Pet hates: overexplaining symbols

Some texts, in my view, simply don’t work – even if they seem to be used all the time. Perhaps other people don’t have my problems with it, but one such text is that used at the fraction – the breaking of the bread – in Common Worship.

Breaking the Bread. Image via PxFuel under Creative Commons 0.0

Here is the text:

We break this bread
to share in the body of Christ.
Though we are many, we are one body,
because we all share in one bread.

I have three problems with it. It is bland. It spells out the symbolism in a way which appears on the surface to narrow it down to the gathered congregation, rather than broadening it to the whole church. It has an element of smugness about it, that would be easier to tolerate if our congregations were more diverse and less monochrome than they typically are.

Given the choices allowed by Common Worship, it’s surprising that so few options occur at this point. There appear to be only two alternatives provided in the whole breadth of official provision. The first, the more poetic and prayerful of the two, is suggested especially in the Christmas season; the second, and rather more prosaic (despite being a direct biblical quotation), is a general alternative also suggested particularly for Lent and Passiontide.

We break the bread of life,
and that life is the light of the world
God here among us,
light in the midst of us,
bring us to light and life

Every time we eat this bread
and drink this cup,
we proclaim the Lord’s death
until he comes.

The first thing to be said is that any specific form of wording – despite common practice – is only required by the rubric (Note 20 in the Order 1 Notes) on Sundays and Principal Holy Days. For most weekday masses the Bread may be broken while saying the Lamb of God, or in silence.

The second thing to note is that, if the rubric were strictly to be obeyed, the Liturgical Commission and the House of Bishops have already broken it by allowing the first alternative above (“We break the bread of life …”) in Common Worship: Times and Seasons. That they have done so suggests a certain degree of official resiling from the narrow frame of the rubric.

The third point I would make is that, almost certainly, the attention given to the breaking of the bread comes from a mistaken and overfond attachment to Dom Gregory Dix’s theories about the Shape of the Liturgy. In that influential, but now dated book, Dix bequeathed to the liturgical revisers of the late twentieth century an overemphasis on a fourfold (or sevenfold if one separates out the cup) shape to the eucharistic action: take, bless, break, give. With such a shape, it became very important to draw attention to the action of breaking.

I would suggest, however, that there are really only two fundamental actions, rather than four: giving thanks (or blessing, or offering according to theological persuasion), and sharing, and the other actions are subsidiary to those. We take in order to present to God with thanksgiving, and we break in order to share. There’s nothing wrong with providing words for those actions, but it’s hard to see they need this level of prescription. After all, if the presider can be trusted to compose a preface for the eucharistic prayer, surely they have the ability to come up with appropriate words for the fraction.

So, I take my cue from the House of Bishops overriding the rubric, and, as ever, appeal to Canon B5(i) (“The minister who is to conduct the service may in his discretion make and use variations which are not of substantial importance in any form of service authorised by Canon B 1 according to particular circumstances). It certainly seems to me legitimate to provide alternative words that have a broader frame of less self-congratulatory reference than the limited official provision.

Here’s a starter for 10:

We break the bread of life,
participation in Christ’s body once broken.
We share the cup of salvation,
communion in Christ’s life once given.

I confess, though, that, on the whole, I would rather default to performing the fraction while the Agnus Dei is being said or sung.

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.

Rite on the Edge (a book review)

I’ve pinched the title of the post from the book I’m talking about: Sarah Lawrence’s A Rite on the Edge (London, SCM Press 2019). I don’t think she could have come up with a better title for a book that looks at the diverging languages of baptism and christening, and the ideas and practices that go with them.

Baptism or christening statistics are a bit hard to be precise about. According to the Church of England’s statistics, there were 94,000 baptisms in 2018. However, only 59% (55,000) of these, were of infants younger than one year old. This makes 8.4% of live births (according to the ONS) who end up getting christened in the Church of England.

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In the second century church

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The third and final vignette in this little series of glimpses at public reading in the past comes from around the year 150AD. (The previous two glimpses were here, and here.)

In the pages of the New Testament (and some other early Christian literature) we get various instructions about what Christians should do when they meet for worship, and various glimpses of special gatherings. However, we don’t get a full description of an ordinary Christian worship assembly. For such a description we have to wait till the middle of the second century, for a writer called Justin, a Greek-speaking immigrant to Rome from the Palestinian Samaritan city now known as Nablus. Justin was a philosopher who appears to have made his living as a teacher, both before and after he became a Christian.

Justin Martyr (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)
Continue reading “In the second century church”