Rip up the pews and encourage real participation

Theo Hobson has written before about how attending an Episcopal Church rekindled a faith nearly extinguished in the Church of England. Now he has more to say:

Church, the business of turning up on Sunday mornings, and joining in with the goings-on, isn’t really so bad. I want to talk about worship! It feels almost taboo to raise the issue in any detail, even on the world’s most intelligent and open-minded religion site. Can the atheists handle the provocation?

I’ve been attending a well-known arty-liberal church in Manhattan called St Marks in the Bowery. It has an excellent priest, a rising star of international liberal Anglicanism, called Winnie Varghese. It nearly always has amazing visiting musicians, often gospel-singers, which helps. But the main attraction is that it feels inclusive, participatory. The pews have gone, and the seats are arranged in an oval. There is no organ – both it and the pews were casualties of a fire some years ago – a godly fire in my view. I consider organ music too loud, too powerful – it alienates, cows. Instead, the liturgy is accompanied by a piano….

The climax of an Anglican service is communion, or eucharist, but normally it doesn’t feel like much of a climax; one stays in one’s pew as the vicar gets busy at the altar, and then one lines up to receive the bread and wine. Here it is different: we all come forward and stand in a circle round the altar. The liturgy is mostly said by the priest, but we join in with a few setpiece prayers together, one or two of which are sung with gusto, and it’s at this point I get a strange sensation: we are not dutifully going through the motions, but performing a ritual that feels alive. It is a bit like participating in a play in a theatre-in-the-round. There is a sense of dramatic excitement. We pass the bread and wine round in a circle, announcing “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven”, and “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation”. There is a palpable sense, that I have never really had in English churches, that this ritual is powerful. At the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, there’s a sort of primal force to it, not unrelated to a primitive rain-dance. We are doing something strange, other, mysterious: group sign-making of the most basic kind.

Does our worship need the kind of renewal Hobson experienced at St. Mark’s (where, full disclosure, I have also been impressed by the energy in the liturgy, and Winnie’s direct, probing preaching style)?

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