Sermons from St Faith's

Worship and Ritual

Fr Neil Kelley: 23 September 2007

‘You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.' So says Our Lord in today’s Gospel: a reminder that over and above all else it is God who comes first. The first of the ten commandments makes that clear and in the good old days of the Book of Common Prayer we heard that regularly in what is known as the Summary of the Law. The first commandment reminds us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. And the way we do that, the way we put God first, is to worship Him.

The Liturgical Commission of the Church of England has recently published a report entitled “Transforming Worship” which was received at the last meeting of the General Synod.

It makes for very interesting reading, if you are interested in that sort of thing, although I haven’t finished reading it yet. I must finish it soon as the Diocese have asked me to suggest ways in which some of the recommendations contained in the report need to be implemented in the Diocese of Liverpool.

It is appropriate today, one year after being licensed as Diocesan Adviser on Liturgy and Worship, that I take the opportunity to thank you for your generosity in agreeing that some of my time can be given to Diocesan work.

Some have criticised the Roman Catholic Church in recent years for what might be described as “throwing the baby away with the bathwater” and whilst the report doesn’t say that we have done that, my reading of it is that it certainly hints at it.

In recent years, certainly among some of the clergy working in the Kirkby Team when I was there ten years ago, there has been something of a feeling that we shouldn’t bother too much about services because the real work of the church is done outside the building.

The report contradicts that assumption when it says: “we must not let the familiar words of the dismissal mislead us into thinking that, while we are still at worship, our active service has not yet begun. The very phrase ‘divine service’ reminds us that worship too is service.”

“Worship must never be a performance merely for its own sake and that can sometimes happen or appear to happen. There is a danger that a concern for the liturgy to be well-prepared and carefully celebrated can develop into liturgical fussiness and perfectionism”. But, says the report, “we still have to take responsibility for planning and celebrating our rites to the best of our ability, and we will normally find that good and well-prepared liturgy will inspire the Christian community to joyful living and costly service, in ways that are deeply attractive to those outside or on the edge of the church.”

We talk a lot, and rightly so, about the church’s involvement with those who are poor. But we don’t tend to have the same debates and conversations about how we tackle the issues of spiritual poverty. Many in fact claim that it is because of a spiritual richness that people in third world countries can cope with the material poverty around them. Perhaps those of us who live in rather comfortable surroundings have something to learn from the spiritually rich!

In recent years many have described the liturgy as the shop window of the church. Liturgy can be an opportunity for people to be drawn to the church or put off it for life!

One of the things that came out of a meeting with Bishop James recently is that he has asked me to organise a day conference in the Cathedral next autumn, a three-line whip event for clergy and readers, entitled “The Beauty of Holiness”. The importance of worship cuts across all churchmanship and styles.

Of course each tradition has elements which can be good or bad and we can and must learn from each other.

There are many new ideas in the liturgical market-place at present, offering a whole range of resources for all age worship. Some is very good and powerful, some trite and banal. I know for example of a priest in this diocese who confessed that if he doesn’t get a laugh out of people at an all-age family service he comes away feeling he has failed! What have we turned worship into when we think like that? Do we really think that as priests we have to become game-show hosts?

A year on, after the last review, the content of all age worship was discussed by both PCCs recently and will be discussed more as we seek to work out what is right for our two churches and taking a whole raft of considerations into account – more later!

We are blessed here to enjoy a high standard of liturgy, serving, music and lay participation. That is not something we should be embarrassed about or feel guilty about. It is something to celebrate and rejoice in. and we are good at celebrating. The new Area Dean, Roger Driver, came to see me the other day and one of his comments was “the best parties in the Deanery are all up this end!”

The whole of the report I mention is based on the significance of worship in all that we do participating in the 'missio Dei', the mission of God. Worship and mission are inextricably linked.

It is good, with that in mind, to acknowledge the dedication of five people from our two churches, (Fred Nye, Jackie Parry, Kari Dodson, Lynda Dixon and Cynthia Johnson) who are this week beginning a year long course organised by the Diocese entitled 'Mission Shaped Ministry'. Mission Shaped Ministry is for Christians who want their churches to be more effective in mission: a course for all denominations, traditions and streams and for recognized ministers who want to sharpen their skills. Those participating will learn about the nature and shape of the church, the qualities and characteristics of Christian ministry and will be helped in the process of listening to God in our own culture and community. It is designed for busy Christians who are active in ministry and part of the learning comes through reflection on our own context and story.
Mission and worship are inextricably linked, or should be. When we worship, as the report I mention says, we participate in God’s mission and when we worship well we give others an opportunity of deepening their relationship with Him.

Perhaps the final word today on worship should come, not from the Synod report, or even from the Diocesan Advisor on Liturgy and Worship, but some words from the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, in his thought for the day on 12th September.

'I've been fascinated by the recent spate of books casting doubt on religious faith, as if religion meant believing six impossible things before breakfast. Well, religion is a matter of holding certain beliefs, but that's not the only or even the most important thing about it. Religion is also about ritual; and ritual is about taking certain beliefs and making them real in the way we behave.

Would my life be the same without the Jewish New Year? No. I might still believe that life has a purpose, that what matters is not how much we earn but the good we do. I might still be convinced that it's important to apologise for the wrong I do and try to make amends. But those beliefs would have no fixed date in my diary and I might never get round to acting on them at all. Religion isn't the only way of thinking about ultimate questions. There are others: philosophy for example, or science. But philosophy and science never created rituals. And when you lose ritual you lose much else besides.

When people pray, they ritualise the sense that there is someone watching over what we do, and that creates internal restraints. When we lose that, we have to invent another form of watching, closed circuit video cameras, and that's the beginning of a loss of privacy. When we have the Sabbath, we have dedicated family time. Lose the Sabbath and a generation later families begin to fracture. Ritual structures time the way music structures sound. It turns life into a work of art, giving it shape, proportion, grace and beauty.

In English the word secular comes from 'seculum' meaning worldly, so religion signifies something other-worldly. But the Hebrew word for secular, 'chol', actually means sand. And that, without ritual, is what we can sometimes become: a grain of sand blown by the shifting winds of moment and mood. Rituals help us consecrate time, weaving into our lives the things that are important, not just urgent.'

Return to sermons index page

Return to St Faith's home page