- Revd Dr Simon Vibert
Is Liturgy relevant in the Church of England?
I am pleased to consider this topic. There are several Latimer publications which deal more thoroughly with Anglican Liturgy than I am able in a short blog. I shall refer to them along the way.
Liturgy is at the heart of Anglican worship. Whether it be the foundational documents written by Cranmer in the 16th Century, or the more recent “Common Worship”. To be Anglican, in part, means following the Liturgical Shape of Morning and Evening Prayer, Holy Communion, and other “occasional” offices.
To be fair, all meetings of corporate worship follow a liturgy. As a new believer, for a while I attended an Elim Pentecostal Church. I was brought up in a liberal Anglo-Catholic church and, upon conversion, felt I needed to escape what I perceived as the confines of strict liturgical form.
The reality was, of course, the Elim Pentecostal Church had a perceptible, repeated shape to every service, it was just not written down! Without losing my appreciation for informality, I came to value the Anglican liturgy, already deeply embedded in me during my teenage years.
It is one thing to extol the benefits of Anglican liturgy - which I am happy to do - it is another to persuade previously unchurched new converts into what they might perceive as the strictures of a liturgical form.
Even amongst Conservative Evangelical Churches the use of liturgy varies considerably. Only one of our three Sunday services at Christ Church Virginia Water (the 08:30) strictly follows the liturgical form; the other two services include more informal and extemporaneous parts.
To help us focus, let us try to answer three questions:
What is liturgy, from an Anglican perspective?
In lex orandi, lex credendi (Latimer Studies, 2019) (“the law of praying is the law of believing"), Martin Davie, points out that this inherited Latin phrase assumes that what the church prays reveals what the church believes (p.2).
Regularly praying the authorised liturgy of the Church of England has at least two positive impacts:
it reinforces the historical faith as agreed by the church;
it enlivens it, personally, in the life of the believe
Patriarch Bartholomew powerfully makes the point:
"the liturgy teaches us to broaden our horizons and vision, to speak the language of love and Communion, but also to learn that we must be with one another in spite of our differences and even divisions." (Davie, p.5 ).
The function of liturgy is also limited. The principle lex orandi, lex credendi means that liturgical prayers set the parameters on orthodoxy. Hence, Article XX cautions: "... it is not lawful for the church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word written."
In this booklet Martin goes on to provide three examples lex orandi, lex credendi in the Church (pp.12ff.)
How does Church of England liturgy enliven and mature the believer?
Take one example –
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
Note 4 things:
It is reverently God-centred: firstly, and primarily, it is against God that we have sinned;
It is thorough: what we have done, what we have not done; unhealth permeates us miserable offenders;
It is hopeful: before we even come to the Minister’s words of absolution, there is a spiritual therapy in the precision of this theological diagnosis!
It is thoroughly biblical: spiritually wandering sheep, corrupted by our devices and desires, are brought back to the Father’s throne of grace.
Stephen Noll picks up the tenderness of our confession: “Liturgy is designed to woo back the wayward.”
... [beginning] with a confession of humanity's profound spiritual neediness in the face of its on-going struggle with self-centred waywardness… Cranmer made the essence of Anglican worship to be turning to Him because of sin, so to be turned by God from it. " (Ashley Noll, Divine Allurement, Latimer Studies 2014, p.7f.)
What is the place for Anglican Liturgy in the modern world?
Null points to the red thread that runs through Cranmer’s liturgy: "The glory of God is to love the unworthy" (p.8). If you stay close to Anglican liturgy, you stay close to the Gospel.
I commend the Latimer publications which examine the BCP texts for Baptism, The Lord’s Supper, The Funeral, and the Marriage, as marvellous examples of the abiding power of liturgy.
Whilst there is less “commonality” in modern liturgies, they still provide the framework to engage head and heart in the rhythm of worship and word in our corporate worship.