Experimental Liturgy

A parish priest reflects on the (numerical) consequences of going back to the future

TEN YEARS AGO one of my ordinands got into trouble. Tired of the relentless round of “?make it up yourself” events that passed for worship at his theological college, he determined on radical action. One Friday night, in the spot reserved for “experimental Liturgy”, in full view of the Principal and Staff and a lot of impressionable young ordinands, he conducted a full, unexpurgated, Book of Common Prayer Evensong!

He was, as you might imagine, summoned to the Principal’s study, given a severe dressing down and warned as to his future conduct. Such novelty and naughtiness in a place of godly learning......

True? I’m afraid it is. Worse still, the Principal is now a bishop!

When I was training twenty five years ago, the Prayer Book was being phased out of my college. For some, see above, it became a banned book. In consequence now many clergy not only don’t use it but don’t know how to use it and a good proportion are such poor readers that they feel they can’t use it.

For me and for many of my contemporaries who, as it were, caught the tail end of it in training, it became and has remained a well spring of our spirituality and devotional life. Some friends and contemporaries, have returned to it after years of dissatisfaction with the ASB offices.

I should say straightaway that I am not opposed to the modern Communion rite and have celebrated it regularly in parishes I’ve served. I am just sad when people are so dismissive of the spiritual riches of the Prayer Book. Some clergy seem to despise both it and its adherents while others, more sympathetic, wouldn’t mind celebrating it more but are convinced that they would be preaching to empty churches. If you are in the latter group can I, as they say in counselling circles, share our experience with you?

We are an ordinary parish situated on the road between two other much bigger places, part of a suburban sprawl. Thirty years ago the Prayer Book was thrown out, offices went, sanctuary “reordered”? etc. etc., Series 3 communion (or whatever) reigned supreme and alone. When my predecessor, who privately used the Prayer Book, took over, attempts to revive offices repeatedly failed. Modernity was triumphant. In his final year he put on an 8 o'clock BCP Holy Communion in the side chapel and a small but faithful congregation began.

When I came I said my offices (BCP) whether anyone came or not and slowly a group of the lay folk became responsible for the conduct of offices along with me and it is now rare for us to be alone.

A couple of years into my time in the parish we decided to launch a monthly mission service, inviting newcomers to a mixture of praise, preaching and teaching, some modern music and children's participation. This, to everybody’s delight, produced remarkable results in terms of numbers, age profile, outreach - you name it.

If this was a way of bringing complete strangers, I wondered, what about the lost, the lapsed and the driven away. Also as we put on “simpler” services for new folk, what about the spiritual needs of the more spiritually mature?

Could we try, once a month, to put on a full Prayer Book Communion, servers, incense, full rite and see what happened? The Church Council was more than happy to have a go at this “experimental liturgy” and so we began to prepare and plan and advertise.

Outside our parish, deanery neighbours were utterly dismissive. One rector told his curate we’d be “lucky to get three men and a dog” to such “old fashioned nonsense”?.

We recruited and trained our servers, rescued an hundred dusty old Prayer Books from the organ loft, learnt the Shaw setting and prepared for BCP Day! And then came the moment of madness. We decided to launch this experiment on Easter Day!

Up ‘til then we had had a Dawn Vigil (35 congregation), Said BCP (25) and modern service (160). Common sense said that in gambling we would divide the congregation into two smaller services and split old and young.

Anyway the die was cast and we had advertised and evangelised....... and prayed very hard. The one thing we knew was that the modern could be unashamedly modern and the traditional could be uncompromisingly trad.

The result was a wonderful surprise for all of us in quality of worship but that was equalled by our joy at the number of people coming. The vigil rose to 50, the modern service leapt to 270 and the “new” Prayer Book Communion produced 130 communicants, we ran out of books. Somewhere or other we had sprouted another whole congregation!

Since then Easter Day has steadily grown, in each service, year on year. More excitingly every month now produces a regular Prayer Book congregation of 100 - 120, and the modern service on the same day between 150 - 200.

Eighteen months ago we had a request at the AGM for a monthly choral evensong - Prayer Book. More experimental worship! This now produces an additional congregation of 40-50 souls.

Earlier this year a member of our PCC, not originally an advocate of BCP worship to put it mildly, put in another request. As the trad. and modern service were on the same day people couldn't go to both. Could we have BCP for every fifth Sunday as well so everyone could enjoy it? and so it goes.

The key lesson for us is that people’s spirituality is not monochrome. Age is not a guide - some younger people love BCP - some older prefer modern.

The reintroduction of BCP has deepened our devotion and helped our praying in the modern rite- we understand our roots. And, contrary to all the gloom mongers, far from halving our attendance it has regularly and dramatically increased it.

Best of all, I think, the Prayer Book has reawakened us to the transcendent and the numinous. In the words of the Bishop of London, in a recent Prayer Book Society publication,

“Such respect is an indispensable preparation for wisdom and for any profound appreciation of the work of Jesus Christ in reconciling us to God”.

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