An Alternative Carol Service

The Order of Service for a Carol Service that we had last week; this is what I wrote in the pew sheet: “I’ve been asked what ‘An Alternative Carol Service’ is. It is a traditional Carol Service in terms of its format (bidding prayer, readings and carols) but using one of the alternative themes and patterns of readings suggested in Common Worship – ‘Good News for the Poor’. The carols have been chosen to fit that theme, many of them simply alternative words to familiar tunes. The aim is to bring out an element of the Christmas story that I believe is often missed: ‘the meaning of the manger’. For those who want the more customary ‘Nine Lessons’ style Carol Service, Peldon’s service is at 6pm tonight (18th), and East Mersea has a traditional candle-lit service at 6.30 on Christmas Eve. There is also the Friends traditional Carol concert on Tuesday evening and our own two Carol services on Christmas Eve, as well as a wholly traditional Midnight Mass. Given the scale of the provision here and across the benefice as a whole I felt that there was room to explore something just a little different. There will be mulled wine and mince pies available after the service and I do hope people will come and join us for what I am sure will be an enjoyable and meaningful service.”

The service provoked some very strong reactions, both positive and negative, which I’m still digesting, and I suspect we won’t do it in the same way next year. I wasn’t going to post it, but reading Giles Fraser I thought that people might find it of some interest. (By the way, I think this research is relevant!!)


Carol: It came upon the midnight clear (323)

Bidding Prayer and Lord’s Prayer (trad)

Reading: Micah 5.2-5a

Carol: When God Almighty came to earth (sheet)

Reading: Isaiah 35

Carol: The aye carol (sheet)

Reading: Jeremiah 22.13-17; 23.5,6

Carol: Inspired by Love and Anger (317)

Reading: Isaiah 11.1-9

Carol: Join the song of praise and protest (363)

Reading: Isaiah 40.1-10

Carol: God bless us and disturb us (sheet)

Reading: Philippians 2.5-11

Carol: Once in Judah’s least known city (sheet)

Reading: Luke 2.1-20

Carol: When our God came to earth (729)

Solemn Blessing

Who or what is worship for?

This is by way of a quick commentary on a video that Banksy has posted (tying in with some conversations that we’ve been having). Here’s the vid:

I would very much want to endorse the second half of the vid, especially the link between pastoral care and the leading of worship (that’s why you can’t have lay presidency – doh!) and the fact that, if you pitch worship towards people who aren’t members, then the worship doesn’t have integrity.


I think the first part of the vid is one-sided (not untrue, just not the whole picture). Who is worship for? That is, what is the centre of gravity? The centre of gravity must be God, otherwise it is not worship, it is entertainment, some form of self-stimulation. Worship must have (MUST) have an irredeemably other, prophetic and even judgemental quality about it. It is a fearful thing to come into the presence of the living God.

It is therefore perfectly legitimate for worship to be found strange, off-putting, weird or bizarre to begin with. If the worship is real, if the Spirit is present, then the worship won’t just be strange, it will be strangely attractive, and people will be enabled to enter into and share in the mystery. This may require that worship does not change with contemporary fads, it means resisting a collapse into worldliness, it means giving a full respect and weight to worship that has been found valid through time, what CS Lewis called ‘Deep Church’.

However… that being said, the speaker on the video does have a point. It is perfectly possible for worship to lose touch with the Spirit through being embedded too far in its own fundament(als). The word that I have found useful for striking the right balance between a worldly trendiness that lacks God-centred integrity, and a broken down ruin that has only memories of the divine glory, is this: enable. Right worship enables the congregation to come into the presence of God. There is no set way of achieving this – all sorts of ways can ‘work’ – it depends entirely on the gathered believers, which is why the second half of the video is spot on.

The question is: what will enable THIS community of believers, gathered together, to worship God in Spirit and in Truth? What will enable them to enter into the great mystery of faith, in a way which feeds their soul and enables them to access spiritual medicine? The answers change according to time and context…

See also:
Tearing Down the Curtain
The Role of Music in Worship

Incarnational worship

Joe and Peter took issue in the comments with the previous post and I wanted to expand on my perspective (ie why I liked the article I linked to).

On the one hand we have worship that is centred on holiness, the mysterium tremendens et fascinans, the provoking of awe and (in the strict sense) ecstasy. This is more associated with the Anglo-Catholic style of worship.

On the other hand we have worship that is centred on being human, relational, relaxed and informal. This is more associated with the Evangelical style of worship.

Pushed to an extreme, is this not a failure (on both sides) to be incarnational? In other words, the Anglo-Catholic tendency is to err in losing the humanity, the evangelical tendency is to err in losing the divinity in worship?

Whereas Jesus unites the two; and therefore so must our worship.

My worry with what Peter and Joe argue is that when we are worshipping, we are specifically worshipping God, and our relationship to Jesus must contain – I suggest – more of the woman clutching his cloak or Thomas exclaiming ‘My Lord and my God!’ than simply gathering to share a glass of wine with a community of friends (and it is that, of course). We need to find the place of balance, the sweet spot of the Spirit.

Peter said “The assumption in the article is God/Jesus is only present in church, specifically at every communion…” – it’s not so much that God/Jesus is ONLY present in church, but that he is indeed especially present in communion, there is a real presence which is significant. That is what lay behind my comment about the place of Old Testament worship (on which topic John Richardson has an excellent point here).

In other words, I think there is a further permutation of the evangelical error above, which is to flatten our experience of God. To say that God can be encountered everywhere and worshipped anywhere is true. Yet it is also true that we are a) sinful, b) therefore need to be taught how to worship and relate to God, and c) need to take account of the Scriptural witness that God is to be found and worshipped in particular places at particular times in particular ways. What has in fact happened, as a result of that evangelical emphasis (Protestant emphasis) upon God being worshippable anywhere, is that God ends up being worshipped nowhere – because we no longer know how to worship. The historic desire to avoid sacerdotalism has eviscerated the holy and we now live in a culture full of the spiritually starving who see what goes on in church as irrelevant to their hunger. The one leads inexorably to the other.

It is indeed possible to be mystically united with God at all times and in all places. Yet I suspect that any human beings like me need training and assistance (the what, the why and the how) in order to attain such an exalted spiritual state. This is exactly what communion does – it is our principal spiritual medicine which heals us and enables us to share in Christ’s life. After all, Jesus didn’t just come to abolish the Temple; he came to abolish it and replace it, with his Body. If we fail to take that seriously, ie with sufficient awe and reverence, then I believe that we are not keeping the faith, and we are not growing in the Spirit.

Worship in the Best of Both Worlds (Philip Greenslade)

One of those books that began life as PhD and it shows; but basically a very good exploration of how liturgy should be done, from an evangelical-discovering-the-wonders-of-catholicism perspective. Some excellent chapters, some where the academic apparatus drowns the point being made. Not sure I’d recommend it to anyone not already a theology graduate, which is a shame as it contains good material.

The Good Morning Liturgy or, should the president ever smile at the congregation?

Pursuing this topic further; first, something I wrote shortly after getting to Mersea in 2003:

I thought I should set out why I think [beginning with ‘good morning’] is a liturgical mistake, ie a matter of theology rather than a question of style. (So many things are just stylistic, but I think this is more important, even if it’s not a “salvation issue”!) …It boils down to the question of priorities, and what worship is for. If worship is primarily about giving praise to God then God should be given the first priority, and the set liturgical greeting should be used as the first words spoken (ie normally ‘The Lord be with you’ – the ‘In the name of…’ is an optional additional greeting, and IS more a matter of stylistic preference). That way it is clear from the very beginning that it is an act of worship that the people have been gathered together for. What happens after that can then be set out once the overall tone/ priority has been established.

The ‘good morning’ liturgy sets the priority as being the fellowship of the community – an acknowledgement of (celebration of?) the gathering together – and a focussing of attention upon that. So at best it is placing love of neighbour above love of God – which can sometimes be right when in the world, loving God through loving the neighbour and so on – but not in the context of worship which is all about directing our attention wholly upon God. Beginning the service with a ‘good morning’, whilst more comfortable and more easily accessible is also more conforming to the world – it is customary in various different settings (schools, businesses etc) and its use doesn’t mark out this particular set time and space for worship in the way that the liturgical greeting does. More importantly, when the liturgical greeting comes after a ‘good morning’ it takes on the appearance of an afterthought – the important stuff has been said, now we’ve just got to get this
bothersome God-business out of the way. It is about what priority we give to acknowledging God as the focus of worship.

From a useful book I possess:

“The president’s initial task is to greet the people. There are few bolder statements with which to open an assembly than ‘The Lord be with you’. These greetings need no supplementaries. For that reason, and for that reason alone, secular greetings such as ‘Good morning’ only serve to dumb down the Eucharist, as if the president were the compere of some sort of chat-show, patronizing the rest of the community. Aidan Kavanagh puts it best: ‘Since one would prefer not to entertain the possibility that the secular greeting is a mark of clerical condescension to the simple and untutored laity, the only alternative is to attribute the secular greeting’s use to presidential thoughtlessness of a fairly low order’.”

I’ve softened somewhat since writing that; not at all in thinking that beginning with ‘good morning’ is legitimate, but in accepting the ‘good morning’ as part of the opening elements – and I certainly don’t agree with that final extract any more.

Fundamentally I see following up the liturgical greetings with a ‘good morning’, or (which I would normally do) a ‘welcome to our celebration of communion here this morning’ as being about putting people at their ease (particularly, but not exclusively, any newcomers). Now this might seem trivial – “we’re here to worship God! This is a terrifying thing! People shouldn’t be at their ease!” – but actually I think there is something essential here about the nature of Christian worship.

Let me ask this question: is it ever appropriate for the president to smile at the gathered congregation?

It seems to me that one consistent answer would be to say ‘No’ – the focus of attention for the entire congregation, including clergy, should be God alone – and any direct interaction between president and people is a distraction from this. Hence: a strict adherence to the liturgy alone; a pew for the president which is unobtrusive; a purely verbal exchange of peace; and, surely, an Eastward facing celebration. This seems coherent to me, and I can understand the attraction of that form of worship.

However, I don’t think it’s particularly Christian! We know from the first letter of John that we can’t love what is unseen unless we love what we do see – each other. We also know that we are to see the face of Christ in one another, and, therefore, it doesn’t make sense to think of human contact as preventing right worship.

There is also the point that the president is in loco Christi, particularly at communion (one reason why it is essential that ordination not be restricted to one type of humanity). The president necessarily carries authority within the congregation and sets the tone for the worship whether s/he wishes to or not (for better or for worse). The question is therefore is the president representing an austere and remote God or an approachable, incarnational one?

So I see setting people at ease as non-trivial (this whole issue is non-trivial) and it is important to make the choice about which pattern to go with. My concern with the more strict/traditionalist Anglo-Catholic perspective is that it becomes mechanical with all the humanity drained out of it – the very definition of ’empty ritual’. My concern on the other hand with the ‘good morning liturgy’ remains as before – it evacuates any sense of the sacred. It seems to me that if we are worshipping an incarnate God then there is a creative balance to be found between these two extremes, and that is what I aim for. Essentially, if it is legitimate to smile at the congregation – ie have at least that level of human interaction – then the whole shift to a less formal pattern follows along with it.

The Vatican gets a bit Meldrew

Priests must not say ‘good morning’ to their congregation.

Which I have to admit I completely agree with. I always say ‘Good morning’ once I’ve begun the service with ‘in the name of….’, which establishes the context. It is, of course, possible to go too far in the other direction and render a service completely inhuman and mechanical.

Don’t agree with the other change mentioned at the end of the article though – seems to leave the priest out of the shared invocation.

On liturgy

It’s become apparent in the benefice that I still need to do some explanation as to why liturgy is essential for right worship. So I’m plotting six or seven articles in the parish magazines about liturgy and related matters. They’ll probably start out as blogposts 😉

However, in the meantime, Kyle is on really good form at the moment. Check out his posts on monasticism (definitely something I’m pondering with regard to Mersea) and even more, this post which includes his comments:

Response to Con #1. Oh, if only we could teach people to “simply recite praise to God”! In the Catholic tradition, we understand that the “rigid” liturgy teaches us to pray extemporaneously. The Church teaches us the language of prayer and praise, and until we start to use it, we don’t even know what it would be like to “mean” it. Our “incredibly rigid” liturgy (I’m choosing to claim that, I know you didn’t put it on me) is expanding the imaginative world of our people to understand that they inhabit a world which is receiving the healing presence of this Kingdom where God lives and reigns.

In our tradition, there is very little of what you call “variety” permitted, and I give thanks for that. As a matter of fact, we do the same thing every week, with “different songs, prayers [and] sermons.” And it’s a good thing.

Con #2. Christian liturgy is not meant to be comfortable for “guests or pre-Christians.” It is the rehearsal of the grand story that informs our lives, and it puts the lie to every other story by which people of this world lives their lives. Christian liturgy is political and prophetic, and God help us if those outside the community find it “comfortable.”

Con #3. In our tradition, laity read the scripture (great big chapters of it), serve the Precious Blood, and lead the bible classes. At the same time, the pastor is the Rector (ruler) and what he says goes in terms of Christian worship. The liturgy is bound up with pastoral care, and it is his responsibility.

Con #4. I suggest that for proponents of what you call “contemporary” worship, the reason they struggle to be transformed is 1) the liturgy is inappropriate to begin with (did you eat Jesus this week?) and 2) they have yet to submit themselves to the Jesus who comes to them in what they call “the same old thing.” Chasing after the next interesting thing only seems edifying.

Con #5. Clearly, one man’s “lazy” is another man’s “faithful.”

A final word – the blogger (Jeremy) leaves a comment: “Thanks for the comments, Kyle and indie. Your word are very enlightening and I will reflect upon and learn from them.” Would that we all – including me – had such an enlightened attitude.

Fermentations of an old wino

These are my initial reflections on the New Wine Leadership Conference “Releasing the Kingdom”. Brief summary: some prejudices confirmed, but also more confirmed that I have a charismatic side emerging.

OK – back when I had my ‘baptism of fire’ moment it became clear to me that I had some spiritual work to do on my expectations of the miraculous and various other charismatic elements in my nature. In particular, whilst I have slowly become intellectually persuaded both of the reality of miraculous healing, and the importance of that in Christian ministry, I was more aware that I still have a lot of secular assumptions in my habits of thought. So I went to the conference hoping for a breakthrough – or breakdown! – of those habits, so that I could start to act with a little more authority and faith in that regard.

Well that didn’t happen, for various reasons, but I still think it will at some point. The biggest handicap was that the venue wasn’t really a safe place for me to explore these things, but more specific things can be said.

Firstly, I thought there was a good amount of solid teaching embedded in the talks, and I’ve taken quite a few thoughts and inspirations away. I thought that John Coles was quite impressive, except for when he was making cracks about Rowan/ liberals/ homosexuality which were a distraction, and I attended one seminar with Anne Maclaurin which was excellent and very timely for me (lots of things at the conference were timely…), but the main teaching input was provided by Bill Johnson – and I had a few problems with him.

Partly the issue was about a culture clash. Bill is from California and it shows – in his first talk I found it quite difficult to get beyond an impression of appalling arrogance (yes I know it takes one….) but in the later sessions that was less of an issue. What was more of an issue was an underlying disparagement of the intellect. This seemed to be a major element of New Wine as a whole: firstly a division between ‘head and heart’ was assumed (in itself distinctly UNscriptural!), secondly the ‘heart’, ie emotion, was elevated and intellect was consistently denigrated. I think that this was the main reason that I struggled to fit in at the conference. I need to love God with my mind as well.

The second great difficulty, related to that, was the “worship”. When it began I was quite encouraged, and even felt myself tottering on the edge of that breakthrough, as we began by singing ‘Blessed by your name’, which I find tremendously meaningful. Unfortunately the worship band milked the song beyond what it was worth, and it was followed up by distinctly less valuable songs, which were also milked way beyond what they were worth (I noted that every song had to have a final third of repetitions with diminished force – the liturgical instinct cannot die!!). More than that – there was nothing other than the singing. No reading of Scripture, no explicit liturgy, not even a shared Lord’s Prayer: on the whole I found the worship to be something of a starvation diet when I had been expecting a feast (indeed I think a feast would have tipped me over the edge). To my mind, the most essential elements of worship are the public reading of Scripture set in the context of standard prayers that can be learnt by heart – those are the bones which can then be supported and enhanced by the addition of the musical items; without the bones you just have a big floppy mess. (This is to say nothing of the sacramental element of course). This isn’t to say that you don’t want emotion in worship – clearly you do – but that emotion needs to be integrated with everything else as a coherent whole. I kept thinking of the 9.30 service here on Mersea before I left – much better!

There was one rather curious coincidence – of course it wasn’t a coincidence, it was God’s sense of humour on display – but I left the first evening’s talk early, at about 9pm, because I found it less than worthwhile. Back in the hotel room I flicked on the TV and there was a fascinating program asking whether religion was a form of madness (called “Am I Normal?” details here). It was strange to have gone from an environment where I was surrounded by 2000 people speaking and singing in tongues, barking and cackling etc, to watch a fairly dry documentary exploring precisely those phenomena. It confirmed in me that there are some dangers involved in the New Wine way of doing things and that whilst I am convinced that living in the Kingdom necessarily entails healing, the way in which that healing takes place doesn’t have to be shaped by the New Wine style. There was a part of me that thought New Wine had itself been captured by a particular culture – that of US baby boomers, with the uniform of blue jeans and comfortable shirt, and the cultural form of a Rolling Stones concert. New Wine, for a certain sort of believer, must be way cool.

The best element of the conference was the chance to talk to colleagues from Mersea about it all, and to get some hints and tips about how I can take it forward, which is really about two things – taking it forward on a personal level, and taking it forward as a ministry on Mersea. The latter will probably involve something that could be described as ‘Charismatic Catholic’ – which is where I suspect I will end up churchmanship-wise – but the former is still a bit blurry to me. One especially helpful thing was a comment saying that the shift is best described, not as a ‘baptism of the spirit’, for that has already happened for each Christian – but as a ‘release of the spirit’. That makes an awful lot of sense, and will probably form my sermon on Pentecost Sunday!

So: a very worthwhile experience, timely in many ways, which moved me forward in my journey and confirmed me in the general direction that I’m travelling in – but also something that confirmed for me that New Wine isn’t the right vessel to carry my spirituality forward. It’s not a “comfortable coat” – which was, I believe, an authentic ‘word of prophecy’ spoken to me at the conference. Worship that is charismatic and fully liturgical and sacramental – that sounds like something being stitched by a heavenly tailor for me.

"The Monastery", Television, shallowness and liturgy

I enjoyed watching ‘The Monastery’ on BBC2 in recent weeks. It challenged a few of my prejudices, principally that TV can only be a purveyor of nonsense. I tend to see TV as entertaining (and therefore useful at the end of a long day), but it remains nonsense, by and large.

I’m influenced by Neil Postman’s book ‘Amusing ourselves to death’, in which he says that the medium (television, print, oral traditions etc) can determine the message (the content of what is said). For example, it is impossible to use smoke signals to discuss philosophy. The medium inhibits or prevents the transmission of certain forms of understanding.

Postman argues that the form of television is essentially passive, and that the logic of it as a medium tends to the novel and the visually stimulating, in other words that TV is good as a source of amusement, but very bad as a vehicle for serious ideas. And so, as TV has replaced the printed word as the primary vehicle for society’s conversation about itself, so the society has become characterised by a loss of seriousness, a shallowness, a cultural impoverishment. Hence we are ‘amusing ourselves to death’ – for a shallow culture does not develop the resources with which to sustain itself. Postman thinks that Huxley was the more accurate prophet, rather than Orwell, and that TV is the ‘soma’ which pacifies the populace, whilst those in power indulge their schemes, whilst any potential for democratic oversight has been removed, simply because a people reared on a diet of TV no longer have the capacity to seriously attend to difficult issues.

In passing, Postman remarks that Christianity is a serious and demanding religion, and he points out how the values of TV will necessarily corrupt a community and culture which has historically been built around oral and written traditions. This is what leads to the demand for interesting ‘spectacle’ in church services, and the complaint that church is ‘boring’. What that means is that a person whose taste has been formed by television finds a traditional church service profoundly alien. What the church is called to do is to educate itself as to what it is doing. For Scripture and the liturgy cannot be replaced by forms that have been constructed by a televisual culture. The message itself is lost, and the church, rather than standing over against the wider society, simply becomes another niche market competing against all the other lifestyle options. Living as a Christian reduces to a matter of purchasing the right CD or car sticker.

The real role of liturgy, our common worship, is the formation of character. Christ replaced one form of service with another, the temple was cast down and rebuilt in three days in his body. So the character that we are called to form is eucharistic – the practice of sharing a meal together, in his memory, in thanksgiving, this is what makes us who we are. The Eucharist makes the church. And this is difficult. It will be experienced as alien, and possibly as oppressive. But we cannot make it any easier without undoing ourselves, without abandoning our faith, without becoming ashamed of the gospel.

“The Monastery” worked, I feel, because it told the human story of people caught up in the world, who are then immersed in precisely that traditional, liturgical culture. And it changed all of them. But what most struck me was a comment made by the Abbot at the end; that it had restored some of the self-confidence of the community. Even in the strongholds of liturgical worship, the technologically amplified voice of the culture shouts so loudly that the faithful quiver, and begin to doubt.

But the tide has turned, and the world knows that it has lost something precious. What we must do is hold fast to what we have received. Mt 10.22