Sunday, July 29, 2007

Can't see the books for the trees?

There’s been quite a conversation going on over at Kelvin’s blog about more than what the Episcopal Church produces in the way of downloadable liturgies. It boils down, I suppose, to whether or not people are put off a church if they have more than one item of reading matter to cope with in a service – or if they have problems finding their way around a liturgy book. And then there’s the side issue of the proper use of clergy time.

Rather than burst into personal reminiscence on someone else’s blog, I thought I’d do a bit of ruminating here, in my own space. And that’s all this is – not a criticism, not a battle-plan, but a thinking session.

So. Think back. I wasn’t always a Piskie. I was brought up in what might best be described as liberal/sceptical Presbyterian surroundings, with a Hebrew scholar in ancient clerical collar as a great-uncle and a father who had been so sickened of church in his youth that he would describe himself as a buttress rather than a pillar of the kirk – good for other people, but not for him. The transition for me was provided by music, by singing Byrd and Palestrina in the Cathedral of The Isles – and being taught to cook by the aged Dean, George Douglas, who talked while I skivvied for his eccentric culinary activities.

The first time I sang Evensong for a week in our quartet, The St Maura Singers (still going strong and giving a recital in the Cathedral on 30 September) I was lost. Every service was a time of anxious thumbing through the prayer book, checking where the music for the Mag and Nunc had hidden itself, worrying about where the Psalm was in the green (plainsong) psalter, trying not to let the anthem fall on the tiled floor in front of the choir stalls for all the world (all five of them) to see. By the Criteria of the Cumbersome Bookies, I should have been put off for life. Remember – at this point I’m a heathen, only there for the music. But I was fascinated. I used to borrow a copy of the 1929 Prayer Book and read it. The language entranced me, and the power of having all these words for every occasion was revelatory. I would read Compline to myself, aloud. I was well on my way to being a Piskie groupie – all without any real faith in what was on offer.

The story of what changed all that isn’t relevant here – suffice it to say that I fell off my donkey at Dean Douglas’ requiem mass and have never been the same since. But ever since then, in choirs and as a member of a congregation, I have been accustomed to juggle liturgy books, leaflets, music for settings, music for anthems and occasionally two hymnbooks if the music was not on the same page as the words of a particular hymn. And I was never alone in this – a choir of children aged 6 – 16 coped fine, and came back for more, often without any background in our church at all.

So what has changed? Are we really worrying about the effect on seekers of no church background? Or are we thinking about visitors from another church who have no real intention of staying with us and who are bound to make comparisons with what they are used to? Because if someone is really drawn to Episcopal worship, what they are used to when they finally fall off their donkeys will be part of the experience – and no fiddling around with making things more convenient is going to matter two hoots.

There’s more I want to say about the role of clergy in helping the donkeys, but I think that’ll have to wait for another time. So I’ll confine myself to a final observation. When I returned to teaching English in 1982 after a break of 8 years, I found that pupils expected much more in the way of handouts and spoonfeeding than I had been used to in my first post. They were unwilling to look stuff up for themselves, preferring to be given reams of typescript which they could then stuff into a folder. To the end of my career I resisted this as far as possible, knowing that if pupils made the notes for themselves they would be far more likely to recall what they had written. Indeed, I often suspected that they wouldn’t really read handouts, and frequently returned them in a relatively pristine condition at the end of the course.

Maybe there is a generation who indeed can’t cope with a book or two. Me, I can’t cope with bits of paper – a glance at my desk proves this. Besides, no-one ever prints alto parts on service sheets.


  1. Anonymous3:44 PM


  2. Lars Porsena? of Clusium?

  3. Anonymous6:28 PM

    idem ipse, carissima - scarcely forbearing to cheer.

  4. At my church we have a separate service booklet for each season of the year. We tend not to alter the congregational elements of the service (other than for something special like out patronal festival). What we do, to make every week special is alter the minsters' words. Not just the collects but the prayer before communion, the intro. to the peace, the blessing and even the preface to the Eucharistic prayer (but don't tell anyone that!). By being careful about what we choose we make each service completely relevant to the scriptural theme for the day and bring the sermon into the liturgy. All without burdening the congregation with lots of books or new things to get used to every week. It's a great mix between the familiar and the novel which we hope both educates the congregation and keeps them interested without making them feel uncomfortable. It's also a good learning experience for the ministers because of the research needed and having to always justify what we are doing liturgically. I would point out that we are a very middle of the road, Anglican church, and we tend towards the conservative as far as the liturgy goes. So, you don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water to have a bit of "fun" with your worship.

  5. MP, I realised after I'd written the post that I maybe give the impression of being someone who hankers after the Prayer Book. In fact I love our 1982 (modern) liturgy - which is in a wee book, complete with its seasonal variations. I think it's merely paper and repetitive effort which does my head in.