Jan 222012

I suppose that over the next wee while I will experience lots of ‘firsts’ as I take up the reins in my first charge.

But there can be few ‘firsts’ quite so special as being invited to officiate at the wedding of a family member. One of the slight added pressures of getting into a charge was the request to conduct the wedding of my brother-in-law and his fiancée. However, the charge has arrived in good time and so I will be able to do the honours in due course.

So, last night was an opportunity to sit down with them and go through the order of service. Of course, never having done one of my own before, it was an interesting experience working out what was to be included in the liturgy, and why (and where). I know the CofS doesn’t hold to a sacramental view of marriage, and I’m happy with that, but I’ve recently been wondering about how we lift a marriage service beyond the ‘legalities with frills’.

I was slightly surprised to discover that the couple wanted something solidly Christian and with ‘gravitas’ (not the word used, but fitting). I was also keen to create the liturgy in such a way that the ‘congregation’ were more involved, or ‘invested’ in what was happening.

I think what we’ve come up with works really well. I suppose it’s loosely based on the 2nd order in Common Order, but definitely only loosely and with other bits thrown in. Broadly speaking, after the first hymn, and a short preamble, we’re into a reading (1Co 13:1-8, nothing original, but by request). This is followed by a short reflection setting the context of Christian marriage in the bigger picture of God’s love and restored relationships (a bit of a hobby-horse theme of mine at the moment) – relationships we are all part of. This then leads to the unifying recital of the Apostles’ Creed. On this basis of God-reflecting, loving relationship, we move into the marriage ceremony itself, finishing that part with a sung Aaronic blessing. There’s then a specially written choral piece during which we may or may not go and sign the schedule, then it’s a prayer, Lord’s prayer, 2nd hymn and benediction.

I like the ‘shape’ – the way it establishes a Christian foundation that is inclusive. I like the way it encourages participation – this is not ‘just’ about two people, but of a much bigger set of relationships. I also like the way that it manages to combine a ‘high’ approach with inclusivity (well, I think it does).

Downside is that it is quite lengthy, but the view of the bride is that it is this part that is the focal point of the day and if that means shaving 10 minutes off the drinks reception immediately afterwards, then so be it.

I doubt that this will become my standard liturgy, but having had this first go at one, and ensuring that it is ‘special’ for people I particularly care about, it has been a very helpful ‘first’. I think it’s really only when you do your first liturgy for anything that you really question why something is there, and why you are using particular words, and why it flows the way it does.

Like I say, it’s the first of what, I’m sure, will be many firsts. Not all will be so pleasurable, but all will be a challenge to ensure God is properly ‘included’ and given His proper place.

Oh, I didn’t mention that the wedding is on the Saturday of the Easter Weekend. Hopefully that will be a first, and last.

Oct 012010

I’ve been thinking about ‘endings’ today. In part this has been prompted by taking two funerals, but that’s not really the sort of ending I have in mind. I’ve also had a few hospital visits and it is with these, or rather, one in particular, that I have been pondering the issue of ‘endings’.

In this case, the issue is of bringing a visit to an end. The person I visited obviously had short-term memory problems. We circled round the very same conversation several times. Every time I got to point where I thought it was appropriate to take my leave, a ‘new’ conversation started up. I finally grabbed my chance when I was asked a new question about what else I had to do that day. The other visits had more ‘natural’ conversations and were easier to guide to a conclusion. Maybe I just need to develop a slightly more robust disengagement strategy.

The funerals were, of course, endings as well, but there were particular thought-provoking issues there too. Again, in bringing them to a close. At the recent probationers’ conference there was some debate over the appropriateness of the we/you language choice in benedictions. There were some suggestions that probationers still shouldn’t be using ‘you’-oriented blessings. I’m not convinced there is a theological, ecclesiological or ontological argument to justify this. Nevertheless, it came to mind at both funerals, because I did not know the deceased or any of the families and so including myself seemed inappropriate.

My final reflection on endings was associated with this morning’s funeral. It was in the church and then on to the cemetery. In my head the ‘conclusion’ of the service is at the cemetery and so that is where the benediction should be said. But it occurred to me that many in the church did not go on to the cemetery and so were excluded from that blessing. Would it have been inappropriate to do it twice? I felt the church part was somehow left ‘incomplete’ because of it, but then the ‘completion’ really comes afterwards. I’d be interested in the opinion of any liturgists out there.

And so, having burbled on about endings, here endeth this blog entry.

Mar 082009

In my placement church there has been a bit of a move away from reading out intimations at the beginning of the service, if for no other reason than it can take a fair bit of time and there is also the tendency of people to stick their head round the vestry door with 5 minutes to go and say, “Can you read this notice out?”

Now it’s a case of reminding people to read the intimations sheet or watch the notices Powerpoint that runs prior to the service starting. And if anyone has an urgent notice to bring to the congregation’s attention, they themselves (and not one of the ministry team) are welcome to read it out before the service starts.

I would think I’m largely in agreement, especially if it is simply a case of reiterating what’s in print. After all, what place does notice of committee meetings, or when the next whatever organisation meeting is have as part of a service of worship? By the same token, I’ve also seen intimations done in a very different way where it becomes a time of sharing church family news, including what organisations are up to and when they will be doing other things.

When it is purely a ‘notification’ process then I think it struggles to find its place in a service and restricting it to the intimation sheet or pre-service announcements is perfectly acceptable. The place where I saw it being done differently had it immediately prior to a prayer and the prayer then became one of thanksgiving for all that was happening in the  life of the congregation and intercession for all that was coming up.

I’m not convinced that any other ‘theological spin’ can be found for including intimations or notices within the service ‘proper’, but I’m happy to be corrected. But that thought in itself raises questions about whether everything done during a service needs to be ‘proper’. By stripping out anything that doesn’t have some sort of theological justification are we divorcing the worship service from ‘life’? And if all of our life should be a ‘sacrifice of praise’ to God, then are mundane things such as notices not part of that?

Feb 132009

Today’s Church, Sacraments & Ministry tutorial was most frustrating. The initial discussion was on the subject of ‘confirmation’ and the Church of Scotland’s somewhat confused approach to it. Is it confirmation, affirmation, profession of faith, membership, admission to communion roll? Or even some mish-mash of all of these? Anyway, the main topic of conversation ended up being membership. There were a number of comments about how ‘membership’, of any organisation, is no longer seen as the done thing. “People don’t want to commit to anything these days.” “You can’t force people to join.” “Talking about membership will scare people away.” “Requiring vows of commitment and having expectations on people is not the gospel message.”

There were plenty of anecdotes about how welcoming churches are and how they engender a sense of belonging. There were also plenty about lack of welcome and plain old rudeness. None of these things is a membership issue and we should be welcoming of all who step through the church doors. Even at communion, that place where, for so long, a degree of segregation was maintained through communion cards, is much more welcoming, and rightly so. The typical words of invitation are that the table is open to ‘all who love the Lord’ even though the ‘normal’ procedure within the CofS is that it is open to those who have been baptised (but that’s just another example of the lack of joined up theology and liturgy in this whole area). There are no expectations placed on those who come to communion. There are no membership classes to be gone through, no resolutions by the Kirk Session or public professions of faith before someone can participate in the Lord’s Supper. Yet we still use the terminology of communicant roll, admission to the Lord’s table and so on in the administrative side of the church.

But when it comes to membership, then that’s a different kettle of fish. Does it need a liturgy of confirmation simply to commit to being involved in church life? Is it not merely an administrative task? Yet at the same time, becoming a member of a church is a big deal for many people. It does represent a deeper sense of commitment, often as a response to a recognition of coming to faith or of a new ‘level’ of faith which draws them into a deeper desire to serve. that’s not to say that non-members cannot contribute to the life of a church. But it does raise issues for the Church of Scotland. Its practices and procedures do not allow involvement in the church courts unless you are a member. You have no say in the calling of a minister to your particular charge if you are not a member. So, regardless of whether ‘membership’ is a dirty word, you cannot escape the reality of it in the CofS.

I’ve no doubt that there are good and bad ways of approaching the issue, but you cannot duck out of the responsibility of dealing with it. And the issue of tying it, in some way, to a rite of passage such as public profession of confirmation is something that also need to be dealt with. Does profession of faith make you a member of a church (or perhaps more accurately, a member of a congregation)? And surely it’s only reasonable to expect someone to understand the membership vows they are to be taking and, more importantly, expect them to make such a commitment in the first place and hence the need for membership classes.

Yes I can see how membership and commitment and expectations would be an anathema to many in today’s society, and I can also see how it might be off-putting to those who might be fragile and simply want to feel that sense of belonging, but I don’t think that they can be set aside entirely. They may need to be dealt with more sensitively and there may need to be a bit of theological, liturgical and practical sorting out, but scripture never says that following Jesus means coming and going as you please, living a life that is unchanged or being commitment-shy. It may be that society does promote these values, but the Christian life is, in so many ways, counter-cultural.

Perhaps the biggest issue here is that the CofS needs to separate its theological practice from its administrative practice and then work out where they need to join back up again rather than the somewhat messy mix we have at the moment.

Feb 052009

I was reading a couple of articles for tomorrow’s Church, Sacraments and Ministry class. The topic for this week is a cursory overview of worship in Scotland. It covers such diverse areas as buildings and their layout, use (or lack) of liturgy, hymnody and so on. One of the articles was speaking about communion and how post-Reformation practice was to seat everyone at tables. Pews are a relatively recent arrival and it caused a bit of a stir when some churches started serving people in the pews rather than have people sit at a table. Part of the rationale for not having a communion table (ie one at the front to lay the elements on as we do now) was that it was too reminiscent of an altar. One ‘compromise’ was to ‘extend’ the table by laying white cloths on the pew shelves so that it still symbolised being part of the same table.

This rang a bell with me and I can’t remember if it was something done in my own church or I was hearing about in a placement church. Regardless, the church stopped doing it because it was a bit of a hassle and was a lot of work washing all the cloths afterwards. I wondered if those who advocated stopping it were even aware of the liturgical significance. And I wonder how many other little rituals that we perform have lost any sense of liturgical history, either through irrelevance or ignorance?

I think we forget the power of symbolism or reject its significance because we don’t always get it. I’m not suggesting that we should always be burdened with meaningless ritual but I think that it’s important to remember the history behind what we do in church and, if we insist on doing away with rituals, make sure that what lies behind them is not thrown out as well, but incorporated into our worship in new and more meaningful ways.