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.