Thursday, June 11, 2009

The transformative power of liturgy

“The arrangement of our liturgical furniture, rather than a theological position paper or academic treatise, is the real indicator or how we feel about God and our fellow worshippers”, writes Richard Giles in his Celebrating Uncommon Worship (2004).

Most churches in this country are arranged like concert halls: the seating arrangement, whether pews or loose chairs, turns the assembly into an audience and the choir and clergy into performers. The sanctuary becomes the stage. Occasionally the audience gets to join in with the odd response or by standing up when the performers are doing something important, but most of the time they simply follow the proceedings in their programmes. The members of the audience hardly relate to each other at all within the performance, arranged as they are with a view for the most part only of the backs of heads.

Orthodox churches are arranged differently: there are usually no seats at all for the congregation who stand throughout the Liturgy, and are therefore more of a crowd than an audience. Although they are still spectators of actions being performed on their behalf (and largely out of sight behind an icon screen), they do so more as a group than as a collection of individuals.

There are other ways of arranging a church. Interestingly, school and college chapels usually have the seats or stalls facing each other rather than towards the ‘east’ end. We call this arrangement - wherever it is found - ‘college type seating’ making it perfectly clear that we understand that furniture reflects the perceived nature of a community: the closer the members identify with one another the more they arrange themselves so that they can actually see each other.

At the Reformation Archbishop Cranmer, the ‘architect’ of the reformed Church of England, not only compiled a new English language liturgy (the Book of Common Prayer), he also proposed a radical rearrangement of church furnishings. He wanted the altar to be brought out of the sanctuary into the body of the church where it would be placed in the midst of the congregation (English churches in those days would not have had fixed seating). This reflected his theological understanding of the Eucharist as a shared meal celebrated by the community as a whole. The problem was Cranmer had in mind a committed Christian community voluntarily coming together for worship in an age when attendance at church was a civil duty with penalties for those who absented themselves. Congregations might be smaller today, but at least every one is here because they want to be.

Now let’s think about St Jude’s.

Our church interior was designed to be a large open space with the congregational seating running right up to the altar rail as you see in many continental churches. However, it was then furnished in such a way as to replicate what most people thought an English church should like because most of them did look that way, with the organ and choir stalls giving the impression that the church has a narrow, medieval style, chancel, and pushing the congregational seating well away from the action and half way down a ‘nave’.

On Ash Wednesday and during Holy Week this year we arranged the church differently, recovering both the sense of space characteristic of the early church and the layout advocated by Cranmer. As the photograph shows the seats were placed ‘college style’ so that everyone could see everyone else’s faces; the altar was brought into the body of an assembly of which the President and choir were part. In short, liturgy was being rediscovered and explored as a shared act of the community. One of the benefits of the arrangement was that prominence could be given to the features of the drama of particular celebrations: the bowl containing the ash on Ash Wednesday, the table of the Last Supper on
Maundy Thursday, the Cross on Good Friday. On Palm Sunday the church ‘became’ a street and a court in Jerusalem; on Maundy Thursday the long table turned it into the Upper Room; on Good Friday we experienced there the empty space before the cross.

Richard Giles writes of the “
transformative power of worship”. He quotes another liturgical writer who “although eager to see churches grow . . . is convinced that ‘programs for growth’ will not work. Instead growth is a natural by-product of a community which, centred on God and at peace with itself, enters in to a journey of transformation. The sad truth is that, even in communities of faith belonging to so-called ‘liturgical churches’, there is precious little excitement, practically no silence, and zero unpredictability. The overriding purpose of a community of faith is not growth, or worship, or education or social action, or any such activity in itself. The business of the church is to change people.” What is extraordinary, and I believe that we are beginning to see this at St Jude’s, is the powerful effect of liturgy in enabling that change.

I am writing this the day after Pentecost Sunday when the church was arranged in the conventional style, but the liturgy was distinguished by the reading of the Gospel in Welsh and Farsi as a reminder (or should that be revelation?) that we are not simply an Anglo-Saxon community. I am sure that small experience had a far greater ‘effect’ and will be remembered longer than the sermon which followed.

‘Liturgy’ means ‘the work of the people’. It means the same as ‘service’, but ‘services’ have become things ‘taken’ by the clergy. We need to recover worship both as a communal expression of faith and also as a power to change our lives. And we might start by moving a few chairs.
Published in the Summer 2009 edition of The Spire

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