Creative Liturgy Sermon for Holy Trinity, Barkingside

I’m off this weekend to East London at the invitation of Fr. Edmund at Holy Trinity, Barkingside. The remit is Creative Worship and Mission, and this is the current draft:

In the name of he +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

It gives me great pleasure to be with you this morning, to share with you some of my experiences of the meeting point between our Anglican tradition and creative multimedia-based liturgy. I want to thank Fr Edmund for inviting me – we have known each other for a few years now, principally from the National Youth Pilgrimage to Walsingham, where I have sat behind the scenes pushing the buttons whilst he gets on with all the fun stuff involving the young people.

But as none of you know me from the next priest, a little bit of background:

I’ve never been conventional: always been in trouble, always been at the back of class irritating the authorities who tell us how it should be done, and why it has to be like it is.

And Blesséd (my experience of this creativity) is, I suppose a reflection of this: the loose collection of individuals and their charisms that almost on purpose seeks to take what we know and love and do it differently.

On one level, Blesséd is solidly traditional – deeply sacramental, unashamedly Anglo-Catholic, soaked in gin and the cycle of the daily office, and on another it seeks to blow that world apart – to declare the whole of creation as sacramental, and our approach to God as immersive, multisensory and wildly, rabidly inclusive.

This morning I want to share with you some insights into our mission and the proclamation of the Gospel, and to remind us that we already have the principle tool of mission to hand: in the form of the mass.

I am nothing more than a parish priest: from St Thomas the Apostle, Elson: An urban parish in Gosport in the Diocese of Portsmouth.

I carry all of the pressures and anxieties of every parish: a heavy pastoral load with sixteen and a half thousand souls in my cure, a small, struggling and (I have to admit it) poor parish; a desire to proclaim Christ made present in a particularly Catholic spirituality.

There is a timeless and yet deeply relevant spirituality of anglocatholicism has so much to offer the church, offering depth as well as breadth, context and relevance as well as a proclamation which speaks deeply to the hearts and souls of many.

One of the legacies of the Reformation was the rejection of the sensual and the sensuous. Our engagement with God is much more than simply what we say aloud, or even what we hear, but in sight (spectacle and ritual), smell, taste and touch and through these we are enabled to engage both our minds and hearts in worship.

Catholicism is a fundamental way of looking at the incarnation and the world as affected by the incarnation, and therefore our sacramental life is crucial, central even to the work of mission. Being authentically Catholic means being multisensory and opening ourselves to the outrageous and audacious possibilities which the Incarnation offers to us.

Bishop Lindsay Irwin, a principal teacher and figurehead of the National Youth Pilgrimage to Walsingham, in an article on the sacramental ministry in fresh mission, suggests that:

“One might argue that in a culture saturated with trivial, unmemorable and unreliables words, Christ-filled symbol and action might have more chance of breaking through [and being heard”

Mission-Shaped Questions p31

The original multisensory worship was the liturgy celebrated in the Basilica of the 8th Century: a place where sight, sound, smell and taste ensured that the people of God sought to engage with God’s wondrous creation and to try to express the inexpressible.

When words run out, and they always run out when we are in an encounter with the indescribable, we turn to symbol and sign. Society is surrounded by symbol and sign, not to control us, but to enable us to engage with that which is beyond our experience: from the burning bush to the body and blood, our encounter with the sacred cannot solely be through word alone, for the soul encounters God on so many more planes of function.

Fundamentally, I believe that our primary encounter with God in worship is not an intellectual one, but an emotive one. Worship is one of the first ways that seekers of faith encounter Christ, and when asked about their first dip in the worship ocean, they do not reflect on worship in terms of reason or logic: whether they were convinced by the argument, but how it made them feel.

The experience of Blesséd in Southsea, shows how it is worship, and fundamentally sacramental worship is a key tool in breaking through the mundanity of everyday life.

In urban Portsmouth, we stepped out in mission to an extremely mixed group of teenagers. Not having any money, resources or (quite frankly, any clue), my first solution was simply to introduce these largely unchurched young people to the Church: the Lady Chapel in particular. In the dark: lit only by candles and swathed in incense, around a cross, or an ikon, projecting some words on a blank wall or the altar frontal: something wonderful happened and these young people who only months before were the ones vying to knockout as many quarterlight windows as they could were able to grasp the presence of God in their midst. Truly effective mission simply allows people to encounter God, and the missioner simply turns up for the ride.

The last great swell of Anglocatholic Mission was in the 20’s and the 30’s and took place in poor, working class slums where the beauty and transcendence of worship lifted the people of God. It was through the sacraments that encounter took place. When we started to plan worship, a number of our young people involved all said independently “well, it has to be a mass doesn’t it?” It is intriguing that they sought to define themselves in terms of their relationship to the sacrament and yet not to be constrained by the traditions of it.

For them, each element of the mass was seen as being up for grabs, for a radical interpretation and a retelling of the story.

So, in 2002, Blesséd was born – Eucharist with funky backbeats, Gloria with dancing, Sacrament with Attitude. Blesséd sought to continue its sacramental heritage whilst proclaiming its ancient truths in new and creative ways. This has meant taking what we know and love and asking how its story may be told for new generations.

In mission, context is everything. One of the challenges of a creative Catholic Spirituality is concerned with making this happen and remaining authentic to a heritage with people for whom heritage is meaningless and outdated. The Gospel proclamation is eternal, but the wearing of lace-covered tat is not, and our liturgy must not be seen as the truth in itself, but a way of communicating that truth.

For this reason, we need to move away from a slavish following of a set text, and rather focus on the missionary purpose to express that story in any given context: a mass for youth is very different from a mass for the elderly bereaved, but both are deeply missional.

The Gloria is tap-danced. Bread is kneeded. New prefaces are said and wine is consecrated by the bottle-load in unspoken action. Blessings are scribbled on a rocket and exploded in the night sky over Gosport. These creative, expressive ways are as real to these missional communities as were the first Eucharistic prayers of Hypolytus.

I am not advocating the throwing away of our carefully honed heritage in favour of some spiritual supermarket of technical wizardry and gimmicky mass, but rather a creative and free-flowing use of the entire tradition of the church: tradition which is not static, but dynamic and as engaging as the Incarnation.

To the other extreme, this creative flow should not be restricted to just “youth services” or “children’s services”, but as we find at St Thomas the Apostle, creativity starts to infuse and cross-fertilise: a penitential rite involving kneeded bread was also used at a Harvest Festival service in mainstream worship and many other elements of the mass take on new forms. St Thomas the Apostle is not the only anglocatholic parish to use a projector at each Parish Mass, and many more (like yourselves) are discovering the benefit from the flexibility and cost-effectivness of projecting the entire liturgy and hymnody on screen each and every week.

One of the things I repeatedly hear after worship, is “oh, I couldn’t do anything like that – I am so untechnical” – a statement which usually comes from someone brimming with Liturgical Creativity, but no self-confidence. The core message I need to convey to you today is that the best multisensory worship does not have to plug into the mains

The means of engagement with God are at our very fingertips: stones, water, flames (and the marvellous variety of different ways that we can set fire to things). Mark Yaconelli has written an excellent book on contemplative youth ministry, and this evangelical (the son of the famous Mike Yaconelli) has discovered the power, effectiveness and beauty of silence, an ikon, and Lectio Divina. That is an inspirational book which I commend to you.

When we do this, does it enable us to tick the box marked “Fresh Expression”?

If you seek to Express Freshly rather than do mission then, frankly you are wasting your time, effort and the creative verve of others. A fresh expression for it’s own sake (Oh no, not another Café Church I often think) is not fresh, and yet, the Mass itself is the freshest of fresh expressions.

As Pete Ward discussed in his book Mass Culture the mass is an evangelistic opportunity and a missionary tool. It provides a unique opportunity for expressing the salvation story and the joy of the resurrection in word, song, action and ritual.

The mass provides both fixed points of reference and an ever-changing cycle of encounter with God, and this mix of the familiar and the challenging provides a framework on which to hang new explorations of worship; rather than being a limit to fresh expressions of worship, it forms a skeleton upon which a new creation is formed. No community which seeks to be Christian can be said to be authentically so unless it gathers to break bread and pour wine and see that Christ is in their midst.

The Catholic spirituality might layer more over that and see much more (quite rightly) into that, but essentially each community, regardless of what it calls this engagement with Christ, regardless of its explicit sacramental theology, one thing all actually agree on is that Christ in some way is here amongst us

So, my dear friends, what are we to make of a sermon which seeks to say in new and radical ways “Go and carry on with what you are doing”. So often we are prepared to beat ourselves up about mission and our lack of activity in this area. But, to you I say, the tools of mission are in your very hands – broken bread and wine outpoured are far more effective tools than an expensive and limited missionary pack.

The message of freedom, challenge and radical hospitality of the altar has so much to say to a society which is broken and confused by messages which say little to their context.

The Mass cannot be simply set down in a place and expected to do the work itself The concept of priest as conduit of that sacrament has much to say about how we bring about that sacred encounter. Getting bodies over the door is not the end result, but the beginning, and the sacramental encounter is the source of transformation and the cradle of faith.

If all this sermon has done is make you consider how Mass can be retold in this community, and offer you a possibility to unleash your creative and missional juices to that end, then I will have done my work.

So, Go and make mission, and may all of you do what Fr. Edmund was commanded to do when he and every priest is ordained and proclaim the Gospel afresh to each and for each generation!