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strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
More strange warmings here
It's trad, dad
January 2001

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about working in the Church of England – apart, that is, from the strange sense of impending doom that arrives unbidden at about 6pm each Saturday evening – is the sheer history behind everything one encounters, whether creeds or church hall curtains.

In church, the former things do not pass away, but become gradually more sacred every year; until life becomes so full of former things that there is precious little space for anything else. This is especially true of the sort of former things one would rather do without, as any minister knows who has tried to shift the odd pew or who gently suggests that the dried flowers in the vestry – which have been drying nicely since about 1980 – might now be removed.

The Church has a peculiar Midas-like gift for transforming everything it touches into tradition; and I always find it a little odd that St Paul doesn't list this alongside all the other gifts in 1 Corinthians 12&13: "Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; but where there are curious Bible posters of Orang-u-tangs or soft-focus kittens in a basket, they will remain..."

Do something in church and it immediately has meaning; and if something has meaning, it is extremely hard to get rid of.

If you doubt the tyranny of this simple truth, I suggest that, at nightfall, you stroll down to your nearest church, where you will espy assorted clergy scuttling to the tip under cover of darkness, bent double with armfuls of dried flowers, crockery, banners and old pianos.

However, even the most ancient customs of the Church – raffles, for example, or Brazilian Blend coffee – cannot hold a candle to that of liturgy: the historic form of Christian worship.

Recently in the headlines with the introduction of the new Anglican prayer book, Common Worship, liturgy is a tradition worth getting worked up about. Indeed, it has been so closely tended that, in the unlikely event of a second-century Godfather like Justin Martyr popping today into an average eucharist, the chances are he wouldn't be entirely baffled by the proceedings (and glad, no doubt, to see the coffee cups he purchased still in use.)

Liturgy, it has to be said, is not an attractive word: like its ugly sister "synod", it has that damp, churchy quality that rarely lightens the mood or gladdens the heart when casually inserted into conversation.

This partly explains why informal churches sometimes pretend not to have a liturgy; thinking that, because prayers are off-the-cuff, they are automatically of-the-Spirit. This is of course mistaken; all worship has a liturgy whether you are BCP or strictly OHP, and good liturgy simply seeks to ensure that a service resembles a decent play rather than an out-take from "Whose Line is it Anyway?"

Because it is best to train the Church's gift for tradition rather than let it run wild and scare off all the visitors, liturgy is essentially a good thing. Over the last century, what became known as the Liturgical Movement – also a patent cure for sciatica – has seen a wholesale re-discovery of the early Church's patterns of worship and the laudable attempt to renew modern services in their light.

While this can yield record-shop snobbery (liturgists are not dissimilar to David Bowie fans – "yeh, Hippolytus, it's his early stuff you really want"), the movement has borne much fruit; from seminal doorstops such as Dom Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy, to the ubiquitous chants of Taizé.

Naturally enough, this process of renewal has simmered away within the churches largely unbeknown to the rest of society, which explains both the current dismay in the press about Common Worship and why this is so curious to anyone who has attended church on anything like a regular basis in the last 30-odd years.

Most of the latter are so used to liturgical revision that they wouldn't recognise the language of the Prayer Book if it jumped up and smote them.

To the former, the new liturgy marks the apparent death of England's religious consensus: its common prayer. A tradition, dusty and tucked away in the nation's loft, has been remembered and, with one voice, the media has reacted to Common Worship like an irate PCC and cried "you can't touch that!"

Some of the criticism has been so knee-jerk as to seem dislocated from that other endangered tradition: Common Sense, and a weary C of E might be forgiven for covering its ears and ploughing on regardless (if that isn't physically impossible). After all, the 1662 Prayer Book remains authorised alongside the new material.

But behind the whining there is genuine regret at the perceived loss of wise old words, rich with meaning: and in the arrival of unfamiliar new ones, merely a confirmation that we are now farther from Eden than ever.

Traditions – ancient or modern – are the way in which we gain access to faith; when they are altered or removed, we wonder where on earth God has gone. Truly to lose liturgy would be fatal for an age that already thinks it is left to its own spiritual devices.

The challenge, then, is on for the Church to share its genius for tradition and shape a common prayer worthy of the name, in which the English language once again keeps the promise that the Lord is with us. And also with you.
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
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