Liturgy for Purity

More on Alan Bartlett’s book ‘A Passionate Balance’.

This book is proving rich in ideas for further thought and reflection.  While the mission question that I mentioned last week has continued to echo and been joined by other missional questions another strand is also clambering for attention, that of liturgy my other great passion.  I love liturgy always have and probably always will; I love the history of it, of how it has developed, of what has got lost, of what has remained, of how it can speak of God to us today and how it can help us speak to God, I love the mystery of it, I love exploring new liturgies, new ways of doing liturgy, of rediscovering old gems and putting them into new contexts, be it old or new as long as it is done well.  So this chapter really caught my imagination and sent the old grey matter into a whirl.

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

A congregation gathers is welcomed and shares the peace then together they say the collect for purity.  An ancient collect which was once said only by the priest as part of their preparation before the service.  It is a collect that has remained virtually unchanged, yes the language has been updated, but the essence has remained and together the people of God pray for the thoughts of their hearts to be cleansed.  Bartlett says:

Anglican theology quintessentially suggests that we need poetry to express our encounters with God.  It is so much richer than prose. …

Literally, a heart has no thoughts, it just beats, but in English (from the Hebrew Bible), the heart is the centre of human being; it is where ‘I’ am most deeply.  Poetry is here a vehicle for divine encounter.

A Passionate Balance p76

Much of the beauty of any liturgy, old or new, is in the rhythm the feel of it.  Liturgy doesn’t need to make literal sense but it does need to resound within and around us.  Every time a liturgical change is presented before Synod the usual suspects get up to talk about some ‘bad’ use of language or other.  Liturgy is not prose, it doesn’t need to follow the strictures of literature, it has the freedom of poetry to search out the heart and lead it into purity, whatever that in itself might mean.

Bartlett goes on to flesh out this idea, but the question that remains and adds to those other echos for me is.  How do we balance the poetic nature of liturgies and the fluidity of spirituality with the 21st century desire for literal and scientific fact?  Bartlett says of R S Thomas’ poetry – it is written with an acute sense of lament and struggle with an elusive God.  But today there are many who would find such vagueness contrary to faith and even unhelpful, maybe we are starting from the wrong place.

… the core of the ancient tradition was that it grew out of the conviction that God was too big to be described in words.

A Passionate Balance p82

That ancient tradition is accepted in our ancient liturgies but not in modern ones, were the language is so often condemned for not making sense and/or for not being poetic enough.  While others would echo the questions raised on the foot of page 84.

To what extent is it proper or even possible for us to use the same words as people from the first, or the fourth, or the sixteenth centuries?  In a scientific and sceptical world with bigger horizons, we must surely rethink the old statements into words and ideas which make sense in our world?

Is it really about rethinking the old statements into words and ideas which make sense, surely the Collect for Purity proves that needn’t be the case?  It is still used and loved and brings people to God, despite the nonsensical nature of what it is saying to a modern-day mind.  I can’t help thinking it is more about finding a way to express mystery I think we will always fail with words alone.  Which raises the question, for me at least, of visual arts for many would see them as today’s poetry – cue time for a picture.  As we look through the windows of spirituality, liturgy and mission what do we see, also what is it that we can’t quite see, that we can only imagine or perceive because experience tells us it is most likely?

Bartlett but briefly glances over the starkness of Anglican buildings left by the acts that took place during the Reformation while I, on the other hand, struggle to see how they can not have both shaped and had an impact on Anglican spirituality.  As visible symbols were removed not only from buildings in the form of ornamentations but also from liturgies words took over.  After all isn’t the wordy nature of some liturgies, which Bartlett comments on, due in no small part to the Reformation?  The transcendence of looking upon an icon (a window in the broadest sense not just a wooden picture) and somewhere deep inside something resounding had been banished could words however numerous ever replace the vastness of each individual commune with God?

If we are to help people outside church see that Christianity is spiritual, maybe we need to start with what we do and say inside churches maybe we need to look at our liturgies from a different angle.


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