of the modes of social control in the West.

I'd like to add some practical observations for the way forward:

1. At the Prague meeting of the Inter-Anglican Liturgical Commission, there was a clear indication that the whole Communion is beginning to think of liturgical principles embedded in the texts rather than the texts themselves as the givens. The C of E's Liturgical Commission has contributed to that debate in CW production by giving - in some cases and tentatively - outlines rather than liturgies. We need to milk these for all they are worth.

2. Liturgical change has always come through 'breaking the law' and Mark Earey's comments are apposite. My Anglo-Catholic father was taught to break the law by the Anglo-Catholic revival, and the Roman Missal is still used in the C of E. What we need to do is to break the liturgical law in ways that don't simply inflame, but inform. And we need to start producing (there are some!) FX liturgists who explain to others why they are doing what they are doing, and how this is true to Anglicanism. It's not enough just to refer to Cranmer's BCP Preface. Years ago, I did work on Cranmer's revolutionary principles and presented them to the BCP Society at Launde Abbey. I'm not sure if they heard me, but this conversation is really important.

3. In order to undermine the elements of 'class' (which can be overplayed), our worship needs to be constructed by the whole people, and there is still a real passivity in our churches. Some of our bigger charismatic churches have built an even bigger distance between the platform and the congregation than ever existed in the past.

4. The really big bogey is the Eucharistic prayer, and there needs to be much more writing of new ones in different cultural languages. Eventually the powers-that-be will start to read them and get the point. Writing them is not illegal, so let's start a site for publishing them...

Thanks guys, this is all brilliantly helpful and heartening!

I would love to have some day conferences for pioneer ordinands on this stuff so we can begin to understand what can be done publicly and 'privately' and share a two way conversation.

Of course we do write our own stuff and do all kinds of experimental things as a fresh exp but will they be allowed to be called public worship?!The whole church has this issue to deal with if it wants (needs) to become more missional.

I agree that the point is a legal one rather than a philosophical one, but the law is always slow to catch up with changes in practice, and always has to catch up with them eventually. The most important thing is to begin to change the culture so we hear all the voices - sacramentally it is of huge importance and the voices of our folks would bring amazing insights, warmth, depth and life to the whole church. Yes to a site publishing them!!

i also really welcome this discussion. thanks kim! i've tried to push it forward in various ways over the years. a couple of thoughts.
a) inculturation has been taken on board as necessary when it comes to forms of church - hence fresh expressions etc. the narrative is from cross cultural mission. we mustn't do the imperial thing. but curiously it's been harder to accept the argument for many around worship texts especially in relation to the eucharist. there's been a debate on this globally for a few decades - see for example the 1988 (?) down to earth statement from the bishops conference that argued that inculturation was essential internationally rather than the imposition of western liturgies. so it's rather bizarre to me that we are so slow to see the same move in worship as in forms of church. we have to for the sake of mission - simple as that.
b) mark i really like what you are saying about trust and law - that's the nub of it. i have met others from the liturgical commission who get frustrated that they are perceived as the liturgical thought police
c) i am half way through writing an intro to a collection of communion liturgies from grace, the alt worship community i'm part of. we've done exactly as you suggest adrian and crafted several eucharistic prayers which we have used and put online in our archive if you look around - we were initially given written permission to experiment by the then bishop of willesden as long as someone ordained was presiding. authorised texts were available in churches nearby for those wanting that. this has been a great experience for our community. but we are writing quite an elongated intro because we suspect it might be helpful to other communities and to nudge this conversation on. sorry it's not available yet. greenbelt has been a space where lots of communities have led communion in creative ways that has been quite wonderful but without authorised texts.
d) and this is the sort of thing mark is suggesting. for the sake of the new we need practice that dissents. canon law at its best creates a frame but can't possibly frane that which doesn't exist yet so when good practice emerges presumably the rubric can than change and adapt?!

point d - i meant to say adrian not mark sorry!
an example of a grace communion prayer is one we wrote for our last service here - http://jonnybaker.blogs.com/jonnybaker/2012/10/dangerous-ground-inevitab...

I have a real life case in point right now - a member of our community wants to make a commitment. He was due to be baptised and confirmed a few weeks ago when one of our Bishops agreed to do a service at a local lake. This chap has many mental health problems and felt very stressed by the service and couldn't go through with it, literally running away into the woods!

He has now asked again and the Bishop has offered to do it in the context of our community eucharist and meal in a few weeks. I am trying to put the service together but the wording is so very long, old,and frankly not very fit for purpose for this occasion, but is fixed as far as I can tell - I can't ask the Bishop to say any other words in this context.(I know Synod considered some new wording a while ago but I think it was in the context of infant baptisms?)

We desperately need new, authorised, and massively shorter words that will enable a person with these needs to commit to Christ, join our community and the wider Church of England. Please help me! Its at the point where I dread someone asking to join the Church via our community, and that can't be right.

Baptise him yourself, using such a form and words that are appropriate. You don't need a man in a purple frock to perform baptisms.
As for confirmation: forget it! It's totally unnecessary, especially in the case of a person who has made a mature commitment at his own adult baptism.

Kim, you are right that there are some alternative forms of words coming for initiation services (the General Synod motion did ask for them originally in the context of infant baptism, but it was amended to include all initiation services). The intention is that these alternatives will be more 'accessible', which may include being shorter, but it will only be for some parts of the service (the key bits, like the decision and the prayer over the water). The Liturgical Commission are working on them, but don't hold your breath, because the whole process (which includes the House of Bishops and General Synod as well) will take a while. The good news is that the next stage in the process, once some drafts have been agreed, is that they will go out for experimental use in real churches. So, have a word with your bishop, and get yourselves included among the places that can use them, and then you can be part of the feedback process.

Acts 8:36b. What is there to prevent me from being baptised?

It seems like the complexity of our liturgry may be preventing
Some from entering more fully into an understanding of what they are entering into.

If the church of England is truly to serve the whole of
England then 'one size does not fit all'.
I am well aware that there are options that are currently available
Within the permitted liturgies in the church of England but I am not sure
That we are too far on from the one size fits all approach.

The liturgy is surely in place to help all people Worship God and not just the sector of the population who, theough education upbringing and culture, fully appreciate the
content. Surely there is a need for access for all ?

Fresh expressions seek to develop indigenous expressions of leadership
The next step could be the development of
Indigenous liturgies.
This will challenge our understanding of unity and diversity but my guess
Is that it is probably worth the challenge ?

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