Emptying churches

I attended a service for the interment of ashes this morning. A short, dignified order of service had been prepared and printed, but I’m afraid that I was distracted by my now customary disappointment at the delivery of the liturgy.

This has been on my mind for quite some time, and I’m not sure where it originated. But certainly now almost every church service which I hear, whether it be a rare live service like today or more often services broadcast on radio and television, I notice and am disappointed by the flatness of every part of the liturgy. The prayers are intoned monotonously, the hymns are sung slowly and monotonously, sermons are generally read from paper copies with absolutely no inflection: there is no light and no shade, and the result is boring, unattractive, and uninspiring. And it doesn’t matter at what level it’s being done, be it parish church or cathedral and all points in between.

My personal experience is largely with the Church of England where all that is generally true. There are other churches, generally categorised as “happy-clappy” where the pace and the volume are much higher, but from my admittedly limited experience they are just as monotonous in that they lack any variation.

What is lacking is any variation in tone, volume, or pace reflecting the meaning of the words being spoken or, indeed, sung at any given moment in the service.

My background to all this is my experience of amateur dramatics both as an actor and as a director of both children’s and adult theatre. In theatre there is a need and a drive to make the script intelligible, and that requires changes of pace, changes in volume, changes in inflection, and more. Any reasonable actor, amateur or professional, will almost instinctively know that, and may experiment with different ways of saying lines until they bring out the meaning of it, and that meaning includes the feelings and emotions of the piece.

And I don’t see any of that in church liturgy. I should perhaps give an example, and the one which struck me strongly this morning as it does every time I hear it was the bland and monotonous recitation of The Lord’s Prayer. It does of course suffer from massive familiarity and massive repetition, and to be fair it doesn’t help that it is usually said as an ensemble piece.

But there is the line in The Lord’s Prayer which says, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If there is ever any emphasis it generally falls on the word “against” but surely for it to mean anything the emphasis should be on the word “us”. That way the meaning is made plain: we are asking God to forgive us our failings in direct proportion to our forgiveness of failings of others towards us.

That’s a very small example, and I use it because it is a very common example. But the monotonous sing-song recitation of Bible readings, prayers, hymns, sermons, and even sometimes church notices, hide an absolute wealth of wisdom, knowledge and understanding and engagement which can and should be found in our worship.

Supporters of this mode of delivery will point at the solemn nature of church worship, but I think that solemnity of delivery is better described as portentous, done in a pompously or overly solemn manner to impress. But it certainly doesn’t impress me, and my guess is that it doesn’t impress anyone else unless they are already committed to the church in some way. It’s unlikely to bring in newcomers, and even if newcomers do turn up, it’s unlikely that they will return. So it is the very antithesis of mission and evangelisation.

In my humble view, worship should be performed with better attention to its performance. That way, it will be better understood and more attractive to those who are not already committed, and we might avoid our churches finally becoming empty…


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