In the Beginning – part 2

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December 1, 2014 by Worship, Community, Formation

All problems are liturgical: we can shape our ‘gathering’ to strengthen discipleship.

The intersection between Christianity and the workplace is one of those backwaters of our faith where fantastic people do fantastic things.   Dedicated industrial and retail chaplains and faithful laity form communities around them, and support work colleagues through extraordinary trials, being the ‘salt’ in the daily food of work.   Their work is both mission and ministry, yet ‘faith at work’ never makes big news in the church.    It’s long been a backwater, and perhaps it will be for ever.

Why does that matter?   Because too many Christians who are ‘out there’ trying to put their faith into practice in the workplace feel under-resourced by the church they’re representing.  How this looks in practice is captured in a neat set of case studies in Called to New Life (a Church of England report of the late 90s – maddeningly unavailable online).  Things haven’t changed much since.

I’ve argued in my Saltley Trust blog that faith in the workplace should be seen uner the umbrella of discipleship, but there is one particular problem, repeatedly raised in connection with work and faith, that belongs on this blog.   That’s the way that people who’s faith is mainly played out in the world of work is treated by the church.   Those with a workplace ministry or mission often claim that the church has a heirarchy of ministries, in which ministry in the workplace is unconsciously ranked far lower than ministry in the church.

If you believe that liturgy is the working of the people, then you come to see most problems liturgically.  I certainly do.    People are hugely social, and they are continually formed by the community around them.   Worship forms the community of Christians: and if our worship is wonky, our daily practice will never be straight.

So, when I hear about a problem to do with our mission or ministry, I always wonder what the liturgy can tell about that.   Does it tell us that some ministries are more highly valued than others?   The answer, in general, is yes.  In several ways – the dismissal, the intercession, but most importantly, at the Gathering.

The first interaction between the world of work and the world of the church happens at the Gathering:  the first of the four passages of worship (the others being Word, Sacrament, and Sending Out).    It is at the Gathering that broken, tired, committed, wondering people come together from their week in the wilderness and reassembled as the people of God.  (There is always a Gathering, however formal or informal, big or small, free-form or ‘liturgical’ your church is.)

And at the Gathering – whether you go to a high or a low, a liberal or a conservative church – the chances are that the ministry of the church leader is the most highly valued in the liturgy.   In my church the ministers who will lead worship process in – after the congregation is gathered to await their arrival.   As they process through the congregation and towards the altar, behind cross and gospel, and candles too perhaps, they are associated with the heart of faith.   Subconsciously, perhaps, but subconscious symbols are as strong as any other.   As a worshipper, it feels as if holiness is arriving.  And while evangelical churches may go much lighter on symbols and symbolic actions, the symbolism of the pastor arriving to the already gathered assembly, perhaps from a different direction or through a different door, at a different time, is just as weighty.

After that subliminal message about rank and heirarchy, a sermon on ‘the priesthood of all believers’ would be quite incongruent.  It simply wouldn’t match our actions.   We would not, in fact, be practicing what we preached.

So what’s the answer?

Well, the answer to bringing liturgy to life is always going to be local, because life is never cloned, but always created afresh and formed by its environment as well as its constituent parts.     So what follows is an example, not an answer.

Let’s imagine that it was possible to process in together.   (In some churches that could be easy, in others, more of a challenge.)   This is problem of a heirarchy of ministry is a problem of symbolic language so it requires a symbolic solution.   If everyone was gathered, say in a church hall, or at the back of the church, the short journey to the church could be arranged to capture the idea that the whole Christian congregation was travelling to seek closeness to God together.   The priest, the crucifer, the acolytes could be dotted around amongst the congregation as it travelled, shaping into an orderly procession at the very last moment.   The ministers of word and sacrament emerging from all ministers; the parish priest from the priesthood of all believers.

Such a movement would help to free us from the idea that some ministries are worth more than others.   It also begins to seed other ideas…. we might choose that the cross be carried in by someone whose mission in the workplace, in the community, or in the home we wanted to celebrate for that week.   Part of the service preparation could be to hear a testimony from the person who would carry in the cross: an emphatic reminder to all that the sacrificial commimtent of ministry and mission belongs with every member of the church – and a challenge that ‘it will be your turn one day’ to testify to your faith in front of the congregation.

That’s just one idea.    Any church wanting to rise to this challenge needs to take its own particular ingredients and resources, to do justice to the challenges in its own flock.   Breathing life into the liturgy is one of our greatest and most joyful challenges.   And, by the way, we need to do it together.    But that’s another post.

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