Liturgy: the same old stuff

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I love liturgy. There are many reasons for that: traditional liturgy is the result of centuries of selection and, consequently, it tends to be distilled, concentrated words of worship which ease our prayer. Traditional liturgy is also the expression of church unity worldwide and across centuries. Picture billions of people saying Amen, together, to the same words: that is what liturgy allows.

Tried and tested. Ecumenical. Exciting. Fresh.


Photo: Richard Gilin, re-used under CC License

Hang on – fresh? Never mind the quaint archaisms, the thous and the thees from 1662, how can something – anything – be fresh if it is repeated week after week after week? Surely after so long we go into some form of routine and stop feeling and hearing the power of the words we are uttering.

This is true, of course. Routine does come in. It is especially true if the exact same order of service is used, week in, week out. What I find, sometimes, is that the collect – the dedicated section of the service that changes every week, albeit to the same text every year – is the part of the service where I am most likely to tune out; despite my best efforts.

So, yes, there is a routine. So much so that I can be slightly annoyed at the absence of the prayer of humble access. But this routine, rather than stopping me from engaging, actually is what allows me to engage with the words I am saying on a deeper level. A slight emphasis change, and a whole new meaning of what I have said becomes clear. Start stressing “For us” in the Creed – you’ll see.

Routine can be beneficial to worship: it structures the service, and within the service, it focuses the prayer. But for that to happen, two conditions must be met:

  • liturgy must be alive. It must be clear that the leader is not simply reading those words, but proclaiming them. Now, unless you’re presiding over services, you may think there isn’t much you can do about that – but you’re wrong! Prayer is never passive; and it is rare for corporate prayer to be merely the sum of individual prayers. When you pray with conviction and passion, you will have an influence over those near you, and, gradually, remind the leader of the power of the words he or she is proclaiming. And if that fails, you can always have a chat with your worship leader.
  • you must not expect change, but be open to it. Expecting new stuff is not only setting yourself up for disappointment, it also means that you’ll be seeking out those tiny differences, at the expense of the wealth that you already know. But if you are closed to change; that is to say, if you think from the start that you know what you’re saying (and how you’ll react to it) backwards, then you won’t engage with it at all.

And like most things, getting to these stages takes some time: time to get familiar enough with the liturgy that you can navigate it to experience those changes and realise how exciting and alive it is. So give it some time, and know that liturgy will come alive.

A bit like Scripture, really.

A commitment to discipleship

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Discipleship – being a follower – is central to Christian life. Though the shape that discipleship takes varies, there are some key elements we are all called to: becoming ever more Christ-like. When big decisions come our way, it is right to tackle them as a follower – through prayer and with discernment. This is especially true of discerning our life calling – whether within the ministry or not.


Photo: Miguel Vaca, re-used under CC License

The way I described my response to calling, based on 1 Samuel 3, was this: firstly, hear the call; secondly, discern what the calling is (as Samuel went to Eli), and thirdly, take on the new identity brought on by this call (as Samuel took on the identity of God’s servant). These steps are sometimes muddled up, and the first two occasionally implicit. But a response to a call virtually always includes a commitment.

And here’s where a mistake can be made: to think that it is on that commitment that hinges our call. Or – possibly worse! – that this commitment takes precedence over the calling that it is a response to. This is true both of particular callings to specific action, and to the more universal calling to follow Christ; and it is true both of how we see our own calling and of how we see the calling of others.

When I make the mistake of considering my commitment to my calling first, here’s what happens too:

  • I consider my resolve as more important than the one from whom my calling came.
  • When my commitment wavers – as it is bound to, from time to time – I have to question my entire sense of calling, and go through the whole discernment process again.
  • I don’t know where to draw strength from: my commitment is my own, my responsibility and, in short, my business.
  • My actions become goal-oriented, rather than identity-oriented. In short, I am doing this and that in order to reach whatever goal I have committed myself to (e.g., ordination, or getting a specific job, or helping a specific group of people). I have stopped doing this and that because that’s what I should be doing. And that’s a dangerous thing to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong – commitment is necessary. But not at the expense of knowing that it is just a response: a response to the God who equips those whom he calls.

So consider your own calling as a Christian – or your story of how you became a Christian. Does it revolve around the moment you decided to follow, or does it revolve around the ways God called you, and your redeemed identity?

And if you agree that God’s call is far more important than a commitment, then why do we continue to describe evangelistic success primarily as “people giving their lives to Jesus”?

The Double Decker of Awesomeness

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Cadbury’s make an amazing range of chocolatey goodness. Among their products, the Double Decker is a particular favourite of mine. Whenever they’re available in a meal deal, I go for them. The only thing is –  they’re not easily available in France (like most of Cadbury’s range).


Photo: Evan-Amos (Wikimedia), reused under CC license

So when I last went to England, I took a couple of Double Deckers back with me. And now I have a lone Double Decker left. And no matter how many times I’ve felt like eating it, I’ve always refrained. There are two reasons for this:

  1. I know that if I eat it now, I won’t have a chance to get another one for quite a long time – maybe not ever. I want to save it for when I really need it.
  2. I don’t deserve it. I haven’t achieved something that means I can have such a good treat. (That’s probably what stops me from eating too many Double Deckers when I’m in England)

These reasons are related, yet different: the former implies that the moment of eating should be special (as in, rare), whereas the latter simply implies that the Double Decker is special (as in, awesomely yummy).

On a small timescale, this behaviour kind of makes sense: rationing what’s in limited supply; avoiding to gorge on something special to the point that it would lose its specialness – but I think you’ll agree that dragging it on for months (as I have done) is perhaps a tad ridiculous.

And that it would be even more ridiculous if I were in England, with a near endless supply of Double Deckers if I just could nip down the shop to buy some.

Yet this is how we tend to treat Jesus’s forgiveness. We try to make amends for our own small failures, thinking we can get back into God’s good books through our own actions. When we do confess our sins, it has to be big enough to be worth it, you see. Otherwise, it’ll all be wasted. When we think like that, we are utterly wrong: we realise our sin, but:

So we try to sort out our problems on our own. Maybe it’s because we think that if we go and ask forgiveness too often, it’ll lose its awesomeness; or it’s because we think we don’t deserve it. The thing is: we don’t. Forgiveness is special, and completely undeserved. But that doesn’t mean the occasions where forgiveness is expressed should be special or rare.

So let’s fall into neither of these traps. Let’s not consider God’s forgiveness in the way I consider Double Deckers – as something that should be saved for when we have extra need of it; but let’s not consider it as a worthless thing that doesn’t merit our attention either.

2013 at Ed’s Slipper

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Photo: Sally M, reused under CC license

2012’s most popular posts were mostly silly comparisons. Attempts to be funny/quirky didn’t stop in 2013, but they were far less successful than in 2012. Only the most popular funny post just about fails to make it to the top 5. Rather, 2013 was ripe with more serious discussion. The most popular post, Are Christian Unions detrimental to the furthering of the Kingdom? suggests that there can be too much of a focus on evangelism; but I fear the suggestions I make fall very short of the issue raised.

On a more positive note, all other posts in the top 5 are affirming, to some extent at least: it is normal to find some passages of the Bible boring; or to not be 100% pleased with a new church; and it is sometimes difficult to rely on God, but some things help. I think, ultimately, if there were one thing I’d want people to be reminded of by reading this blog, it is this: we all struggle. It is natural to do so. So let’s not hide our struggles away, as if they were something immune to grace.

And it’s in that view that I tried to encourage guest posts this year. One even made it to the top 5. People who wrote guest posts started their own blogs (see Joe’s blog and Dorian’s blog). And I’d like to continue that in 2014: I’d like to keep on telling people that, just because someone writes a blog, it doesn’t mean they’re perfect – look at me, I’m far from clued up on predestination. But none of us are, and it is through talking that we stop putting our faith in a bushel. Even when we use mixed, or dubious metaphors. So if you’d like to write a guest post on here, get in touch (and if you don’t know how, leave a comment below).

This year also saw this blog’s first interview – with none other than Ben Reed. If you are in any way, shape or form, dealing with small groups, I would heartily recommend you pick  up his book (print version now available).

As much as 2013 was different from 2012, so will 2014 not be a repeat of 2013. I think I will focus on notions of denominations, ecumenism and Christian identity – as I have already started doing so recently.

To finish on a light note, here are some search queries people have genuinely used to access this blog (find last year’s here):

  • is it essential to put slipper in church – yes. Otherwise your feet would get cold. Unless it’s a carpeted church, or floor-heating cathedral. But still. Slippers are stylish. And useful if the preacher brings up predestination.
  • people are like tea. That’s an anti-Calvinist statement if I ever saw one. I mean, this is in clear contradiction with the doctrine of total depravation. People are like coffee, that’d work better within the realms of that doctrine.
  • boxing evangelsim. (typo included). Well, that’s one form of evangelism I haven’t seen yet and it does give a whole new dimension to Bible-bashing.
  • list of things that isn’t in the bible. I think, brother, that’ll be a loooooooong list.
  • predestination made me feel unworthy. Cranmer had foreseen this. Oh, wait. Does that mean you were predestined to feel unworthy?

8 things ecumenism is not

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Ecumenism, its purposes and its nature, seem sometimes arcane. But deeply, to me, ecumenism is highly important because it is an attempt to reflect the unity of the Body of Christ in the way we conduct worship: with one another. So here are a few things I’ve found ecumenism is not:


Photo: Yyaroshko (Wikimedia, under CC license)

1. Ecumenism is not a watering down of doctrine. It is not about trying to find the essence of Christianity and venturing no further. See, our faith is (or should be) so pervasive as to tint our every action. Therefore, sticking our ecumenical thought to what we deem essential and not saying anything about the rest is tantamount to restricting ecumenism to a tiny part of who we are.

2. Ecumenism is not about pretending we have no differences, or at least no substantial differences. It is not about burying our head in the sand and inviting others to follow our practice; nor is it about blindly following other practices by pretending they’re all the same anyway. Such an attitude is presumptuous at best, and maybe damaging – especially around issues of communion. The Body of Christ is made up of a variety of organs; that diversity should be embraced at least to some extent, rather than glossed over as “something for another day”.

3. Ecumenism is not about glorifying those differences either. The differences are there, but we are all looking towards God. And in ecumenism, we are looking towards Him together.

3. Ecumenism is not inter-faith. It’s not talking with people who are assumed to be radically different. In “doing” ecumenism, we are joining our brothers and sisters in worshiping the same God: it is joint action, and relies on an ultimately common understanding of God.

4. Ecumenism is not an excuse for evangelism. The only attitude that can be had in ecumenical events is one of brotherhood. Yes, teaching can happen, discussions can happen – and it would be a sad thing if they didn’t! After all, it wouldn’t be much of a congregation if people didn’t talk with one another, or rebuked one another. But while such disagreements and ensuing discussions are welcome, they are not the main thrust of ecumenical action.

5. Ecumenism is not about striving for peace. Peace is far more easily achieved through mutual ignorance anyway!

6. Ecumenism is not done for the sake of being nice. Who cares about niceties? We have plenty of other people to be nice to. It’s not for the sake of looking lovey-dovey and politically correct either! No, it is done because we are one body, one church, and we should sometimes start acting like it.

7. Ecumenism is not about dialogue. It’s not a question of “understanding the other” better, or of debating thorny theological points with one another. Imagine this: Calvinists and Arminians belonging to separate bodies, and joining together – and all the event revolving around predestination! There would be a point in that, granted – any discussion on predestination is welcome – but is it really everything Christians talk about? Surely not! Then why make it the main point of a joint event?

8. Ecumenism is not trumping other church activities. I see ecumenism as an outlook, an attitude which, yes, comes through in some specific events. And in an ideal world, this attitude should shine through regular church activities. But in the event it does not, there is little point going towards the outside at the expense of the inside.