Mark Earey is in the unusual position of being one of the very few, if not only, people in the country to teach about worship full-time to trainee ministers. A member of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England, too, he helped draft the Common Worship (CW) services used in most Anglican churches up and down the country, and has written books on how to use it well. All this means we can trust that he knows his liturgy and worship, and cares deeply for it.

Or can we? Many 'low' church Anglicans, and for many British believers in Baptist or other non-conformist traditions, may say that they don't use liturgy, and would be suspicious of any liturgist, let alone an 'official' one like Mark.

But for both groups there will be surprises when reading Mark's important new book, Beyond Common Worship: Towards a New Liturgical Paradigm. The lovers of (Anglican) liturgy might be surprised at the scale of problems with CW even within a decade of its introduction, and that he's already urging us to be work on what our future liturgical steps should be. And for those who dislike fixed liturgies will hopefully be pleased to find him arguing for a future that allows more organic response arising from the local context of worship.

The biggest problems with Anglican liturgy as it stands are outlined in chapter 1. My take-aways from this are three-fold:

  1. Authority: for Anglican ministers there's a complex skein of laws and items of guidance that surround 'authorized', 'approved' and even 'commended' liturgies, and how the different strands of authority in the Bishop, the minister him/herself, and the PCC all interact. Many ministers, not wishing to 'get it wrong' play safe, restricting their churches to a diet of just a few well-known texts. This pains Earey, who with the rest of the Liturgical Commission have spent much of the last decade focussed on trying to help people understand the greater permissions and so use a richer set of liturgies during the year. He rightly concludes that this makes for a system that feels very legal or juridicial. And from my experience of having uncomfortable debates about the letter of the liturgical law, this can so easily lead to us losing the bigger picture of 'what will build up this congregation?' Earey pertinently asks why we have this approach for our liturgies, but not for our songs and hymns? Those are just as important -- if not more so -- in in-forming our lives as disciples.
  2. Complexity: there's just too much of it! Buy all the official printed CW books, and you'll be several hundred pounds the poorer, but the richer by several thousand new pages on your bookshelves, where unfortunately they might well remain. To create a non-Eucharistic service on any given Sunday a conscientious minister might well need to be consulting 4 different books. No wonder there's a market for books on how to use CW ...
  3. Sometimes it is Hindering Mission. If true, this is the most serious charge, and one that needs the most urgent attention. Why might this be? Earey is well aware that there are a significant group of "rebels ... that are simply getting on and doing what they want. ... [perhaps] because they are planning fresh expressions, or café church, or all-age Eucharists, and they are conscious of working with the unchurched." And he rightly goes on to say that in most cases "their motives are good and often missional, but they are finding the tools the Church of England gives them are not 'bad' per se, but they are not easy to use and do not feel fit for purpose for many contexts."

In Chapter 2, he looks at and rejects some potential solutions, like making the rules clearer (not enough on its own), and expanding the boundaries of what's allowed (probably adds yet more complexity, and doesn't ultimately solve the problem of boundaries). I better like his idea of creating "Bishops' Liturgical Orders" as a parallel to the "Bishops' Mission Orders" where they can suspend the usual parochial rules to create missionary congregations. But even this feels like a sticking-plaster, not a longer-term solution, and would likely cause confusion and dis-ease within a Diocese.

Chapter 3 is the heart of the book, where he Earey proposes a way of providing a diverse-yet-common approach to Anglican worship, that will give permissions and provide safeguards in new ways. But I won't give the plot away here. Go read the book instead.

The book's subtitle Anglican Identity and Liturgical Diversity, gives us the clue for the other major theme of the book. Earey shows that "how we worship" is, for Anglicans at least, intimately connected to our denominational Identity. For these days, 'Who are we as Anglicans?'' and 'What do we do as Anglicans?'' are key questions being hotly debated around the Anglican Communion. The most powerful of these worship identities is in the founding Book of Common Prayer, which in the first few hundred years of its life (!) could did provide both meanings of 'common' (shared and simple) for English worship. But with a worldwide set of congregation, worshipping in radically different languages and environments (sometimes even within the same building or town), do we share enough in the human realm to make truly 'common' worship? This is what he explores in chapter 4.

His is a helpfully realistic voice, not being afraid to say some hard things about the "Anglican treasures". For example, "though a younger generation ... may come to love and appreciate the Prayer Book [BCP], it is more likely to be akin to the way that teenagers come to love and appreciate the taste of tea or coffee. It is a taste one can come to appreciate, but not necessarily one that appeals or connects at first encounter . And it must be first encounter issues which are a priority for the Church today."

Another strength is that he recognises the variety present inside the Church of England. He knows full well that at the Anglo-Catholic and Conservative Evangelical wings of the Church of England there are other reasons why ministers are likely to be rebelling against the current rules. But I would have liked to see more comment on the implications of his suggestions for relations with Roman Catholics and with the evangelical free churches: would they be helped or hindered?

He finishes by working out some of the implications of his proposals for Bishops, parish clergy, and Liturgical Commissions. He also provides some sample "worshipper-focused guidlines" to use in place of "institution-focused rules".

I would also liked to have seen a few more examples of the huge range of sub-cultures we have outside the church in the UK, and that patterns of migration are only increasing this. He does refer to non-book cultures, and that "for such people, even to be given a simple printed order of service may feel culturally alien", but what about deaf fellowships where they speak British Sign Language, or WAVE that uses Makaton for adults with learning disabilities? The same discussion about very different forms of literacy should be beneficial when working out how to better engage our children in "all-age worship". And what of the situation in the Church of England's few congregations in France that would like to reach out and have services in French as well as English, but they can't because no-one in the House of Bishops is willing to sign off on a translation as being in keeping with the doctrinal standard of the Book of Common Prayer?

But these are relatively small quibbles. I hope that this book will set the tone for future discussions: positive, forward-looking but with love for the past, desiring to be inclusive of all traditions, and with heart for mission.

So, whether you care about pre-prepared liturgies or not, do yourself and your church a favour, and read this book. And then give it to the people who decide the shape of your worship to read too. It is written for and about Anglicans, and the proposed revision of canon law is necessarily specific to that context. But most of the discussion about texts, authority, permission, local traditions and wider family membership, should prompt equally important reflection in other traditions too. For these are questions which are endemic to any church with more than one member ...

AuthorJonathan Clark