Saturday, 29 December 2012

Liturgy and Mission

‘Send us out in the power of your Spirit’ ... greeting worshippers at the west door of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

At the best of business meetings, and even the best of vestry meetings, good chairing will see that before the meeting concludes a summary of the meeting is presented, with a summing up of the decisions and the undertakings of all present.

If the Sunday Liturgy can be seen as the principal meeting of the Church, then that summary of decisions and undertakings is provided in the new Book of Common Prayer at Holy Communion Two, before the dismissal with the prayer: “Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory” (page 221). This commission for mission is less explicit, but nevertheless is to be found, in Holy Communion One in the second prayer after the Lord’s Prayer, asking that we may “do all such god work as thou hast prepared for us to walk in ...”

We are sent out after every Sunday Eucharist in mission, to be authentic witnesses to Christ and to his kingdom in the world. But the commission to mission at the end of the liturgy is not merely an extra dimension coming after all has been said and done: the whole action of the Eucharist is missionary and the event of the liturgy is a mission event itself, in which the Church is formed as a missionary community and is sent out to engage in mission, in what the Eastern Orthodox Church calls “the Liturgy after the Liturgy.”

The Book of Common Prayer (2004) contains an embedded invitation to the ‘liturgy after the Liturgy’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

As the new Book of Common Prayer is introduced in parishes and dioceses throughout the Church of Ireland, there is a risk that in some places the emphasis will be on getting words and actions right, forgetting what words and actions are expected to follow them in the “liturgy after the Liturgy.”

The Eucharist is not just the remembrance of things past but is also a foretaste of the heavenly banquet: “We look for the coming of his kingdom” (page 210), “we look for his coming to fulfil all things according to your will” (page 215), and we ask to be brought “with all your people into the joy of your eternal kingdom” (page 215). This invitation to the banquet is constantly voiced and addressed not only to the members of the Church, but also to non-Christians and strangers too, in an invitation that is missionary in intention and scope.

The Romanian Orthodox theologian, Professor Ion Bria, has pointed out that there is a double movement in the Liturgy: on the one hand, the people of God remember the saving acts of Christ “until he comes again”; and on the other, the Eucharist is a symbol of and realises the process by which the cosmos, the whole of creation, is becoming ekklesia, the Church. The liturgy is both an invitation to the world into the Lord’s House and to seek the Kingdom to come. Because the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, and because missionary activities provide symbols of our hope for the Kingdom of God, then it is only natural that the we should have a proper theology of liturgy as mission.

As Greek Orthodox theologians insist, the Liturgy is not an escape from life. It is a continual reorientation and openness to efforts aimed at challenging structures of injustice, exploitation, agony, loneliness, and at creating real communion of persons in love. And so, when we go out, “the liturgy has to be continued in personal, everyday situations,” Bishop Anastasios Yannoulatos told an Orthodox consultation on the liturgical life of the Church back in the mid-1970s. “Each of the faithful is called to continue a personal ‘liturgy’ on the secret altar of his own heart, to realize a living proclamation of the good news ‘for the sake of the whole world’. Without this continuation the Liturgy remains incomplete.”

Personal everyday life becomes liturgical, and that liturgical everyday life becomes missionary when it is empowered by the liturgy, drawing power from participation in the Eucharist.

Candles lighting in a Church in Crete ... Orthodox liturgical theology provides seven principles underpinning the Orthodox approach to mission (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

There is a danger, at times, of thinking that the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist is very limited. But there is a vitality in many Orthodox circles that enables them to see the intimate link between liturgy and mission, and these insights have shaped the seven principles underpinning the Orthodox approach to mission:

1. Mission is about community. Mission is not just about the proclamation of truth, or a calling of individuals, it is also about the building of a community of faith that lives the truth of the Gospel. And so, the local church is the primary focus of mission.

2. It follows that worship is the beginning of mission. As Ion Bria has said, worship constitutes that permanent missionary impulse and determines the evangelistic witness of every Christian. The mission of the Church rests upon the radical and transforming power of the Liturgy. As the glory of God is revealed in corporate worship, so those who are inside are sent out in mission and those who are outside are drawn in by the revelation of the glory of God. If our worship is not attracting the attention of those who do not know God, then it fails to please God.

3. Mission and unity belong together. God is one, and for churches to be engaging in mission apart from each other is a denial of the Gospel of reconciliation in Christ that they seek to proclaim.

4. Mission is based on the love of God. We reach out to each other because God first loved us. The key mission text in Orthodox theology is not Matthew 28: 19 but John 3: 16: “God so loved the world ...” Love is the superior motivation, higher even than obedience to the commands of Jesus.

5. The goal of mission is life, so, that Orthodox doctrine of theosis teaches that the believer can experience life to its fullest potential, even participating in the inner life of the Godhead. In this thinking, John 10: 10 provides the missionary objective “that they may have life in all its fullness.”

6. There is a cosmic dimension to mission as there is to liturgy. St Paul’s teaching that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5: 19) provides the cosmic dimension for mission. Our turning to God, to find in him our peace and fulfilment, is but a very small part of a universal movement initiated by Christ on the cross.

7. Mission must be holistic mission. St John Chrysostom, who shaped the order of the Eucharistic Liturgy ordinarily celebrated by the Orthodox, speaks of the “sacrament of the brother”. For him, there is basic coincidence between faith, worship, life and service. Therefore, the worship at the Holy Table is complemented not at the dismissal but in the offering on the “second altar”, the altar of the neighbour’s heart.

These Orthodox insights into mission and liturgy teach us that mission begins in worship, that it continues in the proclamation of the Gospel, and that it is completed in the service that we offer to others. As Ion Bria has argued, in the liturgy after the Liturgy, the Church witnesses to the cosmic dimension of the event of salvation, and puts into practice, daily and existentially, its missionary vocation. Hopefully, the new Book of Common Prayer will help each of us in putting that missionary vocation into practice.

The Last Supper in a carving at Bridgeman’s workshop in Quonian’s Lane, Lichfield ... mission begins in worship, continues in the proclamation of the Gospel, and is completed in the service we offer to others (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This essay was first published in Gazette Review, 25 June 2004, pp 1-2, a supplement to the Church of Ireland Gazette, to mark the publication of the Book of Common Prayer, and is republished here as a contribution to module EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality on the MTh course

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