Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Rant on the Current State of Church Services

Once upon a time, you could walk into any Anglican Church in the world and you would know exactly what was happening in the church service. For centuries the Anglican church around the world had followed the same pattern of liturgy and worship. All this changed in the twentieth century with the updating of language and customs - which was quite right given the great difference in language from the 1662 to the 1970's when the first modern Anglican prayer book was published in Australia. But since then the rate of revision had been rapid and astronomical. After three centuries of exclusive use of the Book of Common Prayer, the Diocese of Sydney (formally) went through 3 different prayer books in just 30 years. Besides this, many churches have moved to type of informalism for their services.

Many of these changes have been necessary to keep up with the development of Australian society over the past 50 years. But accompanying this has been a worrying tendency. It has become all to easy to throw out anything the is old, traditional or formal (i.e. the creeds, communion, confession) for the sake of informality. Informalism for the sheer sake of informalism is not a desirable thing. In fact, if anything, it has often resulted in church services that are half-baked, half-arsed, and run according to whim. In pursuit of the noble cause of being informal, our church services are reduced to cliche's and entertainment - the congregation has no idea what will come next and so are reduced to being an audience as they await the next move.

The other problem is that the pursuit of this highest ideal is that our informal services are often just as unintelligible and alienating as the liturgy that they replaced. I saw this problem in my old church. The theory was that no one in the town would step into church, but they would spend all their time in cafes. So turning the church service into a cafe seemed the obvious thing to do. Except that it was a poorly run cafe - why go to there when people go to a nice and comfortable cafe two doors up the road. Nor only did it fail misread to the culture, it also failed to serve the people actually at the church. And has been stated elsewhere:
'The reason we eschewed formality in church services was because that was what WE on the inside wanted (or some of us, anyway) - the missiological reason was in fact only a justification for it'
Of course formalism for the sake of formalism is also dangerous. One of the great strengths of Anglicanism has been it's quality to culturally contextualise it's form and identity to whatever situation it's in. The challenge we face in our contemporary liturgy is to provide church services that allow for spontaneity the relaxed felling that informal service provide, whilst not descending to pure laziness or rejecting good practices on the basis of how formal they are. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.

See also: Missiological assumptions?


Mike Bull said...

What the church does in sincerely practised liturgy changes the world. It is putting our feet on the necks of the world's kings in symbol. The Lord of Hosts takes it from there.

mike said...

Since our churches are highly unlikely to go back to prayer books (mores the pity), how can we encourage better liturgy. Where can we find the theological poets with sensitivity to the depth of worship, and how can we resource them to create suitably 'informal' but rich and enriching liturgy?
The net seems to be the perfect model for distribution, perhaps a site would encourage contribution as well.

Mike Bull said...

Doug Wilson's church is working on liturgical reformation.

Check out his podcast sermon called "Rite and Ritual" (from memory) explaining the pitfalls and benefits of liturgy, based on Psalm 50.

"They take all this iniquity and put a beautiful white robe and a stole on it. It's like 2 inches of snow on a dung heap."

Canon Press online sermons,