Monthly Archives: June 2014

Liturgy for a Meal

Background and Introduction

Our first meal together was a breakfast. It came after a number of months of preparation. The gathering into which we were introducing this innovation met once a month, and so it was important to make the most of each opportunity to meet and discuss, taking one step at a time and trying to allow space for people to respond to that step. Change too much too quickly, and it risks being too much for people to process and give considered thought to.

So, having on one month introduced our feedback forms and insisted that people’s opinions really do matter, we then embarked on a series of four sermons on texts in 1 Corinthians 10, 11 and 12. Each of these sermons explored the notion of the body of Christ, in the context of a small gathering of older people. You can read these sermons here.

The sermons describe the nature of the church as a community constituted by Christ. In him there is a unity that is not based on common interest, social status or age. All are to be welcomed and can participate most fundamentally through their presence, rather than their service or public performance. These words are fine words but, like much of preaching can seem, they risk being abstract, describing a coherent theological worldview that is yet disconnected from a discipleship of faith, let alone the questions of curious observer, looking in from outside. The embodiment of these ideas, indeed of the spiritual reality of Christ amongst us, is found in our practice of communion. In communion, we come to the table at the invitation of Christ. In communion, we bring no justifying abilities or status, but merely receive. In communion, we find ourselves one because we all share in the one loaf. Here, all of NYNO’s concerns over the exclusion of older people and the benefits if a diversely aged community are founded in the central communal act of the church. With the loaf and wine before us, questions and solution are heard in a new way.

Our next steps, then, were to change the way we sat together. Instead of, largely speaking, sitting in rows facing a pulpit we sat in the round, facing one another across a table laid with the elements of bread and wine. The sermon was about community and participation in Christ and so in the community of his body was being illustrated physically by the way we sat together. It is true that disputes over pews and internal arrangements of churches can exemplify our ability as churches to lose direction and sense of proportion, and yet here such matters seemed imbued with spiritual resonance.

Having taken these steps, the most obvious way forward for us, to encourage the valuing and participation of older people and to enable to a truly diversely aged community to worship together as the body of Christ, was to build our worship, quite literally, around the table. If God has mandated a meal at the heart of our worship, why do we not make more of it? By placing this central to our worship there is the possibility that we will enable young and old to worship together in a way that sidesteps the issues that have frequently driven them apart. If we say, to put it simplistically, that sitting round a table can be worship then a nine year old and a ninety year old can enjoy tea and cake together in God’s presence without the inevitable stress of keeping folk together during age specific teaching or entertainment.

The Spiritual Dynamics of Worship

As we suggested way back here, if you’re going to innovate in worship it will be important to have an appreciation of what is meant to happen, spiritually, in worship. If in describing worship we find ourselves using effectively secular terms (such as communicate, engage, atmosphere) it may be that we’re not thinking as faithfully or deeply as we could be.

The reformed approach to Word and Sacrament offers an important perspective. Here, divine communication of the promises of the Gospel found in Scripture is most important. Both preaching and the sacraments offer the Gospel in word and symbol and, by the enabling work of the Spirit, our response is to grasp hold of those promises in faith. The whole service then is to be oriented around the presentation of these promises by the minister of the Gospel. The people may be active in singing and praying, but in this most important matter they are passive and rightly so because of the one way nature of grace.

In Calvin, the communal nature of the Lord’s Supper is touched upon (e.g. Inst. IV 17.44), but – given that his context is significantly different – it is hardly surprising that this is not given the emphasis that we have found helpful.

Our own feeling is that, through a loss of confidence in the spiritual reality and power of the word and sacrament, we have come to offer psychological explanations for their effectiveness or significance, effectively making ministers primarily educators and our churches primarily classrooms. Perhaps one consequence of this is that, with our educational outcomes as a goal, we prepare age specific teaching and struggle to retain old and young together. NYNO is not wishing to say that education is unimportant, but rather to argue that if we place it central to our worship, young and old will struggle to worship together.

For ourselves, what we understand to be the spiritual dynamic behind NYNO worship is the presentation and sacramental enjoyment of the Gospel in a worshipful meal. Education is, for the moment, understood as a secondary task. When we gather together, we remember and repeat the story of God’s salvation, we read from the scriptures, we pray, we eat and drink of Christ and so are one with each other and we expand that participation into fellowship of a meal, foreshadowing the final banquet of the Lamb.

Participation and Performance

This is a generalisation, but it seems to be true in our context: many older folk – perhaps used to the imposing liturgical performances of ministers of Word and Sacrament – find the notion of public participation in a worship service unappealing. At the heart of NYNO’s ethos, however, is the importance of the active participation of the laity in Christ and in community. We do not simply visit older people, give them a spiritual blessing (for instance, a monthly service of preaching and hymns) and then depart, but instead we build our church community together, living with one another, bearing with one another, disciples old and young together. We both want to build a spiritually nurturing community, and yet avoid making intimidating public charismatic performance an essential membership requirement. These issues are part of the reason why we turned to written liturgy to shape and guide our worship together. Well written words, allow us to repeat the Gospel to one another and to pray without demanding any individual be in the pressured situation of speaking aloud. Further, and this is no small point, they also potentially allow a congregation to develop without requiring the expense of a professional minister. In the Church of Scotland ministers are in short supply, and there is hardly the finances available to place them in experimental church plants for the time necessary for such communities to flourish and for lessons to be learned.

Does all of this guarantee a lively, diverse Christian community committed to mission, seeing others come to faith? Hardly, but it may be putting in place a framework that allows God’s people to worship faithfully in a particular context. We hope that it might be something by which God would continue to work through his church.

The Liturgy

So, finally, let’s describe and comment on the first liturgy that we used. Please note, that this is our first attempt, warts and all, so to speak. NYNO continues to be experimental. We’re not trying to present a perfect solution, but instead think that there’s more to be learnt by honestly going through the cycle of experiment and reflection. In that spirit, future posts will describe the continued development of the liturgy.

The sheet we used can be found here.

In broad outline, the service is one in which we speak to God and to one another. The congregation enters and sits around the one table (or our best approximation of this). Food is already set out before us on the table. Communion is brought towards the front of the service, and the opening section prepares us for that. Our agape meal is placed after communion so that it is understood to be dependent on our prior participation in Christ. Once the meal begins there is an opportunity to offer subjects for prayer, and we interrupt the meal for intercessions and a concluding hymn. The fellowship and eating can continue but we put a limit on the formal aspects so that people feel free to leave.

The opening prayer describes what will come.

We don’t have too many comments to make about the hymn. Music is an area in which we’d like to have something more constructive to say, but it’s hard to get away from the necessity of technical expertise! The words are written in the liturgy for simplicity. We do have someone who can play a keyboard, but we often use simple MIDI hymn tracks (either with a MIDI keyboard or converted to MP3). The emphasis – as below with our prayers – should always be on the human voice, on corporate singing. Part of the thinking here is an unease about a psychological model of communion with God, where the powerful performance of a worship leader is used to bring the worshipper to the appropriate devotional attitude. Not only are we doubtful about this psychological model, but would suggest that this can also tend towards a clericalism, where the worshippers are again made passive. Instead, we feel on safer ground emphasizing the singing voices of the congregation. We are ministering to one another.

We read from the Old and New Testament, and we would want this to retain its identity as a worthwhile activity independent of the sermon.

The sermon was kept as short as we’ve ever had it, again seeking to set out the Gospel on the basis of the texts, and being cautious about being distracted by the task of education. This is important, but possibly needs to find an alternative setting.

The confession beings to the fore the work of Christ, hopefully explained in the sermon, and our appropriate response and attitude to it.

The Thanksgiving is the catholic traditional prayer. The assertion that this was the privilege of the bishop or presbyter as the authorised mouthpiece for church doctrine seems unnecessary given there is no restriction on the laity saying the creed. Of course, reserving this for the bishop would make more sense if the prayer was made extemporarily. Even so, we realize that some discussion with those in your church with responsibility for guarding these things may be advisable. Back to the matter in hand: before the beginning of the service, the congregation is split into two groups (A and B) and we say the thanksgiving together.

The Words of Institution are reserved for the minister to keep us legal in the Church of Scotland. The congregation continues to interject their praises.

The Grace is, slightly confusingly, not the scriptural mutual benediction but the opening prayer for the meal. It attempts to set the kingdom banquet, of which our meal is a foretaste, within the context of the work of the Trinity.

The Meal itself is described in another post. It takes some planning and effort, but we attempt to keep it simple and special.

The Prayers emphasize the prayers of the saints, rather than a representative prayer. To this end, what we pray for is guided primarily by what is suggested by the congregation during the meal. And when we pray, again to highlight the laity’s participation, we pray in silence together. Of course a representative prayer can be a good thing, and can help us pray when we don’t have the words. However, for us we want people to realise that their prayers are important.

We concluded with the Lord’s prayer and a hymn. Perhaps a little more work needing to be done there to give the meeting a sense of ending!

Once again, I just want to add that this was our first attempt at putting a liturgy together. Subsequent posts will cover how we developed things over subsequent months.