Echoes of Silent Music

Since the approval of the ASB, the Church of England has had six Eucharistic prayers. Some might say that we’ve been spoilt for choice, but the Liturgical Commission has been determined to produce six more and at the Synod in February a long and tortuous process reached final approval stage – the last hurdle.

It probably came as a bit of a shock to the liturgical enthusiasts (of whom there are a few on Synod) that the debate ground slowly to a halt. It felt a bit like the charge of Pharaoh’s chariots across the Red Sea in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites as they slowly became stuck in the soft sand.

It started unassumingly enough with one or two speakers taking exception to a word or two in some of the prayers. But the protestations were not isolated: they grew in seriousness and intensity as the debate progressed. Some speakers detected defective theology in some of the prayers. “We praise you for the earth and sea, for wind and fire” does have a pre-Christian ring about it, doesn’t it? But when you read the footnote which said that “this line may be replaced by an alternative insertion of similar length”, it became apparent that any strange and erroneous doctrine might be inserted at that point. The Bishop of Birmingham was all for doing his duty and banishing such material. He urged Synod to do the same.

Other speakers were dubious about the language employed in the prayers. “How can we plead with confidence?” asked Dr Peter May. “If we plead, it is because we don’t have confidence; if we do have confidence, then we don’t have to plead.” The logic was hard to refute. Another speaker queried what was meant by all your works echo the silent music of your praise. Synod members were indeed puzzled by the concept of silent music, and as for its echo – well that stumped most of us.

As the debate ground on, those behind cried, “Forward!” We were told that these texts had been through the Liturgical Commission, the House of Bishops, the Synod, a Revision Committee and goodness knows where else, so they had to be approved. Bishop Colin Buchanan stood Canute-like as the tide lapped around his feet. He responded to the criticism on all sides by defying members of the previous Synod to vote against the prayers because he felt that all their objections should have been raised earlier in the process.

But those in front cried, “Back!” For many of us who at Deanery Synod meetings regularly face our electorate, the ultimate consumers of the liturgy we authorise, there was no way we could serve up such a mess of pottage which so signally failed to meet the basic quality criteria. Better to blow the whistle – even at this late stage – than to sell the pass and devalue the liturgy. Frankly, I for one can’t accept the argument that says its all our fault. I think we have a right to expect the Liturgical Commission to produce a quality product for us to consider. There’s no point in having meetings of experts serving up something that has such serious shortcomings that Synod is expected to disassemble texts down to component parts and start again. If that’s the way it is, what value is the Liturgical Commission adding to the process?

When the texts were put to the vote, the required two-thirds majority in the House of Laity was not forthcoming by a wide margin, so the House of Laity truly saved the day. However the liturgical enthusiasts will not be frustrated for long. They can begin work almost straight away on revising the ASB (a process that must be completed within four years). They could do worse than take a look at the English Prayer Book, published by Church Society, which is basically a modern language version of the Book of Common Prayer, but which Synod’s liturgists have apparently been doing their best to ignore. Anyway, Synod has served notice that total quality needs to be the order of the day in the Liturgical Commission.

After the debate I was having a cup of coffee with two Bishops in the Hoare Memorial Hall. The House of Bishops had nearly followed the House of Laity’s lead, and come within a couple of votes of rejecting the Eucharistic Prayers themselves. I confided that I was surprised that texts about which so many people apparently entertained reservations had survived all the revision processes. But as we thought about it, we speculated that if some churches use the Roman Missal and others don’t use any recognizable liturgy at all, who is bothered about what the authorised texts say? And as I pointed out, if you wanted to completely rewrite the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, it would take an eternity to get revised wording through the Liturgical Commission, the House of Bishops, Synod and Revision Committees, not to mention consultations with all our ecumenical partners. On the other hand if you got Garth Hewitt to set your preferred text to music, we could all sing it in church next Sunday! Given that popular theology is picked up from the things we say and sing in church, maybe there’s a need for some consistency.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.