Our liturgy unleashes the eternal

The Rev Geoffrey Kirk, of St Stephen's, Lewisham, one of the leaders of the opposition to women priests in the Church of England, today discusses the uses of drama in worship.
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My Methodist forebears, perhaps not surprisingly, had a developed distaste for liturgy. "Just play-acting" was how the most formidable of the aunts described the activities she had once observed on a visit to the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, over the hill from her red-brick and pitch-pine chapel in Roberttown.

Though they probably did not know as much, the aunts were continuing a proud tradition of Puritan disdain both of liturgy and of the theatre. Derived in a rather simplistic way from the teaching of Plato that imitation is deception, their attitude had a praiseworthy directness. Apart from what they saw as downright unmanliness and ostentation ("dressing-up" would probably have been the preferred term), there was also thought to be an element of chicanery. The "dressing-up" led, as they supposed, to simple misrepresentation. It was only a piece of bread and a cup of wine, when all was said and done.

I have wondered, as Easter upon Easter has punctuated my life with an ever deeper appreciation of the Church's liturgy, what I would say now to the Methodist aunts if I were asked to explain what it is all about. How to explain the washing of feet and the watching in the garden, the creeping to the Cross and the singing to the candle in the dark? It is all so alien to the brass-tacks and boiled-brisket world which they knew as reality.

In the first place liturgy is not "play- acting". It is not a recollection or imitation of an event so long past that it needs colour and artifice to bring it alive - a "pageant" or "mystery play" which depends for its effectiveness on the skill of the performers. It is at one and the same time something more basic and more complex. The church's liturgy - and the liturgies of the three holy days of Easter, which are paradigmatic - is best understood as an unfolding or uncoiling of imagery. It is not the portrayal of a past event but the unleashing of a potent and present reality. It is undertaken by way of story, because all human perception is related in narrative, but it goes beyond the story told. It is not one story, but all stories.

That is why the liturgy of Holy Saturday begins in the primeval dark, the chaos before creation, with the first lightfall; and then unfolds the history of salvation from garden to garden, from Eden to Gethsemane. Its images of fire and water owe nothing to artifice. They are what they are - and yet more than they seem.

In the second place liturgy is action, not spectacle. The aunts in their pitch pine chapel were exposed to worship at its most supine. They observed and received what the man in the pulpit said and did. But to the rites of the church there are no spectators. Liturgy, like life, is both something you do and something which happens to you; not planned with artifice but fraught with the unexpected. Like life it is repetitious and like life it never happens a second time.

In the third place, liturgy is not a commemoration - it is not a memorial service to some long-dead loved one whose conjured presence can somehow ease the pain of parting. It does not exist to swallow up time, but to unleash the eternal. The aunts are right. Every memorial service is to some extent a lie and a deception. We speak well of the dead because we rightly fear to judge and be judged. But in the Church's liturgy we stand before the eternal judge, whose every word is truth.

Two hymns point up the contrast. "The Old Rugged Cross" is cliche run riot, a triumph of sentiment over sense in which literal meaning is hard to find.

On a hill far away

stood an old rugged cross

the emblem of suffring and shame

and I loved that old cross

where the dearest and the best

for a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross

Till my trophies at last I lay down;

I will cling to the old rugged cross

and exchange it some day for a crown.

Paul Gherhardt's Passion Chorale, by contrast, is about a present reality.

My days are few, O fail not,

with thine immortal power,

to hold me that I quail not

In death's most fearful hour;

As I go this Easter to the altar, prepared by abstinence, informed by study, fortified by prayer, I will go, as every priest does, as an icon of the crucified and risen saviour. But I will play there no part but my own. I do not recall him; he recalls me to myself.