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This page last updated 15 April 2007  

an essay for Anglicans Online

Liturgy and my church
Brian Reid

Epiphany 2001

Last year I wrote about the Epiphany service at my parish church. It has been my favourite sevice of the year for longer than I can remember, and I always look forward to it.

This year the Epiphany service at my parish was unbearably bad. Our parish has an interim rector, who does not, it seems to me, draw much of a distinction between liturgy and theatre. What had been a sweet little service starting with fellowship and ending with candles in the dark was this year rendered as an incomprehensible 3-hour dramatical work wrapped around a formal sit-down dinner, combining the subtlety of drums and electric guitar with the solemnity of underrehearsed schoolchildren bungling their lines too quietly for anyone to hear. What was once the annual 'festival of lights' became the sort of grade-school play that is appreciated only by the parents of the players.

One can argue that the best service an interim rector can perform for a parish is to be a bad example, so that when the permanent rector arrives, he or she is universally seen as an improvement. And if the new rector is to make changes or revise traditions, it's better for the interim to soften up the congregation by eliminating all traditions, thereby making a hero out of the next incumbent who will restore many of them. Perhaps drums and electric guitar and incomprehensible children mumbling lines they do not understand is the way of the future; perhaps I am getting too old and need to make way for the next generation. I hope not.

I chose to become an Anglican partly for theological reasons and partly for liturgical reasons. I like the theology of Hooker and Keble. I like a sense of continuity with the Communion of Saints. I like liturgy; it gives me a sense of cultural and spiritual connection with the long-dead people who were Anglicans centuries ago. I guess that makes me a high-church person. Some years ago I wandered into All Souls, Langham Place, London, thinking that I would find an Anglican choral service like the ones I had heard on the BBC, and found instead something so low-church that I thought I might accidentally have wandered into a courtroom. Even the birds outside were speaking instead of singing.

Liturgy matters, and the rate at which it changes matters too. In Vindication of Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan said that 'tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.' If liturgy never changes, it eventually becomes meaningless to the living, and if it changes too much, it is no longer liturgy but experimental theatre. One of the most joyful things to me about my Anglican church is that, for centuries, it has managed to strike a balance between the need to evolve and the need for tradition. I have a copy of the Church of England's new Common Worship, and I have copies of the current prayer books of many different countries. While they are all different, it is easy to see the common thread and easy to understand them all as Anglican.

My guess is that in seminary there are courses about liturgy and that there are courses about managing your congregation while you make changes to things. I guess I was just a subject in an experiment last night, when I intended to be a participant in a memorable worship service. Maybe next year I'll go somewhere besides my own parish for the Epiphany service. But when all else fails, I can read Evening Prayer or Compline at the end of the day.