Thinking allowed

worship or performance

This week’s edit­or­i­al at Anglic­ans Online pon­ders the ques­tion When is a ser­vice wor­ship and when is it per­form­ance?.

Our friend enjoys the cleans­ing end-of-the-day, begin­ning-of-the-week feel to Com­pline on Sunday even­ings. She, like us, views the ser­vices of the Daily Office as wor­ship­ful expres­sions of our beliefs and faith. Ima­gine her sur­prise when she sat down with the pew sheet: The second word on the inside cov­er was ‘per­form­ance’.

Com­pline as per­form­ance? She brought us the pew sheet. We read it through. Unfor­tu­nately, this time the sung ser­vice of Com­pline seemed to be replaced with a con­cert based on Com­pline. Soloists were named, a long bio­graph­ic­al sketch of the con­duct­or was included. No men­tion was made of the his­tory or role of Com­pline in the wor­ship life of our tra­di­tion. No men­tion of wel­com­ing the con­greg­a­tion to a time of pray­er. Per­haps we are being too picky. Per­haps it is enough the ser­vice is being offered no mat­ter the circumstances.

We were left to pon­der: When is a ser­vice wor­ship and when is it per­form­ance? Does it mat­ter? Should it matter?


Liturgical presidency

The term ‘pres­id­ent’ sig­ni­fies an import­ant shift in litur­gic­al think­ing. The words ‘priest’ and even ‘min­is­ter’, used in the 1662 Book of Com­mon Pray­er, appear to have a per­fectly clear and adequate mean­ing. But bib­lic­al under­stand­ings of priest­hood encom­passed ideas of a spe­cially-selec­ted per­son who might carry out func­tions on behalf of people from which they might even be excluded. The Holy of Hol­ies of the Temple was reserved for the priest­hood, who per­formed their func­tions largely in secret. 

A pres­id­ent acts in the midst of a gath­er­ing of the people of God. The most ancient Chris­ti­an churches are mod­elled on the spaces for civil gath­er­ings of the Roman Empire. This is our mod­el for the set­ting of the Eucharist.

Through­out Chris­ti­an his­tory, there has been a ten­sion between the roles of priest (min­is­ter­ing on behalf of the people in a holy place) and pres­id­ent. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, with the norm for the West­ern Mass being the daily duty of clergy, priest­hood was para­mount, and pres­id­ency could vir­tu­ally disappear.

  • The priest might be alone, save for one server
  • He had his back to the people
  • Some of the pray­ers were silent, or even delib­er­ately secret
  • Lat­in, a reli­gious lan­guage used to address God, was used in pref­er­ence to the ver­nacu­lar used to address the people
  • The priest might be sep­ar­ated from the people by a screen, a choir formed of a reli­gious com­munity or both
  • Women were kept away from the altar, and only men would serve

The Reform­a­tion began a reversal. In the BCP, Eng­lish is employed, and the priest must speak aud­ibly. But Cranmer’s idea of a gath­er­ing around the holy table set length­wise in the church with the pres­id­ent at the ‘north side’ soon lost its mean­ing when the tables were returned to the spaces formerly occu­pied by medi­ev­al stone altars.

For the Reformers there were few clear mod­els of pres­id­ency at hand, and this meant that the BCP does not provide adequate guid­ance. The BCP Euchar­ist begins, not with an act of litur­gic­al pres­id­ency, but with the private devo­tion of the priest. The priest alone says the Lord’s Pray­er, and the people are not even invited to respond with the ‘Amen’. They respond only after the Col­lect for Pur­ity. It seems as though the first task of the priest in this ser­vice is not pres­id­ency, but, once he has pur­i­fied him­self with his devo­tions, to admon­ish the people by remind­ing them of the Ten Com­mand­ments. Tra­di­tion­ally, the priest only turns to face the con­greg­a­tion at this point. What pic­ture must go through his mind as he turns from the vis­ion of saints in a sun­lit east win­dow to the people below in the nave? Is he Moses, com­ing down the moun­tain from his encounter with God to deliv­er the law to a dis­obedi­ent crowd of golden calf worshippers? 

Pres­id­ency is also not very evid­ent at the begin­ning of the BCP Order for the Buri­al of the Dead. The priest intones a series of bib­lic­al texts as the coffin is brought into church, start­ling the con­greg­a­tion with a boom­ing voice from the back declar­ing that ‘I am the resur­rec­tion and the life’. It isn’t a good pres­id­en­tial act. And Morn­ing Pray­er opens not with a greet­ing, but with the recol­lec­tion of ‘the wicked man’. That glor­i­ous address to the con­greg­a­tion, ‘dearly beloved brethren’, is lost in what appears like a great deal of fin­ger-wag­ging. The leg­acy of cen­tur­ies of inad­equate mod­els of pres­id­ency enshrined in the texts of the BCP has giv­en those called to min­is­ter a poor mod­el of how to lead wor­ship. What is more, the need to keep to a faith­ful adher­ence to the words of the Pray­er Book, without addi­tions, made it dif­fi­cult to assert a pres­id­en­tial role.

Today the pres­id­ent at the Euchar­ist is bid­den to address the people and greet them in the name of the Lord, invit­ing their response by estab­lish­ing the entire body as a gath­er­ing for wor­ship. This, crit­ic­ally, requires the use of mod­ern Eng­lish. The reten­tion of ‘King James Eng­lish’ at this point is dis­astrous because, whilst we might like to address our cre­at­or rev­er­en­tially as ‘Thou’, for the con­greg­a­tion to use the same expres­sion (and with thy spir­it) when respond­ing to the vicar sounds quite over the top. (The post Vat­ic­an 2 Span­ish trans­la­tion of the Lat­in Mass got it right when the people’s response was ‘Y con tu espir­itu’ rather than the respect­ful address in the third per­son used when speak­ing defer­en­tially to superiors.)

For­tu­nately Com­mon Wor­ship encour­ages flex­ib­il­ity in the open­ing greet­ing. The pres­id­ent may add oth­er words of greet­ing, and may then, after the greet­ing, give fur­ther words of intro­duc­tion in order to enable and enrich the par­ti­cip­a­tion of the entire gath­er­ing. The bap­tism party are acknow­ledged, and the can­did­ate is named. Returned former parish­ion­ers can be wel­comed, and sig­ni­fic­ant vis­it­ors are poin­ted out. The pres­id­ent may intro­duce him­self or her­self and name oth­ers who will take a sig­ni­fic­ant role in the ser­vice. The occa­sion for cel­eb­ra­tion is high­lighted. In short, the pres­id­ent ini­ti­ates ‘The Gath­er­ing’ of all who will share in wor­ship and sets out the journey.

With this begin­ning, the con­greg­a­tion will look to the pres­id­ent to keep them on course through­out the ser­vice. The days when the liturgy pro­ceeded without announce­ments, hymns were simply lis­ted on the board, and the reg­u­lar wor­ship­pers always knew what came next are over. That sep­ar­a­tion of ‘sheep’, who knew what would hap­pen next, and ‘goats’, who were com­pletely at sea, is unac­cept­able. The pres­id­ent real­ises the import­ance of includ­ing every­one so that they are able to par­ti­cip­ate; kneel­ing, sit­ting, stand­ing, speak­ing without embar­rass­ment. This has the advant­age of allow­ing flex­ib­il­ity into the ser­vice without giv­ing the impres­sion that some­how things have gone wrong when the usu­al order is varied.

Some may object that they do not want what can appear like an unne­ces­sary run­ning com­ment­ary on a famil­i­ar ser­vice. But the new­comers must be invited in. Indeed, this idea is para­mount in gos­pel stor­ies which provide mod­els for the Euchar­ist. At the feed­ing of the 5,000, when the dis­ciples want to send the people away, Jesus gath­ers the crowd to sit on the grass to be present for the break­ing of bread. 

The pres­id­en­tial role of Jesus at the Last Sup­per, as Pas­sov­er is cel­eb­rated, is clear in every depic­tion of the event. The ris­en Christ takes that role again, at Emmaus, and on the shores of Galilee when he invites the dis­ciples to ‘come and have break­fast’. Jesus presides at the break­ing of bread, and gives us the mod­el for the Chris­ti­an Euchar­ist. The mould, of the old priest­hood at the Temple, is broken, for the veil of the Temple has been torn apart. It is not the busi­ness of the Chris­ti­an priest­hood today to try to put it back.


Worship Matters: an evening event

News of an even­ing with Gra­ham Kendrick for wor­ship lead­ers and wor­ship groups organ­ized by LICC (the Lon­don Insti­tute for Con­tem­por­ary Christianity)

Wor­ship Matters:
Lead­ing Wor­ship for the Front­line — 18th September

Wor­ship mat­ters. It expresses our under­stand­ing of God, shapes us as dis­ciples and is the core activ­ity of churches. So what does it mean to lead wor­ship in a church that wants to take whole-life dis­ciple­ship seriously?

Join Gra­ham Kendrick for Wor­ship Mat­ters: Lead­ing Wor­ship for the Front­line — an even­ing that offers insight, ideas and encour­age­ment for wor­ship lead­ers and wor­ship­pers, who want wor­ship to engage with the every­day exper­i­ences of life on our Frontlines.

Why not invite mem­bers of your wor­ship team to begin a con­ver­sa­tion togeth­er about how your church’s exper­i­ence of wor­ship can be developed to embrace a whole-life perspective.

Hos­ted by Neil Hud­son, Dir­ect­or of LICC’s Ima­gine Pro­ject, the even­ing will also include input from Ant­ony Bil­ling­ton, LICC’s Head of Theo­logy, who will offer some bib­lic­al-theo­lo­gic­al reflec­tion on whole-life wor­ship. You will be equipped and encour­aged as you return to your loc­al churches.

Things you need to know:

Date: Thursday 18th Septem­ber, 6:30pm – 8:30pm
Ven­ue: LICC, St Peter’s, Vere Street, Lon­don W1G 0DQ
Cost: £8 (£6 con­ces­sion) — includes light refreshments
This event will be streamed live across the inter­net, if you can’t make it to Lon­don why not con­sider host­ing your own group and engage with us on the night via livestream?

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