There’s an excellent sculpture exhibition, Crucible2, at Gloucester Cathedral at the moment. I was intrigued, though, that of the one hundred sculptures, four were of dodos… it’s curious that there should be such a high number of an extinct flightless bird, which is often used as a symbol of an inability to adapt! It occurred to me that the exhibition curator might be taking the mick… However there was an intriguing juxtaposition in the blue chapel, where a priest had left a communion set right next to a sculpture of a dodo skeleton. This set me thinking.
The dodo could, of course, be intended as a critique of religion: hugging ancient traditions in a way that belongs to a past era, and – like a flightless bird – can’t adapt to the new cultural realities around. But the communion set is a symbol of resurrection from the dead – of the son of God rising again after being executed. Death is a biological reality, not a cultural statement. Therefore, a message of resurrection from the dead – that death is not the end – is an eternal message, not a cultural commentary.
I’d been thinking about communion recently, having been asked to write an essay on ‘Being a priest at the Eucharist’. The challenge for me as a Pentecostal Anglican is that, when Jesus broke bread and gave it to his disciples, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me”. If we are to be obedient to Jesus’s command, and to do so with appropriate reverence and meaning, we need to do some liturgy: the key question now is how to do this in a meaningful way in the 21st century. How do we make sure that the liturgy does not become flightless?
One of the biggest surprises to me in my first year of being a priest is how much I have been impacted by doing communion services from the Book of Common Prayer. I remain as unconvinced as ever about the sense of using 17th century language in the 21st century – but I have learned to admire and respect Cranmer’s liturgy.
It’s the logical structure that most impresses me. To take one example, there is the famous prayer:
“We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies”.
The location of this prayer in Cranmer’s BCP makes perfect sense, as it comes just after we’ve confessed our sins (therefore acknowledging that we can’t trust in our own righteousness), and just before the eucharistic prayer (preparing to come to the Lord’s table). By contrast, in Common Worship it is tacked on long after the end of the eucharistic prayer, even after the words, ‘Draw near with faith’ – which should be an invitation to come to the altar rail. This is a very poor location for a beautiful prayer, and merely distends the time from the eucharistic prayer to receiving the bread and wine.
This has made me realise the importance of having a clear theology underlying a liturgy. Using contemporary language is essential – but the effect of it is undermined if the theology is not properly thought through.
Cranmer’s liturgy was written in English so that it might be accessible to lay people – rather than in the Latin of the Catholic church of the time. I cannot help thinking that he would be horrified to discover that significant numbers of churches still use his liturgy, thus making it inaccessible to many people today. Clinging to 17th language is like a bird clinging to the ground and refusing to take flight: it may survive for a time, but is poorly equipped to adapt to changing circumstances.
The challenge today is to produce liturgies that are meaningful in a culture which is increasingly post-modern and post-Christendom: the old assumption that everyone had at least a basic understanding of Christianity is no longer valid. The message of the gospel of Christ is as relevant as it has ever been – but the way it is packaged and presented needs to be adapted. Liturgy is part of that wrapping.
Not being an expert on liturgy (my Pentecostal background remains a major influence on me!), I am conscious that there are probably good examples of which I am not aware of. If so – I would appreciate readers adding a comment below, as this will help me in my own thinking.
The dodo became extinct partly because it had lost its ability to fly. Liturgy that no longer flies will also go extinct. Yesterday morning while having breakfast, I watched a flock of racing pigeons just after they had been released: a bird which is a strong flyer with a clear sense of direction. The Holy Spirit is often symbolised as a dove: let those racing pigeons be a more appropriate symbol of Christian faith in the 21st century than a dodo!