The Revd Brutus Green
As we move into Lent we’re doing something a little different in our sermons. Over four Sundays we’re going to be thinking about the structure of our Sunday service, with an eye to considering why the liturgy is what it is and how the shape of the liturgy is intended to lead us in corporate worship. Liturgy which is essentially this - the order of service - literally means ‘work of the people’, and has been called this since the apostles. It was never intended to be something that the priest did, or read, and the people came ‘to hear’, as it became in medieval times, but the work in which people came together and offered worship. But the real work of liturgy is the work of grace - it is the repeated act in which the common folk, priests included, with all their burdens and baggage of every day life, become the holy people of God. Like Jesus’ transfiguration in today’s Gospel, eating and drinking together is a visible sign of God’s presence with us.
The service strictly breaks into two parts - the synaxis (meeting) - and the eucharist (thanksgiving). Originally all were welcome to the first part, but only the initiated, the baptised, were allowed to witness the sacred Christian mysteries of Holy Communion. The main part of the synaxis is the liturgy of the spirit, also called the liturgy of the word, which is concerned with the reading and exposition of Scripture, but that is the subject of next week’s sermon. What we’re thinking about today is the physical act of gathering people together and the much later addition to the service of the corporate act of penitence and absolution. Every now and again as a priest you get invited to preach somewhere new. This always provides a challenge as so much of what and how you preach is determined by the people you are preaching to. Sermons are conversations - just ones in which the congregation doesn’t appear to say very much. But if it’s a good sermon preachers anticipate the reactions of their audience and so know where they are encouraging, challenging, confirming or teasing the congregation. If you don’t know them then it’s down to a certain amount of guess work. So the other day when I preached at Jesus college, Cambridge I went in thinking - okay, half will be students, half older academics, parents of choristers and visitors, quite a formal sort of lot but probably quite liberal and very likely not terribly pious. It turned out, however, that the Master of Jesus is a Northern Irish presbyterian and there was a little reunion of the famously conservative Christian Union that night. The dean was doing a literary series and had asked me to speak on the gay feminist novelist Jeanette Winterson, whose most famous first novel is about her rejection of her conservative Christian upbringing. It was all fine, they were perfectly charming, but delivering the sermon became a very different experience than I expected. The lines at which in my head I was getting people on-side, and where I was challenging them, had been significantly redrawn.
I use this example because I am frequently struck by how there are certain words and ways of speaking that immediately alienate me and certain words which resonate. I heard someone on the radio the other day talking about how the church did not speak enough about “family values”; which has led to our current social ills. As soon as I hear the phrase “family values”, I immediately assume that there is an undercurrent of sexism, homophobia and priggish suburban bullying. This of course isn’t necessarily so. It would be very possible to articulate “family values” in a way that was none of those things, but like many phrases it’s a sort of social and political identifier that can conjure stereotypes in the mind and scream particular political attitudes. So perhaps when you hear any mention of the words “misogyny” or “homophobia” you’re looking out for the whining Guardian reader to run over; equally, some of today’s likely short-lived devils, ‘the big society’, ‘squeezed middle’ or ‘alarm-clock Britain’, all might have us winding ourselves up for a three-minute hate-rant.
I say this because a particular bugbear I have is the word “community”. The way this word is used falsely, manipulatively, irritatingly, thoughtlessly winds me up. Community is at the heart of what churches are about, and what St John’s is all about, but the way you hear it used usually means absolutely nothing. So when the media talks about the Muslim community, the gay community, you wonder who are these communities, where are they? In my experience most mosques get on even worse with, and are at odds with each other, than most churches. Which is saying something. And when politicians and newsrooms speak about community, or even when people talk about community here in W2, I sometimes wonder what they mean. Who is the community here? Who does it not include? Is it just a vague abstract notion you’re using to strengthen the point you’re making, or push what you want to happen? I know what the church is. I know what the Hyde Park Estate Association is and I could get a list of their members. But what is the community? When Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there’s no such thing as society, only individuals and families she was making a helpful point that actually it’s only concrete things people, families, institutions that really exist, that can make decisions, have opinions, effect change. The notion of community or society is very often just a tool of rhetoric.
But this is why a church is different. It is a gathered community. Most aspects of modern living push people apart. We are not reliant on the people who live alongside us, we can buy our food from a self-service till, the boundaries of our living spaces are firmly defined, mobility of work, travel and information as well as population density grant anonymity. None of these are necessarily bad things but it means that there are only a very limited number of things that draw people from a given locality together. Church is one of these things, and you only have to look around you to recognise that it brings a genuinely diverse group of people together. People who might not otherwise have any connection whatsoever. When I was in Ethiopia the Anglican bishop there explained to me that in a country with very strong and often aggressive tribal tensions, church was the one institution that brought people together, made them sing and shake each other’s hands. It created connections that diffused the threat of violence. Of course churches aren’t perfect. While I was there I heard of a recent PCC meeting in which they’d discussed murdering a guy who’d come from the capital and was setting up a new Anglican compound. Equally, a contemporary of mine from theological college was recently hounded out of his parish in Liverpool by the old guard of a church who apparently didn’t like his politics.
This takes us to the sort of gathering that a church is though. Churches are not gatherings of saints. They are gatherings of sinners, which is why we come almost immediately at the gathering to a corporate expression of penitence. As I said this was a later innovation in the Eucharist, primarily because it was understood previously (as it still is in some churches) that before receiving the sacrament you would make a personal confession to the priest. The symbolism of having a corporate act at the beginning of the service is important, though. It’s not there for you to indulge or torture yourself with guilt. It’s a reminder that we are imperfect. It is a moment to look honestly at ourselves and recognise the inevitable failings. And it is best not approached as a legalistic or magic resetting of our sin-count, but rather as an acknowledgment of our need for grace. After all, even after the absolution as we prepare to come forward to receive the sacrament, we are still asking God to have mercy in the Agnus Dei.
But liturgy is not just a psychological-expressivist tool, or even a sort of spiritual massage. It’s not just about thinking the right things or feeling the right ways. It is intended to speak, to give an impression of the full and redeemed life of humanity, some view of the heavenly life, as individual and corporate. Our music can point in a most immediate way to the harmony, the aesthetic beauty of a perfected creation, but each aspect of the service is intended to help us prepare ourselves for eternity in the presence of the divine. The first sign of this is peace - recognising where we have wronged ourselves, God and our neighbour and hearing the words of forgiveness. Christian buildings are not based on temples, Jewish or pagan. The first Christians worshipped in houses and churches have since been based on Roman villas. The first part of our Sunday services then is about coming together as a family; a concrete, gathered form of community. And it’s a family that is ready from the start to acknowledge its weakness and imperfections. But a family also that is looking hopefully to its own future perfection in peace.