Escape from the Liturgy

Vicky Beeching has written a column for the Independent in response to the utterly superb wedding flash mob featuring the Revd Kate Bottley.

Vicky BeechingIt made me reflect on the summer solstice, attended by over twenty one thousand people, at Stonehenge last week. We live in a post-Christian nation, yet spirituality is still very much alive and kicking. People flocked to the pagan stones in search of a transcendent experience, with most describing themselves as  ‘spiritual but not religious’. This huge solstice attendance brings many questions to the doors of established religion. The latest Church of England attendance figures teeter between stabilisation and continued decline. So why aren’t these twenty one thousand spiritual seekers beating down the doors of their local parish church instead of driving to Stonehenge for their spiritual kicks?

My hunch is that it has a lot to do with the style of church gatherings. In this digital age, participation has become our natural way of life; the internet has moved from “1.0” to “2.0” and the formerly passive experiences of reading a static webpage of text has exploded into a multi-directional, fluid exchange of views and user-generated content. We don’t just consume or passively receive information any more; we comment back, we contribute, we change things. We aren’t just receivers; we are shapers of the digital environments we inhabit.

Yet in Church, besides reading words from a sheet or screen and saying hello at a set time of socialising, most activity takes place from the front, led by one or two people. The style is that of an old-school classroom, with seats or butt-numbing-pews facing the leader who stands at a podium. Even schools have (for the most part) abandoned this old classroom model in favour of something with a far more interactive seating plan, so this set up is increasingly alien to a new generation.

The great thing about the wedding flash mob and Rev Kate Bottley’s courage in leading it, was that suddenly the whole room was swept up into something participatory. They were jolted out of the boredom that can set in during church. It stopped them from texting or playing Angry Birds under the pews and the element of joy, surprise and energy drew them in. They became participating shapers of the experience, not just semi-passive recipients.

So perhaps the model of worship services is something the church can re-imagine. Some are doing this already; the Fresh Expressions movement, for example. But the majority of churches of a Sunday deliver a front-led, classroom style experience that may need some imagination and creativity. I wonder what “church 2.0” would look like, where leadership is more open-handed and every attendee shapes the experience and collaborates. Scary for the leadership as it means relinquishing much control. But if this could become reality, might it bring the Stonehenge spiritual seekers into the doors?


Methinks Vicky misses a number of points.

  1. Vicky seems to dismiss out of hand liturgical worship in the Anglo-Catholic and Reformed traditions. As an ordinand at Wycliffe Hall I and my colleagues had to read Dix’s “The Shape of the Liturgy” which is a brilliant exploration not just of Eucharistic Rite and Ritual but also broader issues around liturgy. Far from being a “performance”, liturgical worship is very much a corporate act. Most of our formal Anglican services have evolved from monastic worship which is very much a “whole body present” form of collective prayer and praise.
  2. Indeed, how was the dance in the wedding itself anything but a performance where the congregation did not participate?
  3. The real reason why worship, liturgical or otherwise, is or isn’t gripping is largely due to the president of the service. Kate’s dance happened because of her personality and you can see just from the pronouncement of the marriage that preceded the flash-mob that she is a genuinely charismatic person. I personally style my funeral practice (for example) broadly on my experience of having been at two absolutely dire services where the priest was as boring as hell and looked like he was next for the coffin (and pretty much didn’t care about that fact).
  4. Vicky spent years leading worship in the Big Top at Spring Harvest. How interactive is that? Thousands of people singing what they’re told to sing and listening to what they’re told to listen to. What about New Wine?
  5. The Church of England does great ceremony and ritual like the pagan solstice. Ever been to an Easter vigil or dawn service? Of course, the real reason why people don’t come to these services (apart from them happening at dawn – the clue’s in the title) is not structural (because they are not interesting or interactive), but rather spiritual. The real reason why people don’t come to Christian worship is because they hate Jesus. They don’t want Jesus. Their eyes are blind to the spiritual truth and their hearts are idolatrous of many false gods, including the glorification of their very selves. There are very many trendy, modern, interactive services going on up and down the country but people don’t come to them because they absolutely abhor the person at the centre of them (and I don’t mean a boring priest).
  6. The kind of interactivity Vicky is looking for is more suited to small groups where people can share and learn from each other in an environment which facilitates that. The best small groups operate at around the 12 person point – it’s not some magic apostolic number, it’s simply roughly the optimum number of people who can sit down with each other and have a proper discussion about something.
    The point of collective worship is different – it is to collect together as the church (“the gathering” – ekklesia) and to worship, to hear the Bible read and taught and to share the Sacraments. It is *not* the place to discuss intimately doctrine or the finer points of discipleship.

What Vicky should have given us is not a list of (wrong) reasons why people don’t go to church, but rather some clear examples of the kind of collective worship she thinks would be successful? Interestingly, most of the big Anglican churches in this country tend to espouse the very model Vicky rejects. Been to a Cathedral for Sunday Eucharist recently?

7 Comments on “Escape from the Liturgy

  1. I’ll leave you Anglicans to discuss the liturgy and ceremony stuff (not that we Methodists completely lack it, of course). It wasn’t Vicky Beeching’s best piece of writing, having more to do with her prior interest in social media, but let me pick up a couple of your points:

    3. So what are you saying about personality? I’d like to know more. Are you arguing that worship should be led by big, charismatic personalities? And how do you avoid creating a personality cult if it all depends on the president?

    6. Good point: in preaching recently on the use of spiritual gifts in worship, I told the congregation they had to imagine away their image of worship in pews and see themselves gathering in the home of one of the better-off disciples, perhaps a Roman villa. The group dynamics change entirely.

    • I think I’m saying that the personality of the president has a lot to do with how engaging worship (liturgical or not) is rather than the content of the worship. I have been to engaging formal worship and boring modern services. In both cases it was the ability (or lack of it) of the “leader” that was key.

  2. Vicky Beeching has an interesting take on the reasons for Anglican church decline. She claims: ‘My hunch is that it has a lot to do with the style of church gatherings.’, citing the flash wedding mob as a shining example of how participatory shaping of liturgy can attract people to church. She also contrasts the relative enduring popularity of the Summer Solstice. Church should be celebratory, even fun. Although, she may have a point and it probably does a good job in humanising Christians, I would be surprised if the viral video had challenged a single soul to think of the need for redemption.

    You say, ‘The real reason why people don’t come to Christian worship is because they hate Jesus. They don’t want Jesus.’ While that is the underlying reason for the build up to eventual full-blown hostility of many towards Christians, the antipathy is often unwitting propensity. It can be overcome by even greater bestowals of miraculous grace. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in unabashed love for God actually attracted people to worship in the first century.

    When we consider Christ’s ministry, we realise that he didn’t just preach lofty ideals. He spent an awful lot of time answering questions. These ranged from the legitimacy of re-marriage, to presumed Sabbath violations, to the lack of fasting among His disciples. He also spent a lot of time correcting unworthy misconceptions about God. Often he would ask questions of his audience. We need more of this kind of engagement. Churchmanship is often more concerned with managing the logistical tasks associated with the Sunday service.

    People continue to have enquiring minds and want robust answers that stand up to their impromptu cross-examination and go further than just ‘because it says so here’. The preached sermon format might appeal to those inclined to accept anything done in the name of church authority. The rest of us want robust answers that are neither steeped in inscrutable religious motifs, nor mere arguments from traditional authority. If they can’t find them in the church, they’ll look elsewhere.

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