Liturgy Matters - Part II

Last month I introduced this series which hopes to explore the liturgy we use in church. We reminded ourselves that by liturgy we mean the words, the silence, the movement, the symbolic actions, the music, which combine to create the space for us to worship God. It is also worth reminding ourselves that liturgy means literally 'the work of the people'. In other words, liturgy is not something clergy do to you (I promise)! Or that clergy offer on behalf of everyone else! It is the responsibility of all of us to participate in it, for worship to be offered to God, and so liturgy is something in which we all actively engage.

Last time I also reminded us there are four 'movements' as part of this service: The Gathering, The Liturgy of the Word, The Liturgy of the Sacrament; The Dismissal. I want to begin by exploring what we mean by 'The Gathering', and begin right at the beginning. In fact I will not get very far into the service today - only as far as the opening words, because getting to grips with the different aspects of The Gathering is worth doing properly and in some detail!

Our very word for 'church' comes from the Greek ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) which means assembly, or 'a gathering'. It's where, of course, we get our word 'ecclesial'. The focus of church was not a building but a people. They met in people's houses in the early days of course, and the importance of coming together, usually around the memory of the Lord's Supper, was foundational. Our individualistic society does well to remember this: that primarily we come together to worship God - it is a corporate activity. Whilst our individual prayers and worship are of course important, we simply cannot speak of 'making my communion privately', and to go to church is not a private affair which one quietly conducts and then goes home again. It is an oxymoron to speak of going to the gathering of community to be alone!

For any worship of God in church, which is 'the gathering of community', it must be by nature communal. Our Holy Communion, our 'making our communion' is about community together. So 'The Gathering' is far more than just the first heading in the service: it is a definition of who we are and why we are there. It is our corporate life together we embrace when we come to church - or more properly, when we 'are' church. The Gathering is a collective noun that scoops us all up. Thankfully it is rare now for people to scuttle into church, not meet eyes with anyone, and scuttle home again, without a community having actually acknowledged each other's presence! At the very least, we share the peace, and a word at the church door. Hopefully, we extend our gathering beyond worship, into the first Sunday breakfast that meets between the two services (bringing two gatherings into one) and into coffee after services where possible. But it is also important to recognise that our very worship is corporate, not individual. We meet with one another and we meet with God.

This first part of the service, therefore, is about coming together as a community. It is Bishop Michael Perham in his book, New Handbook of Pastoral Liturgy, who comments that we usually turn up to church very much as individuals, and so the Gathering is, 'a recognition that we need binding together with our neighbours if we are genuinely to be a congregation and the body of Christ.' He suggests the ministers process through the congregation deliberately so at the start of the service, because we are symbolically gathering up all our members together 'to take them on towards the sanctuary'. It reminds us that clergy, despite being ordained, remain laity (people), and shows the clergy and laity together in the procession as being part of the people, drawn together to lead us in worship. And as I have said many times, we process to show we are pilgrims on a journey: that our journey in faith is not static, and that movement, change, and changing seasons, are all part of what following Christ demands. We follow a God always on the move! If we ever stop being pilgrims, if we ever stop moving, we are no longer the living body of Christ that the gathered community is called to be.

Very often we begin our service with an acknowledgement of the Trinity: 'In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' On the occasions we use this, we begin by recognising that relationship and community exists at the very heart of God, and just as we are invited into this community, so we meet God in one another, and we meet one another in God. And then we use a greeting that is an exchange and response, usually either:
         The Lord be with you
All      And also with you.

or      Grace, mercy and peace
         from God our Father
         and the Lord Jesus Christ
         be with you
All     And also with you.

The first greeting can be found in the early Christian tradition as a greeting (2 Thessalonians 3.16) and the second in the Jewish tradition (Ruth 2.4). As we greet one another with these ancient words, we remind ourselves of the centuries of communities down the ages who have worshipped God, and I like to think that as well as scooping up one another in this greeting, we acknowledge the wonderful 'community of saints' down the age. Having welcomed one another in the presence of God, we become ready to turn our attention to prayer - and that is where I will pick up from next month!

Helen Bailey