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Hallo again to all.

On this final Sunday of Advent, we found ourselves thinking about liturgical bungling. In recent months we've attended a number of different Anglican churches and a Methodist church or two, and have witnessed a startling number of liturgical blunders and jaw-droppingly clumsy attempts to 'recover' from them.

Last year we attended a service at a non-liturgical church in a nearby town. The pastor was entirely in charge, and the order of service was whatever he wanted it to be each week. There is a certain simplicity to that. If there's no requirement to say or do a specific thing at a specific point in the service, then by definition there can be no mistake. If the pastor wants to interrupt a hymn to demonstrate his proficiency at juggling, and can provide a modicum of Biblical justification for that, then it's all good. There is no need to try to repair the mistake because there is no mistake. Odd whim, perhaps. Mistake, no.

By 'blunder' we do not mean unfortunate accidents. A clergyperson setting fire to objects that are not candles or incense. A deacon tripping and falling during the opening processional and knocking down several other people. A chair near the rood screen collapsing when a heavy deacon sits in it. Loose dogs running through the nave and barking. These things happen. No, by 'blunder' we mean something such as the presider forgetting or swapping entire sections of the liturgy, or a lector reading the Confession instead of the Prayers of the People, or the priest stopping in the middle of a baptism to apologize for having announced the wrong hymn earlier.

We got to thinking about liturgical blunders because in one church we attended this Advent, the presider forgot to include at the beginning the brief ceremony of lighting the appropriate Advent candle. Later in the service one of the acolytes noticed that the candle had not been lit, picked up a very long candle lighter, strolled in front of the rood screen over to the wreath, fumbled with the lighter until it had a proper flame, lit the candle, and then strolled back to his seat.

Smooth and well-rehearsed liturgy is a pleasure, even with little bumps, though on occasion we've seen the focus on performance dominate the focus on worship, transforming the liturgy into some sort of drama. We'll never forget the time we heard a priest refer to the area behind the screen as 'backstage'. We all know Matthew 18:20, 'For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.' God doesn't actually care whether the ceremony of lighting the Advent candle is done 'properly' or not. God has promised to be there with us. We think that the congregation is more likely to pay attention to the content of the worship service if its form is familiar and unintrusive, but there is danger of becoming so obsessed with the form of the liturgy as to let that form seem more important. There's an ongoing drama at a big and famous church in the midwestern USA at which two consecutive interim priests have been driven away by a group of parishioners interested in liturgical form over all things. We suspect that church would benefit greatly by having a few months of Sundays in which there was a major liturgical blunder every week, so everyone could notice that the sky didn't fall.*

If a liturgical blunder happens in your church, just smile and be grateful that God is there with you. If you think that others would enjoy hearing about it, tell us about it, but keep it light-hearted (let him who is without sin cast the first thurible).

See you next week, in Christmastide.


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20 December 2015

*We do know a few people whose ability to experience God in a worship service depends on its predictability and smoothness. Such people should probably be spared 'blunder therapy'.


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