Christopher Smith wonders about those “speciality liturgies”

As New Directions lands on our doormats this month, our ears are still ringing with those words we heard as we received the Ash Wednesday ash: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return – repent, and believe in the Gospel.” It feels quite intimate, doesn’t it? It’s a moment about me and my sin, and my need to turn away from it. But, of course, that really isn’t the whole story.

There are made-up services aplenty nowadays, should you want more “me-focused” liturgies generally. The SCM sale leaflet makes uninspiring reading, and is full of remaindered books about “reshaping the role of the worship leader”, “creative ideas for pastoral liturgy”, “themed celebrations of the Eucharist”, and even “praying with the earth”. Meanwhile, at the end of the early news bulletin recently, I heard that “a Church of England theological college” – which turned out to be Westcott House – had put on Evensong in Polari. Listening to the steadfast tones of Corrie Corfield reading part of the opening versicles and responses in a slang which was used to such amusing effect in Round the Horne was simultaneously shocking and amusing, and left me wondering whether Experimental Worship later in the term would incorporate Formation Goat Nadgering and Nark Fettering on Ice.

The trouble with such “speciality liturgies” is that they so easily become “all about me”. Yet even the liturgy of the imposition of ashes is really a corporate act, which is why we always hear that reading from the Prophet Joel on Ash Wednesday. Joel recognises the need for repentance after the exile, and calls a solemn assembly, fasting, and involving all the people. And God takes pity on his people. “Come back to me,” he says. “Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning.” Our Ash Wednesday antics must look very odd to the modern, secular world: a tiny hang-over from Old Testament times, when kings and peoples rent their garments, and sat in sack-cloth and ashes to show their repentance before God. Yet we know that what God wants to do is to forgive. And we understand our need to repent and to turn back to God, the same need expressed by the Psalmist all those centuries ago: “wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.”

There was a quite interesting subset of “all about me” liturgy on the Feast of the Epiphany this year. You may have read that the collective genius behind the Anglican cathedral in Glasgow thought it would be a super idea to invite a Muslim along to chant from the Qur’an at mass in substitution for one of the biblical lections. “Look at us,” they were saying. “Aren’t we inclusive?” “It’s all the same, isn’t it?” And being so wrapped up in their own self-righteousness, it hadn’t occurred to them that there might be anything problematic in reading a passage from Islamic scripture about the birth of Jesus which (as is central to Islamic theology) denies the divinity of Christ. “That is Jesus, the son of Mary, the word of truth about which they are in dispute. It is not befitting for Allah to take a son.” (Qur’an 19.34-5)

Gavin Ashenden wrote to The Times about it: “The justification offered, that it engages some kind of reciprocity, founders on the understandable refusal of Islamic communities to read passages from the Gospel in Muslim prayers announcing the Lordship of Christ. It never happens.” But, of course, reciprocity had never been in the mind of those who issued the invitation in the first place, only how it would make them look. Having written his letter, Canon Ashenden, who taught for many years at the University of Sussex and is something of an expert in the theology of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, was leant on to resign his chaplaincy to the Queen, whereas of course, nobody has resigned from any position at Glasgow Cathedral.

How did we become so complacent about our faith that we feel we can just toss it aside in an attempt to reconcile something with it that simply cannot be reconciled? We have forgotten our place in salvation history, and we have stopped reflecting on the covenant between God and His people. We don’t go to mass because we’re part of some giant social engineering project; we go to mass because God entered into a covenant with our Jewish forefathers, and He has entered into a new covenant with us. And what a journey that has been, from the primitive human desire to bargain with the “gods” about victory in war or an end to the drought in return for this or that sacrifice, through the covenant made and renewed with Noah, Abraham, and Moses, to the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, a covenant that can never be broken, fulfilled by Jesus in His life, death and resurrection: the perfect covenant at last. No need to ratify this covenant with animal sacrifice, for this is “the new covenant in my blood”. No need either to be continually concocting speciality liturgies to boost our own egos: we have already been given the new and eternal covenant for the forgiveness of sins.

This is the good news: that God has entered into a new covenant with us, and He continually calls us to respond. And for now, the call is to repentance. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Yet beneath that stark reminder lies the promise of forgiveness through repentance. “Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning.” Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel. The template for the Christian life.