This series of thoughts I thought I'd put on the blog to let people see what I think. It was a course of 3 sermons on what it is to an Episcopalian today. This also means my congregation can read what said as part of an exercise in working out where we're going. Volume 1 this is.
THE ESSENCE OF EPISCOPALIANISM – A LITURGICAL CHURCH.
If you use the word ‘liturgy’, there will be quite a degree of different understandings of what exactly it is you are talking about. For some this means, the Prayer Book, for others the particular booklet the sides’ person gives you at the church door, for others it is the concept of a structured and formal style of worshipping, for others still it refers to the Eucharist.
What do we mean when we speak of the SEC being a liturgical church? I ask the question because, as part of our Continuing Congregational Development programme, the Vestry has been looking at the topic of “What is the purpose of this Church?” and it begged the basic question: “What is distinctive about the SEC?” Or what is to us here at Christ Church Falkirk the essence of being an Episcopalian? What makes us different or special? What makes our way of being disciples unique and different from the ways followed at Erskine or Falkirk Old or St Francis Xavier’s? Once we have an idea of that, then we can perhaps engage more effectively and intelligently with the topic of how we can do it better in today’s context. And how can we do it with integrity in an ecumenical setting without losing our identity in a mixed group. We thought there were 3 distinctive aspects to being Episcopalian: we are a liturgical Church; we are theologically tolerant and we are an embedded Church. So, for the next 3 Sundays, the sermons will reflect on each of these in turn, they will be published so people can take them away and think about them and then there will be a chance to discuss them.
What do we mean when we say we are a liturgical Church? And why are we a liturgical Church? We don’t just mean that we have a set service and a printed order of service: being liturgical has a much deeper and richer significance than that. A liturgical church has adopted a system of worshipping which gives structure to both its days and its years. Liturgy provides a discipline to enable discipleship both personal and corporate. Liturgy begins not with the Eucharist, but with the Daily Office. The offices of Matins and Evening Prayer provide a day to day discipline which means that the psalms and the scriptures are made familiar in a systematic context to the disciple. And through the Lectionary, they are explored both systematically (one book of the Bible at a time) and contextually. The prophets are linked to the coming of Christ in Advent, the final weeks of Christ’s life in the Gospels to Lent, the Resurrection appearances and the life of the Early Church in Acts to Easter and the life and ministry of Jesus to Ordinary Time.
The liturgical year set out in the Calendar and Lectionary gives us a reading pattern that allows a themed study of Scripture and delivers us from the temptation to look only at those bits of the Bible we find congenial or comforting. Moreover, they enable us to reflect on the history of notable disciples (the saints) and encourage us to draw inspiration from their experiences. The lives of the Apostolic age, (Evangelists like Mark and Apostles like Paul) and thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo provide rich material for meditation. Martyrs who gave their lives for Christ at different times (aged Polycarp and Janani Lwum), plus teachers (Dominic), missionaries (James Hannington), bishops (Ambrose), priests (Maximillian Kolbe) and holy men and women (Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila) who exercised their vocation to follow and serve Christ in different contexts, help us to see the variety of what it means to follow Christ each using their gifts in different situations. The Calendar also connects to our own location and age by remembering both local and near contemporary disciples (Columba, John XIII and John Comper) and frees us from the narrowness and exclusiveness of denominationalism. It also provides for a change of tempo and emphasis which gives both rhythm and emphasis to the year – it’s not just the same service all the time.
The purple of Advent and the “O come, o come Emmanuel” give a sense of waiting and expectation; the Lenten season with the omission of the Gloria and the Summary of the Law speak of solemnity. The Paschal season of Easter, with its triumphant Anthems and the joyful return of the Gloria, lifts our hearts and minds towards the Risen Christ. Great themes are also addressed. The Trinity, the Eucharist, Transfiguration, Unity, Dedication and re-dedication – each has their Feast and their place. Liturgy enables us to reflect on the breadth of the Christian experience from death to life. From Creation to Baptism, through life here on this fragile earth “our island home” to the life to come when we remember the departed at All Saints tide: all are encompassed by the sweep of “liturgy”.
But a liturgical Church also has a Eucharistic emphasis and properly so. The remembrance of Christ and his saving work, the sharing of koinonia or fellowship in bread and wine and the gathering of the faithful on the Lord’s day to be his body symbolically in many places expresses with supreme power the unity and the diversity of the Church which is Christ’s body. The unity is expressed in the common lectionary and calendar and in the use of uniting texts such as the confession, the Creed and above all in the Eucharistic prayers. The diversity is apparent in difference of ritual, vesture or practice. Incense or not, chasuble or surplice, bread or wafers express the essence of the particular and unique local congregation. Perhaps most significantly, the preaching, intercessions and hymns indicate and express the inner character and vision of the local Church (particularly when they are not the exclusive preserve of the clergy). The fixed parts of the liturgy – especially the Creed and the Eucharistic Prayers – express solidarity with both the historic and the global Church and unite us both with other denominations and other Episcopalian churches here in Scotland and Anglican provinces throughout the world. Personally, whilst rejoicing in the freedom to adapt and tailor liturgy to meet local needs and express our congregational essence, there are certain bits of the liturgy with which I will not tinker. As soon as you start to monkey about with the Creed or Eucharistic Prayer, you move away from a liturgical and ‘catholic’ understanding of worship towards an individualistic and ‘congregationalist’ ethos. It ceases to be ‘essentially Episcopalian’ worship and becomes the worship of St Bigot’s on the Brink or St Trendy Wendy’s – or worse reflects the individual emphasis, concerns and needs of Fr Spike and his fan club or Mother Inclusiva and her Feminist Friends.
A Liturgical Church is one where ordered worship connected with a world wide community of faith expresses a vision of what it means to be the Body of Christ that is greater than the local, small congregation. It not only expresses this, it actually creates it by connecting the church in this place with the Church Universal. It also connects the Christians of today with the Christians of ages past and of days to come. Through the Scriptures and historic creeds, we are united in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ. In the Early Church there was great (and I do mean great) diversity of liturgical style and content. The Liturgy of Addai and Mara in Syria was very different from the Liturgy of St James in Jerusalem and the differences between the Roman Rite and ritual and the Mozarabic Rite in Spain and even the Ambrosian Rite in Milan were considerable. Even here in the UK, there were significant differences between the rites of Salisbury, Bangor and York. In the 7th century, the differences between the Celtic Liturgies of Scotland and Northumbria drawn from the Irish tradition of Columba, Iona and Lindisfarne and the Western Liturgies of Canterbury derived from Rome and France via Augustine were very distinct indeed. Yet in the midst of all this diversity, all recognised that this was still the same Church and we were still members together of the body of Christ. Liturgy both allowed freedom and enabled distinctiveness whilst creating catholicity and preserving unity. The Liturgical nature of the SEC properly understood does not create a bland uniformity; it allows both flexibility and common experience and makes the Episcopal Church essentially a vibrant, diverse, connected and historically grounded Church. And this is one of the great gifts we bring to the local Church scene and Ecumenical endeavour.