Liturgy, culture and transcendence

By Adrian Worsfold

On Friday 7 March, the small market town of Barton-upon-Humber had a special event. Its now-disused, once Anglican, church was used again, on a one-off basis, to host a Requiem Eucharist for the return (as promised thirty years back) of many human bones dug up for research. They had come back, with skulls downstairs and the rest upstairs, all in individual boxes, resting in an ossuary made where the organ used to be and accessed from where the vestry used to be. The church is historic and has origins in the Anglo-Saxon period, the time when the incoming population that was to become English removed the population that was Celtic, the Celts (crudely speaking) moving to Wales and Cornwall and Cumbria – out of the way.

Until the 1970s the Barton-upon-Humber Anglican congregation oscillated between St Mary’s and St Peter’s, these two churches being quite close together. Then St Mary’s was chosen for all the worship, the organ removed from St Peter’s and placed in St. Mary’s. English Heritage took over St Peter’s and it is now, in effect, a museum to religion and death.

You can read the service on my website, in the Spiritual Area at Anglican Worship, and you can access via my weblog as well. The service was unique, with special permission to use the first English Prayer Book of 1549, but refused for the Eucharist itself, which came from 1662. All of the Bible readings came from 1611, the Authorised Version. All the music was along the lines of plainsong. The altar table used was at the wrong end for a change, the end it would have been at originally; however, prayers to the dead were said near to the bones at the eastern end, and that final altar table received its share of incense too.

There was wide media coverage, and a local arts centre, itself a museum to ropemaking, videotaped the whole service. So a reasonable number of people turned out to the service, and the usual rules were applied to who could communicate (basically of any mainstream Church – in practice, personal conscience).

Three clerics delivered the words of the service in the most professional manner, as did the choir, and all others involved, and the whole entity was smooth. The language was long and involved, but it worked and was, to my mind, more spiritual than Common Worship (2000), which is used for all but Evensongs for liturgical services at St Mary’s.

Yet… Despite the fact that it was this full experience, and as good a worship as you could give and receive, and was intended to be (and indeed was) living, it struck me that it was, now, an entirely self-contained museum. It was internally consistent, but was its own self-contained and complete bubble.

I don’t dislike Common Worship (2000), the liturgy for now, and St Mary’s is able to do a great deal with it. The church has the human resources available to produce high quality worship. Not everywhere can these days – far from it. Yet whilst the language in Common Worship has been brought up to date, it still represents a feudal and agricultural world of some other time. Its thought forms are not updated at all. Indeed because the language is modern, but its world is not, it kind of lives in a limbo of no-time. So whereas the service of 1549, 1611 and 1662 was consistent in itself, the service via Common Worship is a bit of a dog’s breakfast of form and meaning.

I came to the view some time back that there probably is no solution to this. I used to be Unitarian and wrote much of my own worship – and I presented worship too. Since being Anglican I have become a participant but rarely design or present anything (I have, but very occasionally). Even in a Unitarian setting, where you could start with a blank sheet, religion was constructed from the objects of glass cases in a museum. All the words with resonances gain a legitimacy and authority from the past. Sociologists call it invented tradition: just like an Anglo Catholicism that gives the impression it has been around forever when in fact it appeared in Victorian times because it wanted to distance itself from the State and the secular thought-world. Another example is neo-Paganism, which even more so reinvents the past as a way of creating a religion for feminism and the symbolic in an age of networks and relative freedom against hierarchy. Much of British royalty is simply a Victorian invention of pageantry that gave it a renewed authority.

Another example was being told that this worship was a thousand years old, and that we would see nothing like it for another thousand years. Well of course it was not a thousand years old, and it was constructed, and its effect was in the present. Who knows what the bones thought of the Lord’s Prayer read in Anglo-Saxon and in Latin. The living presumably experienced it not unlike the monoglot English people in Cornwall when the Lord’s Prayer was read in Cornish at a service attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury some years back.

Somehow, liturgy is condemned to be out of date, old, and of a mythic past. Out of this comes a sense of transcendence, a mystical, ineffable, sense of floating gift, by which we can come together more and have a new attitude in one’s step and underline the ethical way we should reach out to one another.

One of the difficulties in Anglicanism today is that for many this simply is not good enough. It is not good enough to recreate and indulge to release a sense of transcendence. Like early scientism, it all has to be believed as true. The Archbishop of Canterbury in his Advent Letter last year told us there is but one way to read the Bible according to how some Anglican Churches expect of all others – meaning the demands of the most literalist and magic-bound. There is this drive for selective literalism, signs and wonders and all sorts of godly interventions out of the sky. Others, for whom the world is a little more ordinary and regular, are accused of inventing a virtually new religion, as stated by the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester (England) last year.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m probably guilty of this, though many in leadership seem terribly constrained and display their obedience of the boundaries. Many people now on both sides of the pond seem to be frightened. But I don’t care. The Sunday following the service to mark the return of the bones was also, for us, a Sunday of readings about bones putting on skin and living, which is ridiculous as any sort of biology or history, and about a person, still bound up, who presumably woke up to the light of a removed stone and waddled his way out of his tomb entrance before others took away all the bindings, which is equally ridiculous to any biology or history and produced – in my head at least – a bizarre imagery. To me this is theological writing of an embellishment linking Jesus’s ministry to a central resurrection belief.

I spoke to a Barton lass (all her life in the town), who I’ve known since 1994, on the afternoon of the big Friday Requiem event. Like so many, she dismissed religion and she also has little time for history. That’s why only a reasonable crowd was there. The town did not descend on the event. Somehow religion functions by suggesting a mythic past, using the means of a past world’s thought processes, to produce a sense of transcendence and ethics that we can but puzzle about. Most people these days now find (or do not find) their ethics directly, but I suppose I am an odd one out who in my virtual religion prefers to draw on the artistic, the shapely and the reflective in spending a few moments thinking about past worlds and this world in which I live (for a short time) and wondering how I should be in the company of others.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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