Stuart at Dog collars and Rabbit Corpses is training for ministry in the United Reformed Church, but has recently survived the experience of an Anglican Baptism service, and is decidedly sceptical about the benefits of a formal liturgy. I'm not certain whether it was the weight of the ritual, or the whole business of a text laid down in advance that perturbed him, but he was left wondering how I coped with it at all.
I, on the other hand, feel passionately that liturgy is a Good Thing…without which my particular Christian community would be likely to go off the rails.
Well, for one thing liturgy provides a body of known prayers (even in these days of multiple- choice worship). I’ve been increasingly aware of the value of this when praying with the very sick…to use a collect they’ve heard every Sunday of their life is hugely helpful when they are beginning to drift away from us (though I’d always use something specific and personal to their situation too). There are so many times in life when feelings are too big for coherent prayer to emerge…but a reservoir of long established words to draw on makes things better as does the sense that others have been here before, in just this kind of pain or fear or joy.
A shared body of texts is also helpful in creating a sense of a community, with its own specific identity . This is specially important for the Anglican church, which expresses so much of its beliefs through its worship, rather than through a series of doctrinal statements. If you want to know what an Anglican believes, looking at the text of Common Worship might well be the best starting point.
Liturgy also creates a balanced diet in which contrition and absolution, as well as praise, thanksgiving and intercession are guaranteed a place, and prevents any church leader from imposing his/her own theological preferences upon the congregation. I wouldn’t trust myself to find the right prayers, the right structure week after week. I love creativity in worship, but I value having boundaries which ensure that the essentials have been taken care of too.
The sense of being part of a community so much greater than those who are present is also very strong. I’m still bowled over when I think of my first Eucharist, and the reality of those words
“Therefore with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven….”, which really bought it home to me that I was saying those words of praise with everyone whom I’ve loved who is now with God. Awesome, truly.
This, I suppose, is just another example of the role of liturgy as a sacramental sign, that accomplishes what it describes. Repeatedly I'm amazed by this...the way that the funeral service, for example, takes us through from raw grief via thanksgiving to a measure of trust and resolution...and does so, if the comments afterwards are any sort of gauge, even when the family have little or no faith to hang on to...or the way by the time we reach the Peace during a Sunday Eucharist we've been transformed into the Body of Christ in that place...no longer an assortment of individuals with their own agendas and burdens but a community with one focus, the celebration of the Eucharist.
For me, the structure of the liturgy is crucial in achieving this.
Of course there can be difficulty in adapting our formal structure to the needs of an un-churched baptism family. I’m not sure, in those cases where the whole experience is utterly alien, whether the absence of a prescribed liturgy would make things any better though…might it not be tempting to present “Baptism lite” and so miss out on the huge teaching opportunities that the service present? . I really enjoy talking through the service with families who approach us, and have found some good questions and discussions emerge as a result, but I certainly can’t see there’s any value in subjecting people to sung responses and complex directions, though…I (on the experience of one baptism conducted personally…) do an awful lot of commentary on the hoof…“we are going to make the sign of the cross on X’s forehead…This reflects our understanding that…” “please join in the words in heavy type…”
So perhaps the message in terms of Baptism is to go against the received wisdom that it is always better to baptise within the main Sunday Eucharist. It’s good to have a body of welcoming believers…It’s good to have people who are used to the way things are done…but the layers of formality which have all but petrified the worship here would not be helpful to anyone beginning their voyage of discovery.
OK, Stuart…maybe you've got a point…. Now, how to integrate the baptismal liturgy into our informal family worship…?
[*In the sixteenth century, Samuel Daniel wrote a "Defense of Rhyme..." and Philip Sidney "An Apologie for Poetrie": every now and then my English Lit roots show :-) ]