Liturgy, says Arthur Middleton, is never a means to an end

Canon Clifford Wright described the 1989 New Year’s Eve jazzed-up version of Songs of Praise as an advert for media faith instead of an encounter with God. “It was not a mirror of reality … religion was in danger of being trivialised, a branch of show business, robbing it of serious intentions.” People would believe the same was on offer in our churches. Similar anxieties have been expressed about trends in contemporary worship that concoct “attractive services” to communicate information (usually on political or social issues), make everyone feel good, experience something pleasurable and ensure instant comprehension. Worship divorced from everyday life becomes meaningless, as it does, when, to create that link, the dramatic level of worship is reduced to the ordinary and everyday, because worship presupposes the necessity of bringing the whole of life to a higher level. Similarly, when worship becomes a means to some other human end, it is depreciated. The assumption is that God exists for man and heaven for earth, and that everything is valueless unless it brings instant benefit to people assessable in terms of this world. The priest who uses the congregation as a measure by which to order public worship, assuming that liturgy should always meet us where we are, soon finds it impossible to continue presenting it in that kind of way. This always happens when worship ceases to be an end in itself because its principal value is in the actual doing of it, not in apparent results. Reduced to a means it ceases to be prayer, becoming a cerebral sharing of ideas and actions to manipulate group activity. Liturgy becomes secularised.

The Peoples’ Prayer Michael Ramsey stressed that the offering in the Eucharist be the stuff and substance of human life, but not to the exclusion of the otherworldly and supernatural elements. Liturgy is the Church’s way into communion with God and personal prayer as part of the praying Church rests upon it. Liturgical movements will bridge the gap between worship and the common life only when accompanied by a revival of contemplative prayer because liturgical and spiritual renewal are inter-related. Effective worship requires both kinds of renewal be taken seriously and will emerge only after liturgical worship is given a rightful place in the life of the soul.

The Primary Aim Liturgy must lead to a rediscovery of the Church. Its primary aim, the growth of all into the new unity in Christ given in Baptism and always received in the Eucharist, can often be diminished. The uniting of us all in the one Body by partaking of this one Bread and Cup in the Communion of the Holy Spirit, must always be paramount. Then the Body of Christ becomes a living experience and Christianity the gift of a new life in Christ rather than a philosophy or morality. This new life is the Church, salvation, creating a new nation to offer to God the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, where liturgy is central because it expresses the Church’s essence and breath, its constant self-revelation. Liturgy communicates a present experience of the Kingdom making the Church the Body of Christ, where knowledge of God is revealed through communion with him.

Word and Sacrament Separating Word and Sacrament destroys their integration, making preaching distinct from liturgy and proclamation from celebration. Together they form a unique and unified medium between God and Man, giving the Word a sacramental character, and the Sacrament a proclamatory character. So the Word cannot be reduced to a purely verbal level of understanding that is completely identified with preaching, as though it possessed in and of itself the capacity to transmit knowledge of God and communion with him. Human words only become the Word of God through the inspirational and interpretative power of the Holy Spirit. The Risen Christ operating through the Spirit opens our minds to understand the Scriptures, giving an intuitive awareness that breaks through our consciousness, enabling blindness to become vision and deafness hearing. Jesus links proclamation of the Gospel with concrete material signs that reveal a deeper meaning to confirm the truth of his words. In the life of the Church the Word is confirmed and made actual by the sacramental sign. In their organic relationship “the power of the Sacrament” is derived from “the power of the Word” that it enshrines and celebrates, and in this sacramental context the Word comes to its fullest expression. The Word has an inherent life of its own with its own mode of expression, but remains an incomplete revelation before the celebration of the Eucharistic mystery. At Emmaus, perceptive understanding and the fullness of revelation came only through a personal and intimate communion in the breaking of the bread.

Liturgical Catechesis In the Primitive Church the Liturgy of the Word was the Liturgy of the Catechumens. Here faith and life was handed on to new members as an essential part of church life. Today the intrusion of classroom models and “technology” stamps the Liturgy of the Word with an academic character, reducing it to the purely “verbal” level of understanding. No attempt is made to find a way of spiritually reading the reality the liturgy communicates or discover the essence and spirit of what liturgical action is. A liturgical catechesis brings the individual into the life of the Church not by communicating “religious knowledge” on a mere cerebral level but by way of “edification”, the “building-up” of a member of the Body of Christ into the life of the Church, into an enfolding of its meaning, its contents and purpose, by participation in the liturgical services and their explanation. “O taste and see how good the Lord is”. First taste, then see, that is, understand. Catechesis starts in the Liturgy where experience precedes explanation as in contemporary educational practice. Baptism initiates into the membership of the Church to taste, see, and experience, before explanation of the meaning, joy, and purpose of the Christian ecclesia. Today we need to rediscover liturgical catechesis, which will happen when people have a better understanding of the essence of the Church’s liturgical life where dogma, prayer and life are held together. A prior need is the rediscovery of the Church as New Life, the spiritualization of the parish and the rejuvenation of personal spirituality. Then the Church will win the fight against modern paganism, healing the wounds it has inflicted on human nature.

Liturgy and Education Today many parishes encourage children to come to the Eucharist, to taste, see and experience the living Church. Instinctively children respond to liturgical worship and their unsophistication penetrates more easily than adults the mysterium tremendum. Childlike openness and receptivity must precede knowing and experiencing the Kingdom of God. In the Eucharist a child tastes, knows and experiences what in the classroom remains a cerebral abstraction. Encouraging preparation before the Sunday Liturgy is never easy but worth trying, because it can shape the religious consciousness of the family in which the child matures. Bible-reading, keeping Lent, personal prayer with fasting, encourages a personal spirituality centred in the weekly Eucharist. Reading the Sunday lections links the Bible with the life of the Church, enabling Bible and Liturgy to mutually explain, complete, and “reveal” each other. A disposition of contemplative waiting and listening communicates what liturgy is, anamnesis, a present experience of salvation. Everything Christ accomplished once and for all returns to life as a present experience. Remembrance of Christ is the foundation of the Christian Year, each feast being a way into communion with a past event through which we taste the Kingdom of God that makes the biblical texts live. The rhythm of church life must come alive in ourselves before we can communicate it to others.

Liturgical Symbols In this age of visual communication the Church has lost confidence in its own rich symbols. Some substitute the technology of media methods resulting from a purely verbal understanding of the Word, reducing symbolism to mere illustration, visual aids. Symbolism is more than illustration, its purpose being to manifest and communicate by participation in it the life-giving reality symbolized, but precisely as other, Hence, the symbol may not outwardly resemble what it symbolises, but it cannot be communicated in any other way than by symbol, nor reduced to a representative sign of an absent reality, something that is not really in the sign itself. Understanding symbolism requires a knowledge of Scripture because the knowledge of Scripture is disclosed in worship. To understand the significance of water in Baptism, oil in Unction, Holy Spirit and Pentecost, requires a knowledge of such themes in the Bible. The waters of the Flood, Passover and Exodus, find their meaning in the history of salvation only in relation to the waters of Baptism which become for us not only the womb and the grave but also a cleansing. This scriptural context of liturgical symbolism is the authority justifying the existence of the Church’s sacramental life, by showing that they are constant ways in which God acts. They are not accidents, but the means by which God operates and become an epiphany of his presence. Lex orandi lex credendi, the rule of prayer is the rule of belief, and only as we maintain this rule can we ensure effective worship and rediscover the foundations of Christian education.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon in the Diocese of Durham.