The principle ‘garbage in, garbage out’ applies just as much to liturgy as to computers. Indeed, far from guaranteeing the faithfulness of the Church, lex orandi, lex credendi may actually mean that liturgy does more harm than good.
Take the terms in which we address God. It was C S Lewis who wrote that ‘a child who had been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child’. Note, not ‘from a child who had been taught to call God “Father”’ but ‘from a Christian child’. Yet similarly, a congregation who have been taught by their liturgy to call God ‘Creator’ rather than ‘Father’ will surely have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian congregation.
But what we say to God clearly matters as much as how we address him. And here again, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.
Thomas Cranmer, who understood these things, was careful to put into the mouths of ministers and congregations words which expressed what they ought to feel and believe. In his confessions we may feel he has somewhat over-egged the pudding, but no one can doubt what they ought to be feeling about their sins: ‘the remembrance of them is grievous … the burden is intolerable’. By contrast, Common Worship give us: ‘We are sorry and ashamed and repent’. True enough, but do we thereby ‘bewail our manifold sins and wickedness’?
By contrast, when it comes to funerals Common Worship is all too keen to tell God how we feel — or rather, how the liturgists feel we should feel: ‘hurt … angry’. But the enduring popularity of the 23rd Psalm amongst generations of mourners surely betokens a greater instinctive wisdom. And ‘I will fear no evil’ surely sits better than ‘we feel broken and disturbed’ alongside ‘O death, where is thy sting?’
David could pour out his feelings as well as any modern: ‘Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.’ Yet a moment later he declares his error, ‘If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.’
Let the liturgist read, and learn.