01 December 2010

The development of worship within the life of a community

The chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in the winter snow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

10 a.m., Wednesday 1 December 2010


When I joined the full-time staff of the Church of Ireland Theological College, as it was, in September 2010, I inherited a guide to chapel services that would have defied any attempts by [Archbishop Thomas] Cranmer to make sense of the “pie.”

Cranmer was instrumental in ensuring that the Book of Common Prayer was consciously minimalist in its approach, precisely because of an existing excess of authorised alternatives. The Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer observes that “the number and hardness of the rules called the pie, and the manifold changes of the service was the cause, that to turn the book only, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.”

This moved Cranmer to ensure that the rules of the new Prayer Book were deliberately “few in number” so that “they be plain and easy to be understanded.”

When I came here, the previous chaplains had left me an inheritance of a complicated and intricate system of chapel services. We have only one theological college or institute in the Church of Ireland, and ordinands of all shapes and traditions train here.

Unfortunately, the “pie” we had developed here was designed to satisfy each and every shade of opinion of ordinand, rather than bringing us together as a community, a community of staff and students, worshipping together, being formed together, growing together spiritually.

Identifying needs for change

For my first year in chapel, I sat and watched, listened and learned. At times I thought there was a danger of people hitting each other over the head with spiritual baseball bats, doing party tricks in front of one another, rather than worshipping, praying and praising God together. And I wondered why we could not grow up, move forward, see our spiritual approaches to worship and liturgy not as fences but as gifts we had to offer to each other.

The second difficulty I had here was the perception and purpose of worship. I felt strongly that it should not be about students having an opportunity to practice leading particular types of services: when could I have my turn to lead Morning Prayer in traditional language? Or to shape and lead a more informal Service of the Word? When would I have an opportunity to rehearse feeling comfortable in choir robes?

Chapel life here should not be about practice; that should take place in the students’ parish placements. We are not practicing worship or playing roles here; we are worshipping, and we are a worshipping community. And students were not relaxed and comfortable about taking leadership roles in the chapel while they felt they were watched, marked and graded.

The third problem I inherited was the idea that students should preach in turn at various services. Once again, they felt that they were being watched, marked and graded. I feel sermons here should have the usual function they have in any parish, cathedral or college chapel: expounding the Word of God, building up the Body of Christ, and a good example of best practice. None of that is possible if it falls to students who are embarrassed in front of their peer group and worried that faculty members are going to dissect every word, every twitch, every detail of body language.

I knew something was wrong. After watching and waiting for that first full academic year, and with the support of [Dr] Maurice[ Elliott]’s predecessor, Canon Adrian Empey, I spent some time visiting my counterparts in Saint Michael’s, Llandaff, Wycliffe Hall, Ripon College Cuddesdon, and Saint Stephen’s House, Oxford, and had further conversations with my counterparts in places such as Westcott House and Ridley Hall in Cambridge and the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham.

I did not want to impose change, but on the other hand change by committee ran the risk of everyone staking a claim to their piece of ground. I wanted us to worship as a community together, rather than people feeling they had to stake out their sacred place or suffer being in the space others occupied.

The principles of worship

I returned to the principle that worship should take us to the heart of our lives as Christians and of our corporate life as a Christian community dedicated to theological education and ministerial formation. It ought to be a source of great joy and nourishment but also, at times, of some confusion. We identified how we are trying to do a number of different things in our worship here, and began by thinking about our worship from four perspectives:

● individual spiritual formation,
● community formation,
● practical preparation for ministry, and
● learning the languages and traditions of worship.

Each member of the community here should find that our worship life enables her/his spiritual growth. We should be able to follow a pattern of worship that gives us deep roots in the Church’s traditions of prayer and worship, finding rhythms that nourish and sustain us throughout our ministry.

Of course, members of the community should also expect to find some worship challenging, even difficult. But this is important for two reasons: it facilitates critical reflection on worship and learning from other traditions; and it is also a valid experience of worship in itself – the encounter with otherness in worship helps each of us to encounter the Divine Other who challenges and cannot be pinned down. But – more fundamentally – it lays down the basic discipline of prayer and the reading of Scripture on a daily basis in ordained ministry.

Community formation

I believe that worship is central to the formation of this community of theological learning. Worship in our chapel is far from being merely a convenient context in which individuals are able to worship. We take part in different forms of worship not just to keep other people happy or to make sure everyone is catered for, but because of the sort of community we are. As a diverse community, reflecting a richness of traditions, our worship should express this.

Just as we need space to be who we are as individuals before God, the same is true as a community: having acts of worship that may not be immediately familiar to everyone here is part of being who we are corporately before God.

Some people come here with considerable experience of leading worship; others have very little. Although it is not its primary purpose, worship in the chapel provides opportunities to experience leading worship in a variety of styles and roles within a safe and (hopefully) non-threatening environment where people can make mistakes. In addition, the variety of worship styles gives some of us the chance to try new things and to be a bit experimental and creative.

The rich diet of regular worship here should mean that those preparing for liturgical ministry are steeped in the liturgy and traditions of worship within the Church of Ireland and the wider Anglican Communion. Yet, rather than seeing ourselves as failing in what we offer from this perspective, we can see ourselves as having the opportunity to become liturgically multi-lingual!

What unites the four perspectives?

Quite simply, the fact that whatever we are doing in any particular act of worship, whichever perspectives may be to the fore, when we gather for worship, we gather as a Christian community, as an expression of the Body of Christ, to worship God, who calls us into life and calls us into community. When we worship in spirit and in truth, the perspectives should disappear as we are caught up into the life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and sent out to share in God’s mission of love in our world.

Chapel life day-by-day

Here, each student has a commitment to being in chapel at least twice a day. The daily chapel services are normally at 8.30 a.m., 5 p.m. and 9.15 p.m., except on Wednesdays, when we meet in tutorial groups in the morning and the only chapel service is the Community Eucharist at 5 p.m.

Leading worship is a part of spiritual formation, both communally and individually, to hear God’s Word and to be shaped by the liturgies of the Church. Contemporary approaches to liturgy are useful, learning alternatives. But our focus remains on becoming grounded in the 2004 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland and the traditions of the Church of Ireland and the Anglican Communion.

Everyone in the community is involved in a leadership role in the chapel. There is a weekly rota indicating when members of the community are leading services, reading Scripture, assisting or serving at the Eucharist, and involved with the music. The sacristans draw up the weekly rota, and purposefully do not accommodate individual preferences.

We take full opportunities to use the riches of the 2004 Book of Common Prayer, with formal Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer alternating with more informal Services of the Word, a formal robed Choral Evensong on Thursdays, and, in the late evening, Compline, Late Evening Office or a Praise and Prayer Service. On the Principal Holy Days and Festivals – as you experienced yesterday [30 November 2010] on Saint Andrew’s Day – the set service gives way to a celebration of the Eucharist.

The principle service each week is our Community Eucharist, followed by a reception and community dinner – the liturgy after the liturgy.

The Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship where Christ encounters and feeds his faithful ones. The Wednesday evening Eucharist is a corporate celebration, and so all ordinands are expected to be present, and families are especially encouraged to attend these celebrations.

All ordained priests who are members of the community, staff – and, on occasion, students who may be ordained – preside at the Eucharist. We take it in turn, without precedence or privilege, as priesthood is collegiate, and each of us presides in our own style, robbing and using the manual signs of our own tradition, not just accepting or merely tolerating but actually affirming, rejoicing and celebrating each other in our Anglican diversity in unity. On one occasion, we have had a celebration of the Holy Communion by an ordained Methodist minister who is a visiting lecturer here.

The tradition in here is to use the Apostles’ Creed at Morning Prayer and Confession and Absolution at Evening Prayer. We can be creative, if respectful, when it comes to challenging creedal options during a Service of the Word, as long as they are not used as a way of beating others with that “spiritual baseball bat.” And we use only the Nicene Creed at the Eucharist, which I see as the link between our response to Christ present in the Word and preparation for Christ present in Sacrament.

I would like us all to be more confident of the intercessions, particularly at the Eucharist, being truly the payers of the people, and not the scripted prayers of the priest or a staff member read by someone else.

These forms of services remain the same no matter who is leading, so that a student – or a member of staff – cannot opt out of the full range of services that act together as a vehicle for the tradition of and conveying Anglican spirituality and Anglican diversity.

There is wisdom in the tradition that a sense of rhythm or stabilitas is important in shaping our prayer lives. This wisdom lies behind the corporate saying of the Daily Office. Here we find we have a unique opportunity to experience the nourishing and sustaining regularity of this sort of prayer. We seek to strengthen the sense of rhythm each day in saying the Daily Office, as found in Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer or a Service of the Word in the 2004 Book of Common Prayer. On Friday mornings, or in the Seasons of Advent and Lent, the Litany may be used.

We use the lectionary for the Collects and Readings at each service, so that we have an opportunity to experience and be challenged by the full salvific story as presented in the Bible, and to avoid a pick-and-mix approach to Scripture that allows us to impose our imaging and shaping of God on others or even on ourselves.

The preachers on a Wednesday evening are invited from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. This semester they have included staff members, representatives of mission agencies, the Archbishop of Dublin as visitor, the Bishop of Harare, Diocesan Directors of Ordinands, and placement rectors. In the past, we have had most of the bishops of the Church of Ireland here as preachers and the Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral, and we have had preachers from other traditions too, including Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Orthodox, the Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin.

Playing with prayer

I like to talk about us celebrating the daily offices and playing with prayer. Rather than simply “saying” the office – out of a sense of mere obligation – I would like us to think in terms of celebrating it: giving it a personality; making it come alive. George Guiver writes of the office as a way of “playing with God,” and within this context he sees the worship space (in our case, the chapel) as a “theatre” within which we act out the story of our redemption and bring to God the drama of our very lives.

I try to encourage keeping silence before each service after the candles have been lit. When a period of corporate silence is introduced, those leading the office are positively discouraged from eating into this silence by extending periods of spoken intercession or adding something into the office. When it is used, corporate silence ought to be real priority.

Tutorial groups meet separately for an hour on Wednesday mornings. As well as providing an opportunity for worship and Bible study together in smaller groups, this is time for sharing concerns and building the shared identity of the group, offering a significant space for personal and spiritual growth and ministerial formation. Tutorial groups are encouraged to offer to lead worship in the chapel, although this seldom happens.

During the residential weekends for distance learning MTh and NSM students, the pattern of worship and participation parallels the full-time programme.

Owning the liturgical space

The Jesse Tree in the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I introduced many of those changes, but it was only possible because Maurice and other members of the staff, and eventually the student community, had a vision for community life that fed into our worship life, and for the way in which our worship and liturgy can and must feed into our community life.

But it is not – and must never be – my chapel, or even the staff chapel. It serves, first and foremost, a living, learning community, students and staff.

The students here do not have to assert ownership of the chapel … because they know they own the liturgical space; it is theirs. They came up with the ideas for the Lenten and Advent decoration of the chapel, they placed a rugged wooden cross, with nails and draped in purple linen in Lent. During Lent, they rearranged the chapel outside Liturgical times, so there were prayer stations, maps, varied seating, soothing music – a labyrinth without a path. This Advent, they wanted the Advent Wreath, bought and produced the decorations for the Jesse Tree, and are writing the Advent Carol Service.

We have moved from a collegiate layout for the seating to a semi-circular, embracing arrangement. But we can change and move again, we can be flexible as we dance with the Trinitarian God who invites us into the Trinitarian dance.

Finally, I try to say to all of us: “Don’t worry! We are trying to strike a balance of maintaining continuity in our daily cycle of prayer and reading of scripture and finding an appropriate way to celebrate the Christian Year. Worship that is truly empowering is invariably worship whose constituent parts have been carefully and thoroughly prepared.

“Good celebrations do not just happen — they have to be planned and led with insight and sensitivity.”

As one writer comments: “Good celebrations foster and nourish faith; poor celebrations weaken and destroy faith.”

In the snow at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute (from left): Bishop Tim Thornton of of Truro, Bishop John Ford of Plymouth, Archdeacon Roger Bush of Cornwall, and Canon Patrick Comerford

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for an introduction to and briefing on the chapel during a visit to Dublin by the Bishop of Plymouth, the Right Rev John Ford, the Bishop of Truro, the Right Rev Tim Thornton, and the Archdeacon of Cornwall, the Ven Roger Bush.

1 comment:

Andree said...

Patrick, this is very interesting: it certainly sounds a good deal more creative than my experience 18 years ago..... but can you elaborate on how different liturgical traditions were encouraged to "stop beating each other over the head.."? Andrew