This is the first of a series of articles written for the website in which our Rector Tony Billett tries to explain some of the reasons behind why we do unusual rituals and actions in worship. He sets the ‘story’ within a fictitious setting called St. Jarman – a collection of Anglican parishes in South Norfolk trying to operate a minster model at the start of 21st century. All the characters exist only within his over-imaginative mind and are not copies of real people.
"Why all these funny, fussy signs and rituals?" asked the newly enrolled member, brother Markus, to the rather ageing abbot of the religious community of St. Jarman. Markus had taken his first opportunity to speak in person with the one in charge of his newly acquired family. "I love God, I want to worship him, but I don't get all these prissy, peculiar things that people do when they join others for worship. Why do them?"
Abbot Anthony reflected for a moment on the eagerness of the newly arrived member who clearly loved God but had no previous experience in the words and actions that were the 'norms' for many in the worshipping community. Abbot Anthony had, for some time, noticed a decline in the use and knowledge of liturgical actions in his time as abbot. How different it had been fifty years earlier. True, now there was much more openness in expressing both faith and doubt but at the expense of long held traditions that once meant something but no longer. Like the ammonite fossil the abbot kept on his study desk many of his worshipping community saw little need in using non-understood rituals. Before him was an honest, sincere and deeply committed Christian who had no awareness as to why liturgical actions had once been held in high esteem. He wondered, did this young person before him really want to know why, or was this a rue to see such actions removed from the worship? Abbot Anthony decided to answer.
"Brother Markus, I will answer your question but in doing so I will require you to give me your time and attention over several months. My answer will come in small amounts and I will require you to think long and hard about it. Will you do that? If you do I shall know that your question is sincerely asked."
Brother Markus felt the question hardly merited the amount of time being suggested. He had hoped for a feeble reply which he could quickly deposit in the unwanted pile, but being new, and not wanting to be seen as disrespectful to the leader of his community, he reluctantly agreed. So Abbot Anthony began what he knew would be a long consideration as to why rituals matter in the worshipping community.
"Worship, dear Markus, is a celebration of what we believe about God and his son Jesus. We do this mostly in words but very often words are accompanied by actions. The actions help us to pay attention when the words don't quite say it for themselves. Of themselves these actions are very ordinary things. Ordinary things in life possess a rich theology, indeed, I wish we could all love life as if it were a human being -- a person created in the image and likeness of God.
Our dramatic and patterned services are all about a love for the ordinary things of life; making the sign of the cross, sitting quietly, anointing, bowing, and many more are all about acknowledging that God is in everything, and that every time we do them we give hospitality to the Trinity, breathing God into our lives.
Let me start, as the first example of many, with the making of the sign of the cross. Many of us in this worshipping community make the sign of the cross over our bodies at the very start of every service. It takes us back to the first moment of our baptism when we started the journey through life which moves ever nearer to God. That action was made over and on us by another. It reminds us that the cross, and nothing else, is the heart beat of the life we have in God. We have no other alternative life support: no innate natural ability of our own to conjure up a faith, only the cross. It is the cross that enables our faith to exist, the light by which we can see everything else. We sign ourselves with this symbol as a gesture to ourselves, and all our brothers and sisters with us, that we can only worship because of the cross, for it is the cross which gives access to God. It also reminds us of the greatness of his love. "In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o'er the wrecks of time." When, as a child or a baby, we are marked with the sign of the cross - long before the washing - we are each given the key to the rest of our lives and its meaning thereafter. It tells us that though there may be many, many difficulties and traumas yet to come God knows that and, because of that cross, will be with us as we face and endure it, and see ourselves through it. And even though death itself will come to us we will not lose eternity.
We cannot worship the living God without the cross, and the best way to remember it is to begin by making that sign over our whole bodies. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And at our next meeting, brother Markus, I will explain why we choose to stand when we begin to worship. Now go, and think about that ‘cross making’ over your entire life. It started perfectly at your baptism, long before you started to think you could make it for yourself, and learn to cross make for the rest of your time in the worshipping community.