Liturgy

The form taken by religious observance.

Why should this matter? Well, Lean Logic argues that the culture of a society and its communities will be central to its existence; that if a culture is affirmed and expressed collectively and regularly, it will have, to some degree, the properties of ritual; and that the cultural framework within which a ritual is performed can be understood as a form of religion. This is clearly a nuanced understanding of religion: it claims that the nature and intensity of the ritual shapes the nature and intensity of the religion which it affirms, ranging, for instance, from “slightly” religious to “intensely” religious, and indeed the intensity can be expected to vary over time. Binary definitions—this is/is not a religion—have value only at the extremes, at which the identification of the religious is trivial in any case.

This gives ritual itself a central function. There is a sense in which the ritual is the religion; if a ritual should change, then the religion changes. It may continue unchanged in some senses—its core text, narrative and set of propositions may be unaltered—but a change in the ritual will affect the implicit perceptions and significance of those core properties. It follows that what actually happens at a religious celebration matters; and the language and choreography which comprise a ritual are, in turn, its liturgy (Gr: leiton [people] + ergos [work]—“the work of the people”).

What happens at the liturgies of the religions of the lean future is no business of Lean Logic. And yet, the design and practice of liturgy is not a field into which the industrial market has provided much useful insight, so a perspective on the matter, drawing conclusions from recent experience, may have some value, whether it is something to agree with or disagree with: a particular, local irritant can be a good starting point from which to draw your own conclusions. Moreover, it is not always the case that the most helpful form of discussion is an objective form, and this may apply especially to ritual; a liturgy seen from the perspective of a person who is in love with it is different from, and may mean more than, a discussion from the perspective of someone who does not care one way or the other. The following brief remarks are from the far-from-objective starting point of being in love with the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Until recently, this was the central ritual of the Church of England. It was based on the medieval Latin liturgy, and was the work of Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), published in 1549 (revised 1552, 1559 and 1604, finally settled in 1662). This book was the identifying asset of the Anglican church worldwide. It is a poetry of narrative and insight, of sublime encounter: the words are constant, remembered; their meanings are there to be uncovered, explored and reflected on over time. A liturgy which is intensely poetic, whose constant, unchanging words are the event, is a lean liturgy in the sense that it is for the people to interpret and uncover meanings and metaphors contained in them at their leisure, and to the limit of their imagination. By contrast with this, in a liturgy where the meaning comes first, and where there are many different ways in which the meaning could be expressed, the entry ticket to participation is not to chew over the words but to swallow the meaning: you can take it or leave it: if you are a member, you have to take it. That is the nature of a belief system, and it is brittle. Most people simply leave it.

In the 1960s, the depth and intelligence with which the Anglican liturgy—and many other liturgies in the Christian church—endowed religious observance came to be seen as inconsistent with what was seen as the exciting, liberated and vibrant informality of the time, and a series of simplifications were introduced. Like that period’s urban reconstruction, education and health programmes, they began with large-scale demolition. Poetic, narrative truth was cleared away. What followed was concrete. Questions to be reflected on were replaced by answers which the liturgical planners felt quite sure the people would be happy with. Everyone was presumed to be a beginner. Guidance was supplied on what to feel. Children were targeted. Teenagers cringed. Grown-ups tended to feel rather silly. People stayed away.

Recovery has been incomplete. Following forty years of serial revision, no liturgy has authority, and local churches tend to devise their own liturgies, retreating with their declining numbers into a private sphere, seeing their little congregation as a “family”, with a role for the minister as their father or mother. The language combines tabloid modernity with an elderly desire to please. These disjointed snippets of sentiment have no interest in what previous generations could tell us, and no expectation of having anything to say to the future. Such detachment from time and space makes it absolutely necessary to have faith, with smiling certainty, that you are saved.

There are places in the Christian church with a large and inspired attendance, perceptive evangelical preaching and conviviality—all of which are sources of social capital, and the valued core of many people’s lives. But those hubs of crowdedness are aspects of the disconnection between people and places. They are fine events, but they are not part of the everywhere-texture which gives us a society; religion has been separated out into something that some people come together to do, like rally-driving. Religion, the Anglican Christian religion, at least—and here it can be taken as an approximate representation of the religion of Western civilisation—has been personalised. It is a personal journey for you, because that is the sort of thing you like. Here is the psychologist Gail Sheehy waving as you set off:

If I could give everyone a gift for the send-off on this journey, it would be a tent. A tent for tentativeness. The gift of portable roots. . . . For each of us there is the opportunity to emerge reborn, authentically unique, with an enlarged capacity to love ourselves and embrace others. . . . The delights of self-discovery are always available. Though loved ones move in and out of our lives, the capacity to love remains.L198

But, as we see continually in Lean Logic, bottom-up local empowerment requires a shared intention—to protect the group’s freedom and to sustain an understanding of what it is about: local groups who have forgotten whether they exist for weekend cricket or for Pilates classes are not lean; they are chaotic. A framework is needed to sustain the grammar which the community can use for its own creative expression. It is only through that grammar that anything of any depth and significance can be understood: without it, there are no coordinates for meaning to be defined in terms of. In the case of the Anglican church, its grammar was its liturgy.

We cannot tell what forms the religion of future communities will take. Small communities, with cultures shaped by a closeness to nature, which is held in respect and awe, could be close to pagan spiritualism—like the lelira of the Inuit and the shamanic religions whose rituals sustain the scripts which in turn sustain their local ecologies. On the other hand, cultures which are settled, more domestic than wild, and with a religion to match, may find themselves in the Christian tradition. If they do, they will inherit a proven, full-mouthed, full-blooded liturgy of great depth and brilliance, the existence of which—if they have formerly experienced only the winsome banalities from the time of the late market economy—they might not suspect. And they will also inherit the architectural expression of that liturgy—the churches—spectacular assertions that community is a mere prelude to the great fugue of overlapping mysteries, parables, affections and accomplishments that give us Gaia.

A good liturgy is inclusive. It allows personal commitment but does not compel it. It allows, but does not require, a literal interpretation of its myth. It does not patronise. It confirms an adult’s self-image as an adult, and a child’s self-image as growing up into an adult world. It is a collective, community response. It resists being captured and privatised as personal therapy. It invites reflection; it explores ironic space. It has continuity, affirming its rock solid and constant existence as a focal point for social capital, and as the foundation for community.L199

What is true of one tradition may have some relevance for others. Confidence in one’s own and delight at its liturgy can be the platform for constructive dialogue; there can be mutual understanding between strong traditions, which can inspire the people that affirm them. The starting point for the community building led by Andrew Mawson at Bromley by Bow was a tiny congregation using the liturgy of the United Reformed Church. Its essential sympathy with religious tradition made robust, self-confident links with other traditions possible. Unconditional advocacy of The Book of Common Prayer is not inconsistent with equally unconditional love and loyalty by others for their own traditions. It is only inconsistent with the view that, since other traditions exist, it is necessary therefore to be tepid about one’s own. Coexistence is not toleration; it is resonance; it is the nature of the human ecology.L200

 

Related entries:

Religion, Ritual, Rote, Multiculturalism.

« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: