The liturgical agenda that I would urge upon the Church in the 1990s has seven items. The first is to end the sniping. I understand why those most attached to the Book of Common Prayer have felt alienated, angry and hurt, but I regret the too easy description of new liturgies as 'bland', 'repellent' or 'crass' (Penelope Lively, Faith and Reason, 5 December), simply because, for better or worse, these are the texts that do sustain many Christian souls and draw them close to God.
Similarly I deeply regret the dismissal of the Prayer Book as, for instance, 'dead as a dodo', for exactly the same reason. It is part of the spirituality of thousands of Christians. It deserves some reverence simply for that. The task of the Liturgical Commission is to end the warfare, to remove the frustration of those who feel they are not being heard, and to create a trust that will release new creativity in the Church.
The second is to recover 'common prayer'. This is not simply a matter of getting back to the Prayer Book, for common prayer need not all be of the 16th century. We need to discover contemporary common prayer that is as thoroughly satisfying to put alongside our older heritage. By common prayer we mean structures and texts for worship that are found across the Church, binding together not only liturgically, but doctrinally too. Few want to return to a rigid uniformity, but not many want a free-for-all in which there are no limits to diversity. Discovering 'the common core', as the commission has called it, is a crucial exercise, and the core ought surely to include material from the time-hallowed services of the Prayer Book as well as new material, some of it perhaps still to be written?
The third arises from this. We need a number of conversations that will help in the search for a contemporary liturgical language that is strong and vibrant, rhythmic, poetic and memorable. This is not an easy task in an age when confidence in formal speaking in every area of public life is at a low ebb. One of the conversations needs to be with those in the literary world who care deeply for these things: P. D. James, Penelope Lively and Joanna Trollope were among those invited to the recent conference which gave rise to this series of articles.
Another needs to be with those who live 'on the edges', as Monica Furlong put it two weeks ago: Janet Morley, Jim Cotter, and Monica Furlong herself - whose writing is very powerful, but often not quite orthodox enough for official liturgy. Out of these conversations, and from the hard graft of sensitive wordsmiths, may emerge new material that we can all use with pride and pleasure.
Fourthly, there needs to be a dialogue with the world of education. The total ignorance of bible stories (in any translation, let alone the King James Version) among people who have been through our educational system in the last generation is not the fault of the churches. It has been because of educational theories and practices that have neglected Bible and Prayer Book both in the teaching of literature and in religious studies, and divorced school worship from the liturgy and hymnody of the churches. We need to plead with the educational establishment to see the loss to our cultural heritage if these texts are left unstudied.
There is, fifthly, the challenge, that arises from Frank Field's protest at the emphasis on the eucharist (Faith and Reason, 14 November), to rediscover deeply satisfying non-eucharistic worship. I for one would deeply regret any removal of the eucharist from its central place, but I suspect we do people a disservice if we never provide fine liturgy without communion. Our forebears turned the Church's daily office, Matins and Evensong, into a remarkably satisfying Sunday celebration. That particular formula does not seem to work today. Other than the 'Family Service', with its lightness of touch (and, sometimes, lightness of theology), we have lost confidence in our ability to provide non-sacramental liturgy that can satisfy the soul. That confidence needs to be regained.
The sixth item is to look at the ecumenical implications of all that has gone before. The Church of England takes the stick for change, but the Church of England is only one part of the Anglican Communion, and only one church among many in this land. As far as other denominations are concerned, though they shared with Anglicans a common bible, they did not 'own' the Prayer Book, yet their worship often owed a good deal to it. If there is to be a recovery of common prayer, or an agreement about translations of the scriptures, or even a recognition that some things are of the essence of English worship, these things must come out of discussion among all the churches. An Anglican retrenchment alone would be ineffective and discourteous.
Finally there needs to be generous resourcing of what the Roman Catholics call 'liturgical formation'. Sad to say, the worship in many churches week by week falls short of what it could be. It matters not whether the bible is King James or Good News, or the liturgy Prayer Book or ASB, it can be shoddy, halfhearted and earth-bound. People, clergy among them, need to be liturgically formed, so that they understand what they are doing, and find themselves drawing closer to God in doing it well.
If the energy that has gone into the criticism and defence of liturgical texts could now be diverted to building up quality worship, old and new, in every Christian community, that could bear rich fruit. The firmly agnostic Penelope Lively might even take her unbaptised grandchildren along to see and hear.Reuse content