There has always been an idle dream of being vicar of one of those City of London parishes which has no resident parishioners and where there is plenty of time for doing something “creative.” An advertisement for one appeared, it seems controlled by something called the”Prayer Book Society” and is committed to the use of Sixteenth Century liturgy.
Having spent more than thirty years in parishes, it seems extraordinary that anyone might believe that archaic language might engage with anyone below the age of fifty in the Twenty-First Century. And it’s not just the Sixteenth Century language, the contemporary language liturgies do little to engage people. Words have a paucity that does not capture imaginations, a failure to engage with people’s reality.
It is ten years since I read a piece by Peter Cruchley-Jones, a United Reformed Church minister working on a big housing estate in Cardiff:
I came home from taking a church group on retreat to find a large group of young people huddled by a bus shelter in pouring rain, all with candles and flowers. I drove past about half an hour later, having found out that the night before a fifteen-year-old girl had been run over there and killed by someone driving recklessly in a stolen car. I stopped and joined them; there were about thirty young people, none older than sixteen. There were no adults apart from me. They all had candles and had laid flowers and had written tributes to Sian all over the bus shelter. I listened to a few of them and looked at the flowers. I even told them what I was (a vicar). They told me some of them had prayed, but mostly they were just being there where it happened. One of my churches is about two hundred to three hundred metres down the road from that bus stop. I considered opening it for them. But they needed to be at this spot. They didn’t need the church, and though they were glad I’d come and joined them, they didn’t really need me. So I left after about half an hour. They were there for three nights running, often in the rain. But they kept vigil and they sought light for the dark.
Unstructured, unscripted, the gathering expressed the profound thoughts of those gathered. The wordiness and hierarchical nature of a church service would never have touched hearts as that vigil did.
Rites, ceremonies, moments of transcending oneself are needed, but they have become things people have to do for themselves. Sixteenth century prose is wonderful, but not much use to someone grieving at a bus stop.