The Liturgy and the People of God

Listen here.

Several months ago, we heard the story of two disciples walking away from Jerusalem. Jesus had been killed, and they were fleeing the city, full of doubt and fear. There on the road to Emmaus they met a stranger. They told him everything that had happened, and he explained the Scriptures to them. Then, as they ate together, they recognised the Risen Christ. I remind you of this because, early last year, when I was visiting and observing you all, what I saw were a lot of tired, doubting adults walking away from church. 

Some told me that their faith had not been fed for a long, long time. They said things like, “I don’t know if I’m a Christian anymore; my faith is all shrivelled up.” Some told me that it had been years since they’d heard a sermon deeply rooted in the Bible; others, that it had been years since they’d taken communion. Many had young children hanging off them, and were understandably deeply distracted. Some told me they felt exhausted or burned out, and begged me to lead from the front. Several said, “Please. Please, I just need to turn up and be fed.”

Most of these people were great at talking about Jesus, but they were questioning church and faith, they were full of doubt, and they urgently needed to encounter the Risen Christ. So I made a call. I decided that these people didn’t need to talk ideas: they were great at ideas. Instead, they needed to participate in a service which would, by its structure and repetition, write the Emmaus experience onto their bones. Gathering, confession, Scripture, bread: those are the elements of the Emmaus story, where doubting disciples meet the Risen Christ; and those are the elements of the formal liturgy.

I was also looking at the children: children with low levels of literacy; children with disabilities and learning delays; children who have experienced trauma; children who get sick and miss weeks on end. Jesus teaches that we are to serve the least among us, and, in this group, the least powerful people are the children. While every person here is precious in the eyes of God, and while every person here needs to be fed, we adults can take responsibility for our faith and access the resources we need. (Whether or not we do is another matter!) But the children can’t. So it is these children—the least equipped, the most vulnerable—whom I especially set out to serve.

What do they need? It is my experience as a pastor, a mother, and a classroom helper, that most children thrive on rhythm and ritual; and this observation is backed up by an ever-growing body of evidence. For children, as well as people with learning disabilities, people who suffer from some forms of mental illness, and people who have experienced trauma, best practice is participation in a formal liturgy. The repetition and ritual help create a sense of safety. There are no shocks or surprises, because participants know how it will unfold. This sense of safety, of knowing what is going on and what is coming next, reduces anxiety, and gives people the freedom to relax and to open themselves up to whatever is being revealed.

Because the liturgy repeats, people don’t need to know how to read: simply by turning up, they memorise things. If they lose concentration, it doesn’t matter: they’ll pick up what was missed another time. The repetition triggers a heightened neural state, and deepens neural pathways. This means that, every time people participate in the liturgy, their experience of it is a little bit richer. They bring in all the other times they have participated, and this gradually creates a deep web of experience that transcends one time and place, and infuses it with many other times, and, for some of us, many other places. With a bit of imaginative effort, you begin to understand just how are in communion with the saints every time we gather.

As we worship together, we generate shared memories. These memories weave us together as a community, and this community holds us. The liturgy is always a corporate act, a thing we do as a group: and many of the prayers and faith claims are difficult. But when we are woven together, none of us need to understand or agree with every bit of the liturgy all by ourselves. The group is gathered up with the Spirit of Christ, and so the group has plenty enough faith for us all. Even those with a profound lack of faith or a profound lack of cognition are carried by the faith of the body. And this body also provides the socialisation, the apprenticeship, and the shared narrative world that children—and adults—need in order to keep growing and maturing.

For all of this good stuff, and all the stuff I haven’t said, the formal liturgy is only a tool. It’s not a goal in itself; instead, it is a method of curating time and space. It aims to gather together people of all ages and all abilities to be fed, to encounter the Risen Christ, and thereby to grow in faith together, before sending these people, with this faith and this sense of belonging and this way of seeing, into every other area of life. That it is effective is seen in the comments of the least powerful, the most vulnerable, among us: our children. “Every time I come in here, I remember who I am and who I belong to.” “For me, God is a feeling; and I feel it here. I walk in, I see the people’s faces, and I know that God is here.” “I think of this place as a house of life.” “Sometimes we sing the church songs with our friends in the playground.” “I was out walking. Suddenly I remembered a Psalm—and I sang it.” Repetition and ritual: they make things go deep, in our children, and in us. And once they go deep enough, once they are written onto our bones, they spill out of this place and into school, work, family, neighbourhood, sports clubs, and everywhere else. So if the kids are any measure—and they are—good things are happening. Children and adults are noticing the presence of the Risen Christ through this Emmaus walk of the liturgy that we do each week, and it’s even leading to a bit of public proclamation. Gathering, confession, Word, and Table are having their effect.

It’s now been a bit over a year that we’ve been doing this Emmaus walk. Some of you love the liturgy; some of you don’t. Some of you feel strengthened and restored and nurtured by it; it’s rubbed others of you up the wrong way. That’s ok. There is no perfect worship form, and every service style annoys the heck out of someone. But whether or not you like this style, in participating you have had the opportunity to feast regularly upon Word and Table, and to walk in the company of the Risen Christ. You might not be feeling so hungry anymore: and, if that’s the case, then the liturgy is doing its work.

So that’s the story of why we’ve been using a formal liturgy. Now the leadership group is proposing that we meet at another time to talk together about who the service is for, how the service style can meet their needs, and what each of us can bring to that space. So let’s set a date, and let’s talk. Ω

(We then talked. People affirmed the formal liturgy as is, and noted the growth in faith that they were observing. The consensus was that this is not a topic for a church meeting. Instead, people would like to meet over one or more evenings to share how the liturgy affects them, and to talk about what they find both good and difficult; to ask questions and learn about liturgy; and, if there is interest, to work together on future seasons.)

This reflection was given in response to a request by the leadership team to provide background to our current practices. The only reference to the lectionary reading (Matthew 23:1-12) was to point out that everyone would need to discern whether or not I had the authority to say these things! Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 5 November 2017. Image shows ‘Communion’ by He Qi.

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