Thinking allowed

A community of forgiveness and reconciliation

bread and cup

Reading the gospel accounts it is clear that Jesus spent a fair amount of his ministry eating. Whether he’s having private meals with his disciples, picnicking on a hillside with a few thousand listeners, inviting himself or getting himself invited to dinner, or barbecuing fish on a beach, the gospels record a substantial number of mealtime occasions. Clearly there must have been many, many more meals which are not specifically recorded, but which are part of the same pattern.

For Jesus some of these meals were teaching opportunities, occasions to share with his fellow diners a story or parable or some other teaching. But they were more than just this. Quite a few of the meals are in the houses of outcasts — tax collectors, collaborators, the ritually unclean, adulterers, and other sinners. Jesus preached the good news of joy, peace, social justice, freedom from our slaveries; that in God’s kingdom our sins can be forgiven, are forgiven.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray: ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ (Matthew 6.12, Luke 11.4); and he also taught them: ‘if you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’ (John 20.23). Forgiveness and reconciliation happen when people forgive each other. When other people forgive us for the wrongs we have done to them then we are forgiven; and when we forgive others for the wrongs they have done us, they are forgiven. Jesus, in his life and death, in his teaching and in his actions, lived a life of forgiveness and reconciliation, even at the last, and inspires us to try and emulate that life: living in the kingdom, forgiving and being forgiven. In this way we are reconciled to one another and are at one with God. In God’s kingdom such forgiveness is freely available: all citizens of the kingdom will willingly and freely forgive the people who have wronged them, and no one will bear grudges or hurts. And everyone will be forgiven. (Of course, in God’s kingdom everyone will strive not to do wrong or cause hurt, but that’s another part of the story.)

So when Jesus sat down and ate with outcasts he showed — to everyone who was prepared to see it — how near God’s kingdom was, how it was already here among us. He showed how it was possible to live in God’s kingdom of social justice and reconciliation. Forgiveness was actualized. In the social aspect of sharing a meal together and being prepared to accept one another, to give and to receive forgiveness, to be reconciled to one another: in doing these things we can glimpse the kingdom, and indeed not just glimpse it but enjoy a foretaste — the kingdom in action, right here and now.

And that brings us back to the liturgy. Jesus’s disciples continued to share their meals as an enactment of the justice and peace of the kingdom of God, and in doing so they recognized the continuing presence of Jesus as they broke bread together. This meal continues to this day, whenever Christians gather together and share bread and wine in remembrance of Christ: Christ is present, forgiveness and reconciliation are given and received, the kingdom is brought into existence.

This then is our vision of the Eucharist. It is a vision that the Church sometimes seems to understand only very dimly, perhaps because the Eucharist — and Christianity in general — has become overlaid with so many ideas and practices that add ‘religious’, ‘ceremonial’ and ‘ideological’ complexity. Some of those layers can be helpful, and others may be less so. Here we are concerned primarily with liturgy, and how the kingdom of God is proclaimed and lived through the liturgy. How does the Eucharist exemplify the kingdom? What kinds of practice are useful? What do we need to recover, in our language and our ceremonial? What do we need to preserve, or enhance, what do we need to lessen or jettison? How has the liturgical revision of the last hundred years helped or hindered? Quite likely we shall conclude that there is no single answer, but different emphases in different contexts, with some limits, and suggestions for a range of ‘normal’ usage.

But this is our starting point: the proclamation of the good news and the recognition of the presence of Christ in the shared meal where all are welcome, where the hungry are fed, and where sins are forgiven.

‘Your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven: give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’

illustration by Leigh Hurlock, from Gathering for Worship, Canterbury Press, 2005, 2007; used with permission.


Modelling Liturgical Presidency

A Tale of Two Contrasting Consecrations

The ‘Octave’ from the feast of the Conversion of Paul (25 January) to Candlemas (2 February) was an eventful one for the Church of England. York Minster was the venue for the two episcopal ordinations (or consecrations) which were the focus of this eventfulness. It provided the Minster with a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate why English cathedrals have experienced such growth over the past decade. The fusion of space, music, movement and colour merged to provide that elusive and indefinable, but tangible, experience we often describe as ‘transformative’. The balance, pace (and timing) left you with the craving to come back for more.

Peter Moger, the Minster’s Precentor, deserves buckets of sympathy and admiration in equal measure. It requires a certain degree of insight and experience to craft acts of worship such as these, where the overall impact is memorable — as opposed to being overloaded and exhausting. In a previous life, I was responsible for arranging several consecrations in the southern province. I know the complicated terrain intimately: the reciprocal horse-trading; the endless telephone calls; the missed deadlines; proof-reading in the wee small hours; managing conflicting expectations; not to mention the sleepless nights. These are all inescapable in the build-up to these occasions. Despite the fail-safe rehearsal plan, there is always the potential for ‘something’ to go awry on the day — objectors notwithstanding!

My concern is with the strikingly different manner in which liturgical presidency was modelled at the two consecrations. The pretext for this difference is well known and hardly needs rehearsing here. However, it was more than apparent that, behind all the agonised exegesis of the Five Guiding Principles and the desire to model generous restraint, something vital was lost in the second of the two consecrations. The cohesive shape and flow of the liturgy felt as if it was creaking under the weight of unrealistic expectation — precisely because the presidential modelling seemed disorientated.

The first of the two consecrations (Libby Lane’s) was a model of how to order an episcopal ordination. Reactions to the sermon have been mixed; but there is no doubt about the theological, ecclesiological and liturgical assumptions which undergirded the rite. A sense of cohesion was self-evident in the Archbishop’s presidency, complemented by the appropriate liturgical ministry of others. As the introductory note to the Eucharist in Common Worship acknowledges:

The unity of the liturgy is served by the ministry of the president who, in presiding over the whole service, holds word and sacrament together [my italics] and draws the congregation into a worshipping community. The president … expresses this ministry by saying the opening Greeting, the Absolution, the Collect, the Peace and the Blessing. The president must say the Eucharistic Prayer, break the consecrated bread and receive the sacrament on every occasion.

The Archbishop’s modelling of this ideal felt organic, innate and contributed to a sense that, as the congregation was carried by the peaks and troughs of the liturgy, as different voices spoke, silences emerged, processions moved and music intensified the prayers and hopes those present, the unambiguous centre of gravity was the Archbishop as liturgical president.

In the second consecration (Philip North’s) it was far less clear how the unity of the liturgy was being served. Some will say, inevitably, that the lack of presidential cohesion experienced on this occasion was an all-too-real reflection of the uncharted ecclesial, liturgical and theological territory being negotiated. But need it have been so?

Quite often, it felt as if the fundamental question of how presidency of the whole liturgy would be expressed to give unity and cohesion to a great celebration, sank under the accumulation of so many other competing demands. The legal and canonical rights of the Metropolitan were well emphasised, as were questions of who would, and would not, lay hands on the candidate; not to mention the perilous prospect of treading a safe path through all the media discussion about purity and taint. The (doubtless unintended) outcome was that the Archbishop’s stated desire to model ‘gracious restraint’ was undermined by the apparently random manner in which he seemed to appropriate aspects of the presidential role.

Instead of there being a centre of gravity in the liturgy, there was an impression of two bishops competing for the same space in a liturgical game of musical chairs. The one who greeted the congregation, absolved them and then blessed them at the conclusion of the liturgy, did not recite the Eucharistic Prayer, break the consecrated bread, or invite the congregation to receive communion. The notion of the unity of word and sacrament being embodied in the president was fractured. The focus of liturgical unity was obscured.

I am left asking why the Bishop of Chichester could not have been granted the Archbishop of York’s commission to preside over the whole rite. The Archbishop was always going to be a visible participant, exercising his ministry at key moments (as preacher and as Ordinary who received the oaths of due obedience). Such a liturgical gesture of gracious restraint, and respect for theological conviction, would not require him to cede his authority as Metropolitan in his cathedral. But it would have enabled him to allow the unity of the liturgy to be served by the president, where the holding together of word and sacrament is embodied in one bishop, who is the centre of gravity for the worship of the whole people of God.

At a less theoretical level, it is largely assumed that cathedrals exemplify good practice. And they do — York Minster included. But I have this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach that quite a number of clergy, lay readers and others from the Blackburn Diocese (and further afield) will have come away from York Minster on Candlemas day thinking that the model of ‘presidency’ they witnessed at Philip North’s consecration is a good thing (even down to wearing cumbersome copes instead of the traditional Eucharistic vestments usually worn for the Eucharist in the Minster). ‘Let’s give it a try next Sunday,’ they will be thinking!

Much parish worship in the Church of England is less than the transformative experience it should be at present, precisely because there is a lack of theological insight; a paucity of spatial and artistic imagination; but most of all, confusion about what constitutes good presidency — and how good presidency enables the whole people of God to fully celebrate the mysteries of faith in the sacrament of unity. If this can be understood — and modelled properly — before the next consecration of a traditionalist bishop, it will be for the better health of the mission of the entire Church of England.

Simon Reynolds is the author of Table Manners: Liturgical Leadership for the Mission of the Church (SCM, 2014).

Photo by Clive Lawrence, copyright Diocese of Blackburn


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.


The Eucharistic Assembly

Earlier this year I attended a deanery confirmation service. In his address the retired assistant bishop who was presiding posed the congregation a question. He asked us to consider what we should do if we wanted to see the face of God. After considering various possibilities he suggested we turn our heads to left and right — to see the face of God in our neighbours.

Each of us is made in the image of God; each of us is a child of God. We meet together as the people of God — a subset of God’s people who recognize that role and are able to be in that particular place at that particular time. The assembly, the community, is transformed by the act of worship, transformed by recognizing the image of God, not just in our fellow worshippers on that occasion, but by recognizing that the image of God can be found in each human being.

What then does it mean that each is made in the image of God? It means a number of things, among them that each person has value, each person is of worth, as an end in themself, and not as a means to some other end. That applies both to the ‘me’ and to the ‘others’: each person needs to remember that they are made in the image of God, and that everyone else is also made in the image of God. And it applies regardless of whether the other person recognizes it.

These are the people who come together regularly Sunday by Sunday, or perhaps occasionally; these are the people who together constitute the eucharistic assembly. They come in faith and hope in order to worship and celebrate together, responding to Jesus’s call to sinners and outcasts to sit with him at God’s table. Week by week, together they constitute the ‘church’ in that place, the local ‘ecclesia’. They come together as the children of God, the people of God, made in God’s image. They are nourished, doubly so, by the Word of God. And they go out as the Body of Christ. They come together as individuals, children, people. They are transformed by worship into one corporate group, one body.

They do not gather just to watch or listen to a show or a performance, to a great preacher, or a wonderful choir, or an inspiring concert. They do not come to participate from the sidelines like a football crowd cheering their team on. The liturgy is not some spectator sport or piece of theatre. Nor, equally, do they come to make private individual devotions, a private relationship between each worshipper and their God.

Instead, each member of the assembly is important and has a role to play in what the assembly does as a whole; each person is an active participant in the corporate worshipping group — because each is made in the image of God. The action of each member of the assembly, that common purpose, constitutes them as the assembly, and that person as a member of it. Within the assembly different people have different roles. Some may read, some may lead intercessions, others may lead singing or play musical instruments, someone will preside and others assist, someone will preach. Others will participate by joining in various responses, hymns and songs. Each of these (and other) roles is a ministry, an act of service to the assembly, an act that facilitates and enables the worship of the whole assembly to take place. Some of these roles will have formal appointment, and others will be by informal agreement of the assembly. Either way, they perform their roles within the context of, and with the explicit or implicit agreement of the assembly. Some of these roles help to constitute the assembly itself, in particular the role of president or presider.

Together all these people, convened for this purpose, form the eucharistic assembly, the local church, the ecclesia. The adoption by the early Christians of the word ‘ecclesia’ to describe their assembly indicates both their past and their future. The ecclesia (Greek: εκκλησία) was the term used in ancient Greek city-states for the democratic decision-making gathering of the city’s free-born men. When Christians began to use the term such semi-democratic city-states were already long gone. The word indicates perhaps the Christian intention of a free gathering of equals. But a gathering transformed from just free-born males to include Roman citizens and non-citizens, slaves as well as the free, poor as well as rich, female as well as male. This was a revolutionary ecclesia representing the people living in God’s kingdom. Truly, the eucharistic assembly, the ecclesia, was a transforming act.

In the same way, we gather today as a revolutionary gathering of all sorts and conditions, the people of God, sharing in God’s love. Recognition of this plays a part in the transformation of the worshipping community.

We are transformed by our worship in many ways; the one that will be focussed on here is how we are transformed by recognizing in each other the image of God. As the bishop said, we can look to left and right and see the image of God in our immediate neighbours. In most churches we will not generally see the faces of our fellow worshippers during the service, but there too we will find the image of God.

This is an ideal: it has to be recognized that not all our services live up to this ideal, not all those who attend are ready or able to participate in this way, and not all our buildings make it easy. We shall explore in future posts how the assembly can address these limitations, how the assembly gives legitimacy to its ministers, how the local assembly is part of a wider assembly across the world. In many situations, a simple explanation to the members of the assembly, both clergy and laity, may be enough for them to begin to realize their vocation, their ministry, as part of the assembly which comes together to worship and to hear and be present with, and be transformed by, the Word of God.


Parish Communion

It’s hard to imagine what the Church of England was like before the Parish Communion movement — and yet the movement itself is virtually unknown today. Through the majority of the twentieth century, certainly right up until the 1960s, the movement was active in promoting its vision of life and worship in the Church of England, attracting support from bishops and synods. But it very quickly faded from the scene, so that even those of us who grew up in the 1960s Church may well not have come across it.

At the same time as the Liturgical Movement was growing across the Roman Catholic Church, recovering a sense of the corporate nature of the liturgy, the Parish Communion movement (as it came to be called) was born and grew in England. The two movements seem to have begun and developed independently, though eventually they came into contact.

The history of the Parish Communion movement is told in Donald Gray’s book Earth and Altar: Evolution of the Parish Communion in the Church of England to 1945 (Alcuin Club Collections 68, 1986). Its roots lie in the Anglo-Catholic revival and the Oxford Movement, beginning with John Keble’s Assize Sermon in Oxford in 1833. The resulting interest in sacramental worship led to an increase in the celebration of Holy Communion, frequently with an increasing use of ceremonial. Because of the requirement of many Anglo-Catholics that the sacrament should be received fasting, it became the custom for the main ceremonial celebration of the Eucharist in many such parishes to be almost entirely a non-communicating act. Only the priest and perhaps one or two others would receive Communion. For the rest of the congregation, attending after Sunday breakfast just as they had previously attended Mattins, this was a choral, ceremonial and devotional high-point, but one in which they were passive rather than active participants. For the more ‘devout’ there would typically be one or more early celebrations at 8am and perhaps 7am so that they could receive the sacrament before breaking their fast.

At the same time, Anglo-Catholic priests were noted for their work in impoverished and neglected areas, particularly in the slums and docklands of large English cities and ports, and various groupings of Christian socialists and other activists came and went.

The Parish Communion movement combined two main aims:

  • it strove to make the celebration of the Eucharist the primary service on a Sunday morning in each parish church, and to insist that it was a service at which the congregation should receive the sacrament;
  • and it emphasised the link between that celebration of the Eucharist and social action

Social action was considered to be very closely aligned with the Labour movement, which itself was growing in strength during the first half of the twentieth century. At a time when the Church of England was still very widely regarded as the Conservative Party at prayer, the Parish Communion movement might be regarded as the Labour Party at prayer.

In order for the congregation to receive the sacrament before breakfasting the time of the service had to be one that was earlier than the norm of Mattins or High Mass at 11am, but late enough for them to have a bit of a lie-in on their weekly day of rest. 9am or 9.30am became a popular time. Parishes which still have their main Sunday morning Eucharist at this time were quite likely ones that participated in the Parish Communion movement. Frequently the service was followed by a parish breakfast. Not all those associated with the movement were insistent on fasting before communion — but its leaders and advocates were adamant on this point.

And what about ‘social action’? This other important part of the life of the Church was focussed on a weekly ‘parish meeting’, perhaps in the middle of the week, at which such issues could be discussed and support given to various initiatives, whether local, national or international.

What the promoters of the Parish Communion emphasised was the corporate nature of the Church, the corporate nature of the Eucharist, and the essential and corporate nature of the social action that was intimately bound up with them. The great manifesto of the movement was a collection of essays, The Parish Communion, published in 1937, edited by the Revd Gabriel Hebert. Momentum grew, and after the Second World War Parish and People was established as a group to campaign for the goals of the movement. With the reality of a majority Labour government from 1945, perhaps the political angle of the movement changed. By 1962, when Parish and People was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Parish Communion, the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM, recently renamed Christians on the Left) was being set up. There was much overlap between the two groups, and the CSM followed on from a plethora of similar socialist groupings, but gradually the two movements separated. By the end of the 1960s, having to a large extent achieved its liturgical aims, Parish and People had faded, although it continued to exist until the end of 2013.

What then did the Parish Communion movement achieve, and what can be learnt from it? Primarily it reminded large chunks of the Church of England (and other Anglican churches too) of the centrality of the Eucharist, and of the importance of a corporate celebration at which all received the sacrament. It was successful in promoting this ideal not only across much of the Anglo-Catholic world in which it originated and across the more central groups in the Church, but also into the more central-evangelical parts of the Church, so that a parish communion on a Sunday morning came to be seen as the norm. It linked this fundamentally with what it saw as the social justice agenda of the Church’s mission — though as socialism was tried in the secular world this perhaps became a party-political position that did not always sit well with those who were hearing the liturgical message. It fell short, perhaps, in a lack of attention to evangelism.

These three strands — the liturgy, action for social justice, and concern for evangelism — are the areas that we shall explore in this blog. The social justice agenda itself will largely be left to our sister Thinking Anglicans blog: here our concern is how that is linked to the liturgy. Similarly the topic of evangelism itself will be explored in the context of the liturgy: of what we do in Church, how our buildings serve us as local centres of worship, justice and evangelism.