Pet hates: the running homily

This is the first of an occasional series. You’ve probably heard the joke: what’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist. (Other variations are available!) Like many people interested in liturgy, I have strong views about a number of things that make, or don’t make, for good worship. I will, from time to time, write a post on one or other of them.

Today I critique what I call the running homily or sermon. This is where the presider or leader feels compelled to introduce every item of the liturgy with some kind of explanation. Very often this will be an attempt to tie each item to a theme they have decided to give to the service.

The Alternative Service Book (ASB 1980 – RIP 2000) introduced themes to Anglican worship: each Sunday’s readings were linked in some way to a teaching theme. (I think that was where the rot set in.) And so those responsible for shaping and leading the liturgy felt compelled to tie everything to this theme: not only the homily, the prayers and the hymns, but virtually every item in the service by way of giving it an “introduction”. So the idea of a running homily developed and threaded its way through the whole service.

There are three reasons why this is a bad idea. The first is that the liturgy is primarily a vehicle for us to offer worship to God. The running homily turns it primarily into a vehicle for educating the congregation. It is counter to the purpose for which we gather.

The second is that it prevents the liturgy from flowing, leading people through its own rhythms of word, song and silence, of speaking and listening, of moving through preparation to word, from word to prayer, from prayer to table, from table to mission. At every point we stop to be instructed. Even assuming a higher standard of instruction than the vapid and vacuous “vain repetitions” I have sometimes experienced, the point still stands. The presider stops the liturgy working by constantly inserting themselves as explainer and instructor.

The third is that no congregation will be on the same page on the same day. Indeed, probably no individual within the congregation will be on the same page throughout the service. We have different needs and come from different contexts. Trying to shoehorn the diversity of individual needs into a monochromatic teaching theme inhibits people from bringing their real selves to the table. Good presiding facilitates the encounter between people’s real lives and God’s story and presence. That means the creation of space in which it can happen. Too much thematic teaching fills the available space with a single voice rather than making space for the diversity of voices people bring with them.

There is a reason Common Worship turned its back on themes. May each presider do the same. Reject the running homily.