Kim Hartshorne asks whether it's time for liturgy to find a different 'voice'.
I lead a small missional community in a small market town that is socially and economically polarised. The aristocracy are often present in the parish church on Sunday mornings, reading the lesson with cut-glass accents gleaned from an elite education. On the other hand, a national survey showed our town to have very low levels of literacy and numeracy with many people barely able to read at all.
At the Upper Room, we serve and journey with people who find themselves at the bottom of the heap and we are learning to walk slowly together towards Christ. We are presently going through a Bishop's Mission Order process and are committed to the Church of England as the part of the Body we live within. But there are many tensions and dichotomies that we wrestle with in our calling to this context, with conflicting family groups.
We are sure Christ would have spent time listening to the difficult stories of our people. He would have used the language of their everyday lives to weave his story into theirs, showing compassion to those who hung on to him to find hope and healing. We depend on the Holy Spirit for creativity to tell that story in ways it can be grasped and made available, for Christ was accessible to all.
This brings us to a thorny issue, for the Church of England is very dependent upon its liturgy and use of authorised texts for worship, believing that these shape us into God’s people as we say the words together. However, we find many of these are words we cannot say as a community, as they do not reflect our experience of life, or of God. These are not our words; culturally they have not come out of our hearts, our streets or our struggles, and so cannot easily come out of our mouths. What happens in this situation is that many fresh expressions or new forms of church do not use the authorised texts and forms of worship, but creatively frame their own liturgy, empowering people who use indigenous language and expression to find their own authentic voice in lament and worship.
There have been some surprisingly savage critiques evaluating new forms of church and I wonder if this is one of the unacknowledged reasons: 'If these new expressions keep exploding and growing, while some parts of the parish system shrink and close, will we lose our liturgy, identity, tradition and all we hold dear as a Church?' This is a real question which perhaps needs to be aired much more openly.
These questions are about power, accessibility, and who writes liturgy – who is allowed to determine how we will speak of God, and to God? Much of the language beloved of the Church historically has been written by people who are white, male, middle class, likely to be privately educated, and perhaps middle aged. It is unsurprising that the language does not reflect my life experience or that of friends in our community. All those descriptors bring with them perspectives – liturgy or theology are not written in a vacuum, but in a context that brings a certain slant and set of assumptions to bear on the words.
In recent years, the area of theological reflection has bourgeoned as many others voices have begun to be heard. Second- and third- world theologians (labels that are now themselves rejected!), feminist and Marxist theologians, the voices of the marginalised and dispossessed are being exercised. The dominance of the northern hemisphere during Modernity and its academic system is probably over, and as such fresh expressions are not causing this to happen, only following the leading of the Holy Spirit into broader pastures, as many more voices begin to be heard.
Liberation theology from other parts of the world brings a fresh and vital perspective on living through the struggles of life. In this it shares a similarity with life in a British 21st century small missional community affected by issues of powerlessness, worklessness, debt, hunger and chronic sickness.
The scriptures do express much of this range of emotion found in the Psalms and the minor Prophets, urging society and the Church to express the justice and mercy that God requires. If we had liturgy which voiced this more urgently, then perhaps we as the Church of England would be changed and shaped, even radicalised, by these words and spill out from our pews to change the world again. Maybe the Liturgical Commission would give up power to groups such as ours to shape our own poetic cry to God, or hire pioneers to help it to listen. Until then, we will do the best we can to honour God, our people and our life experience, and our mother Church and its traditions.