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Hallo again to all.

It was rather a shock this morning, albeit it in a good way, to worship in an Anglican parish that by any metric could be called 'nosebleed high'. We're not entirely certain that we've ever taken part in a service where the people only joined in the Lord's Prayer at one clause ('deliver us from evil') and we're utterly sure we've never been in a service where the lesson was read whilst facing the altar — which was of course against the east wall — by one of the clergy. And it had been years since we'd heard the 'Last Gospel'.

There was as much stunning music as possible during the summer season in the northern hemisphere. Birettas, dalmatics, and asperges abounded, as did the warm welcomes in the narthex by the various clergy before the service began. The liturgy — which was, of course, 'high mass' — was beautifully offered. Perhaps eighty percent of the service was said or sung in Latin and perhaps five percent of the liturgy involved participation by people in the pews.

It was entirely different for us to be present at an Anglican service that required involvement and participation in a way quite remote from most parish churches. The opportunity to become deeply lost in the liturgy, only occasionally being able to determine where one was ('Ah, the Gradual! Got it!'), was initially odd and slightly off-putting, but later enveloping and mystical.

This glorious and over-the-top liturgy never felt like pageantry. There was energy, intensity, and authenticity through all, from the introit through the sermon to the final hymn. The clergy and choir, along with the servers assisting in the liturgy, all were focussed and yet relaxed. There was none of that tense atmosphere we've sometimes sensed in liturgically formal services. It was as if the participants in the liturgy were simultaneously reverential, yet merry of heart. There was no sense of superficial pomp, rather the sense that the symbols and signs, vestments and voices, all mattered enormously and were real because those who wore them, used them, or handled them inhabited them and gave them meaning.

It is so easy for it to be the other way round, isn't it? Alas, in our experience, it's far more common for the vestments and the vessels to become, sadly, stage props. It's as if there is a continuum of authenticity, with one end of the scale being worship that feels like shabby seaside theatre and the other end, worship that seems to foreshadow heaven. Authenticity in worship transcends all communions and denominations, of course. It can be found in the simplest gathering in the plainest Quaker meeting house. There is no barometer of authenticity that one can use to measure the integrity and honesty of worship, but one can feel it, sense it, in some impossible-to-describe manner. It's absence is the stuff of dinner theatre and its presence is the benediction of Holy Spirit.

Allowing the beauty of holiness to inhabit us rather than 'putting on' the beauty of holiness seems a critical distinction in worship. And as clumsy as that sentence is (and as cross as it makes us that we can't get it quite right), it seems to us that there is a great and important mystery here. In our Anglican tradition, it's easy to rely on the the liturgy, the prayers, the music and the motions to carry the clergy and servers, choir and readers, through a service. We can 'go through the motions'. And indeed all of us have off days, so at times we will do just that, Our Lord is understanding. And yet, and yet — we surely must do all we can to ensure that 'what we sing with our lips, we believe in our hearts'. [Quia quod ore cantavisti, corde credidisti.]

As the bishops of the Episcopal Church in the United States wrote in a rare Pastoral Letter* about liturgy, 'There must be the expression of reality throughout the whole, for nothing short of this will prevent the deadening effect of cold and torpid formalism'. Amen!

May we all be authentic bearers of reality in all we do, in our churches (however low or high) and in our lives.

See you next week.

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* On the occasion of the 1856 General Convention in Philadelphia

Last updated: 17 August 2008

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