Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Art of Liturgical Explanation

Now I've chosen this word "Liturgical" carefully here.

Because the Art of Liturgical Explanation isn't something that happens so much in churches that think they're "liturgical".

In "liturgical" churches, there's less Liturgical Explanation. They have less need of it. They have an order of service. They have rubrics. People have less need to be told to sit, to stand, to put their hands in the air. Actually, now I think of it, have you ever seen a rubric telling the congregation to put their hands in the air, or saying "singing in tongues may happen"? No. Nor me. That would be unspontaneous. And spontaneity is all about being spontaneous at the right time. Not planned in advance.

But in churches without properly printed out liturgies, such as Proper Protestants, or Beaker Folk, Liturgical Explanations are really important.

They really started off, I guess, when people needed some guidance. When you have a service book, but no idea what hymns the worship leader is going to pick, you need to be told. A big bingo-number board at the front ain't no use, in these circumstances. And so a modicum of explanation was required. "Now we're gonna sing number 34". Nothing wrong with that.

But then worship leaders realised, given you've got the chance to say "Now we're gonna sing number 34", you can pad your act a bit. Tell people what's spiritually or theologically significant about hymn 34. Tell them what hymn 34 means to you. In small doses, this can be useful - pointing out the flow of worship, the way the songs join with the Scripture and the sermon to tell the whole story of the act of worship - that's good. When you're 10 minutes into an explanation of how "Oh, we are more than conquerors" cannot be seen as triumphalist in a bad way, but in fact reflects the reality of the daily struggle - with a long diversion into the struggles with certain kinds of sin that - ahem - a close friend of the worship leader had, that's when you're into the Art of Liturgical Explanation. If the worship leader is really on the ball, s/he can then reflect on what singing the song meant to everybody, after singing it. Or, if the group is really clued up, why not get someone to play an instrumental while the post-song reflection on the previous song segues into the pre-song liturgical explanation of the next one?

There's really no limit to where Liturgical Explanation can be used. You can explain, before the final blessing, that you're asking God's blessing on everybody. You can easily pad the Notices out to 10 minutes by explaining that the Notices are themselves part of the worship, that they reflect a church that is alive and doing things, and then by praying for each item on the Notices - in turn. And then telling everybody that, if they were too enraptured by the theology to listen to the Notices, they're on the Notice Sheet. And will be on the OHP afterwards. And the website. And Facebook. And, repeatedly, on Twitter.

Then there's the Liturgical Explanation of the Liturgy. That's where, in certain churches of an Evangelical tradition, you explain that, although you are about to say that the bread and wine are in fact far more than just bread and wine, you won't really mean it. Not as in, really mean it. Lots of explanation of the word "symbol" can come in handy at that point. Ideally before, during and after. And, if you have a service book, print a strong explanation saying "This is not literal!" down the side. Ironic, really. Who would have thought that just those few sentences in the Bible aren't to be taken literally, unlike Genesis 2, say, or Revelations 12?

But the real art of the Art of Liturgical Explanation is shown in that undertaken around the Message and the Reading. A really bright worship leader will get in quick, after the main reading but before the Message/Sermon/Talk/Few Random thoughts, and suggest a prayer for the Preacher. If they're on the ball, and concerned that the Preacher may have ideas of their own, the Worship Leader will be able to use the prayer to outline the main points of the sermon that the Preacher ought to have been preparing. If enough doubt can be sown in the Preacher's mind, who knows? Especially if the Preacher, like the Worship Leader, tends to go without notes. They could end up preaching the sermon the Worship Leader would like, after all.

And then after the sermon - ideally not during, that's rude - the Worship Leader gets another chance. Now, the congregation can be invited to reflect on the wonderful things that were in the sermon. Or, if it's put the right way, the things that should have been in it. Sometimes a post-sermon reflection on the sermon can be longer than the sermon. And it can even be theologically diametrically opposed to it, while still saying what a good sermon it was.

It is at this point that a couple of real guerrilla pieces of Liturgical Explanation can be adopted. One is where the person down to do the intercessions reflects on the sermon during the prayers - conveniently adapting it to the concerns of the day or, if the intercessor is really creative, using current events to shoot the sermon down in flames. "And we know that some believe you promised never to send a flood again, O Lord, but when we see the events in the Somerset Levels, we wonder if this were merely figurative, and not to be pronounced confidently from a pulpit..." was Jasnold's rather cutting contribution, back in the winter, after a terribly fundamentalist sermon from Dagmire. And then there's the truly audacious one - the guerrilla prophecy from the congregation. If somebody gets up quick, and starts by praising the sermon, they can have a good three or four minutes before anyone realises they're actually trashing it. "And I really appreciated the heartfelt way that Mansfield explained the literal reality of the 6-day creation. I find his naive, gullible faith so heart-warming. Wasn't it Our Lord who said those who are quite childish are closest to the Kingdom of Heaven?"

When it all comes down to it, I have a theory about the Art of Liturgical Explanation. Beyond the fact that some people are genuinely trying to help, but just talking to much. That's got to explain some of it. It otherwise comes down, I think, to two things:

1) We're not quite sure we trust the congregation to respond appropriately without an endless amount of coaching. What might happen if we let them work out what the hymn meant, for themselves? It'd be carnage.
2) Isn't silence scary? If I'm not talking - then who is?

I've got the answer though. Rubrics. They're better thought-out, in better English, and save time because you don't have to read them out. And, if you get enough rubrics, you end up with a prayer book so thick, that it's got all three external dimensions the same size. It's as thick as it's long as it's wide.

And then you've got a Rubrics Cube.


  1. Please ... please tell me that this post wasn't created *solely* for the awful pun at the end?


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