‘The Old is Good’ (Luke 5.39) : Mission with Ancient Liturgies

There is a widespread feeling in the Scottish Episcopal Church and elsewhere that Christian mission is best served by worship in contemporary language. My experience is that this is not necessarily so and that behind this widespread feeling are some basic errors. This post will argue that not only is traditional liturgy a widely appreciated way of encountering the mystery of Christ, but it is also a powerful instrument of mission in contemporary secular western society.

This argument cuts across the common division between ministry (church stuff for church folk) and mission (church stuff for those outside). The inadequate ‘five marks of mission’ adopted by many churches does not include worship. My answer to this is the story of the envoys of Kyivan Rus who were seeking the true religion and visited different religious groups. In 987 they were brought to the Divine Liturgy of the Great Church of Constantinople and were amazed. They said, ‘we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth’, and this led directly to a great nation being brought to Christ. Our liturgy should be so full of the power of the Spirit that it converts people to Christ. If you object to ancient examples, I have a friend who was part of a delegation of Scottish Young Communists on a fraternal visit to Leningrad who was instantaneously converted to Orthodoxy by a visit to the Divine Liturgy. These people in the tenth and twentieth centuries were not converted by liturgy in their own everyday language.

But what of contemporary Anglicanism, where most worship is celebrated according to liturgies composed since the 1960s, like the 1982 Scottish Liturgy? By traditional liturgies I mean those in traditional English, as found in the Book of Common Prayer, the English Missal and the 1970 Scottish Liturgy (itself a reconfiguration of the Scottish Liturgy of 1764), and worship using Latin or another sacred language. The popularity of Choral Evensong is an example of the enduring power of traditional worship but a recent event has confirmed this on a bigger stage. The traditional Anglican liturgy of the funeral of her late Majesty the Queen at Westminster Abbey was watched by a vast audience and there was little call for simplified language. This service also showed that tradition is not static as the service was not taken straight from the Book of Common Prayer but greatly adapted.

I have found evidence of the power of traditional liturgy in my own ministry in Edinburgh. For the AGM of St John’s, Princes Street, Edinburgh a few years ago, I decided to study trends in attendance at the various weekly services at this busy city-centre Anglican church over the previous few years, when overall attendance broadly remained static. The result was surprising: growth was mainly at traditional language services, which also had a younger age profile. Choral Evensong, weekday Eucharists and Gregorian chant Compline grew in attendance; numbers for Choral Matins and Sunday early Communion remained static; and the ‘main service’, a modern-language Sung Eucharist, continued its steady decline. Language was, however, also only part of the distinctive nature of the growing services (some of the weekday Eucharists used the 1982 Liturgy). They were all contemplative in orientation.

This year, at my current Church, Holy Cross, Davidson’s Mains, I looked at attendance for its patronal festival in September. I found that, of the hundred or so people attending four services from Friday to Sunday, the youngest age profile was of course at Toddler Church, the next at a Latin Mass with Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian chant, the next at a said Eucharist in traditional language, and the oldest age profile was at the modern language Sung Eucharist. Toddler Church is a new Christian initiative responding to a local need, but otherwise there is a similar result to St John’s – traditional language services done well with a contemplative dimension attract younger congregations.

This is interesting as it goes against the prevailing view of the elderly people who often run churches. It also goes against the pressure over the last sixty years to bring liturgy ‘up to date’ to keep future generations in Church. At Holy Cross I asked why we used the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer and was told it was decided in 1983 to change to it ‘for the future and the young people’. By the time I arrived in 2020 there were no young people. The collapse of the Church in Western Europe coincided with the introduction of modern-language liturgies from the 1960s. I don’t want to argue that the latter caused the former. I do, however, want to argue that rediscovering wisdom of traditional liturgy is part of the answer to this crisis and that ‘more of the same’ will not help. Traditional liturgies often have more words but seem less wordy; they sometimes have less involvement of special laypeople doing things but they also give less prominence to the priest’s personality; they give people memorable prayers to recall in times of crisis; and, because they are usually more God-centred, they lack the pressure to ‘fit in’ that we find in modern liturgies marked by the ‘turn to the human’ in theology.   

Perhaps the heart of the problem is an ideology of progress, the belief that as time goes on things get better and more modern while old things are less and less relevant. This needs to be discarded; it really died in the twentieth century with the slaughter of the First World War and the horror of the Nazi and Soviet prison camps. This ideology of progress only maintains a toehold among the comfortable middle class which dominates our churches in Britain. In reality things change organically and slowly, and not always in one direction; the idea that we constantly need to design a new liturgy for new times is alien to Christianity and human nature. I am pleased to note that ordinands at the Scottish Episcopal Institute are formed in all the authorised liturgies of our Church not just the more recent ones. Services of different types are helpful to different people at different times but they should all lead us to participate in the Mystery of Christ. Traditional liturgies have a unique gift here and should be encouraged.

Footnote: this post began life as an online ministry development session on ‘mission and ancient liturgies’ for Edinburgh Diocese organised by Jane MacLaren, thanks to Jane for the invitation. The theme of the captivity of the British Churches to the middle classes is taken up in an an interesting post by Gerry Lynch, Paddington Bear and the Girl with Blue Hair.

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