Here’s the final post in a series of three, looking at formal liturgy and the charismatic church (these are the first two):
So something that came up quite a bit in my foray into formal liturgy and the charismatic church is the question, what are we missing by not using it? – if anything.
And it’s an interesting question, because I think many charismatics would instantly answer that we are not missing anything, in fact not using it gives us greater freedom to worship and encounter God. But here’s a few slightly rambling thoughts that have been raised for me…
Familiarity and Comfort
One Bishop I spoke to was keen to stress the importance of inherited words, the things we remember through repetition (which I have written about here), the words that remain in our unconscious. He cited the example of visiting someone who was nearing the end of their life and how words of liturgy that have been recited over the years or even just been said at school or on other occasions, when said back to that person can bring great comfort. More than that, they might engage a person with failing memory or senses as they bring recognition or familiarity that may be gone in other parts of their life.
Of course this is true, if the person has had some experience of church, or of liturgy, or formal prayer then they truly can bring comfort and more. But it’s more than that isn’t it, because they aren’t just familiar words like the line of a song for example. When I did my hospital placement last year one of the first things I did was go into a dementia ward where we sang to the patients some of the old tunes that were familiar to them. Suddenly those who were seemingly listless and glazed came to life with such joy. In fact it impacted a visitor too who had said no thank you to the song sheet but on seeing her relative come alive, began to join in too. No, prayer is more than familiarity, we believe it is communication with God, so is it then that in praying in a familiar way we are enabling someone to encounter God who may not to able to do so for themselves any more?
Of course one response to the Bishop could be is the bible not enough? Surely words of scripture can be equally as familiar and as profound or moving as formal liturgy?
However none of this addresses one obvious flaw in the argument, which is that fewer people are going to church and experiencing the liturgy for themselves, so whilst we have a generation or two who may have gone regularly, this is decreasing and we will find fewer people with any understanding or recognition of the liturgy, so what are we planning for the future? How will we reach people who have no experience of it, even now? That is a big challenge to us as a church. Prayer may be a comfort anyway, regardless of words chosen, even to those who have no faith or little experience of church, but that doesn’t require specific words. Though in a situation which may be difficult or emotional it might be useful for us as ministers to have words to be read when we may find we have none. Again though, do these need to be formal liturgy?
Beauty Of Words
I also met David Pytches in my research for this essay (which is where the liturgy fascination came in) who, even as a Charismatic leader, suggested that the church might have lost something in not using formal liturgy. I’m not sure we got to the bottom of what he thought might be missing, but we did talk about the nature and beauty of words. Some of our formal liturgy is written so beautifully (note *some), and I know on the odd occasion I have used a prayer from Common Worship, or once I used the Methodist Covenant Prayer, that people have really responded to the words, asking about the prayer itself and where it was from. Is there something about an almost formal beauty in some of those words that reaches us in a different way? Charismatic worship can sometimes be a bit chaotic – that isn’t to say it isn’t planned, prayed through and well thought out, in my experience it usually is – but I wonder if something more formal can sometimes cut through that in a different way maybe? Of course though that is recognising the use of something more formal as an unusual occurrence, so it becomes smelling special, not just the usual.
Something else that came up was the idea of being part of something bigger, something corporate. When we recite words together that are well known and familiar, we are united together in a very obvious way, and I think there is something really powerful about that. Not just in the physical, in that we stand in a building together saying the same words together, but also if praying by ourselves, for example doing Daily Prayer. For a season I did Morning Prayer every day and was always encouraged and buoyed up by those tweeting about the readings or just noting they were saying it too, making me feel like I was part of something much bigger.
Spiritually too, I think it can unite us with the wider church, just the idea of people across the world saying the same words, the same prayers, particularly on a Sunday, it just feels more powerful!
Lastly, I think there is something about reverence here. I am not a formal liturgy person at all, but the one thing I find hard in a charismatic environment is a lack of reverence when it comes to the Eucharist. I don’t know why, perhaps it is just tradition having been brought up in a more traditional church environment, is it just what I am ‘used to’? I’m not sure how much reverence there would have been at the last supper (& that’s another post), holiness yes, but Jesus was their friend and would have been among that like that. Do we need to create an atmosphere that is more reverential? I’m not sure but I do find there can be something lacking in the freer environment, with kids running around, people chatting in the queue and after, like we are not taking seriously what we are preparing ourselves to receive.
So, what are we missing and is it important anyway? I’m not sure I’ve got to the bottom of what I think about this but I know it will remain something I continue to questions myself over. I think one of the biggest challenges to us as leaders in the church today is for the future. The idea of being with people in times of difficulty and illness, at the end of life perhaps, how do we engage people, how do we pray with them, sit with them, when there may be little left? Perhaps that’s more about trusting in God, perhaps in that case formal liturgy has been a crux for us to lean on, and it will longer be so in many cases. Perhaps then we need to lean more on God and less on our formulas…