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. There’s also that pesky verse in 1 Cor 1:21 about the ‘foolishness of preaching’ being a means by which God saves people.

  2. I did find it strange that the front led service that she was criticising seemed to be exactly what Kate had done at that wedding!

    It seemed to be more of an argument for the leader to be able to engage more relevantly with the congregation. I would have thought that the liturgy could help with that!

    There are certainly ways of encouraging people in the congregation to contribute in creative and non – scripted ways in a service, but that usually needs good leadership from the front. And a thick skin for when people complain that the service went on too long!

  3. Some really great points here. Thanks! I thought Vicky’s piece was dismissive and missed the point of corporate worship in many varieties.

  4. You make some god points. But in my experience I don’t think your point no. 5 is quite right. Although people may be spiritually bind, most people I come across on my new-build estate don’t hate Jesus, they simply dismiss him or don’t find him relevant. They may have quite strong opinions about the church, the institution, the historical power etc, but generally Jesus they don’t mind or ignore. For many, a simple good experience with church can open the door to them investigating Jesus.

    btw: i never had to read ‘the shape of the liturgy’, but i think the liturgy tutor changed between your module and mine!

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