The Hospitality of God: Emerging Worship for a Missional Church by Mary Gray-Reeves & Michael Perham

(SPCK: London, 2011)

I crafted this book review for wider publication.  If you’d like to use it in your context please feel free to contact me and I’ll email it to you as a document – it’s a great book to spread around institutional church contexts.

Since the world launched into this current era of unprecented, rapid cultural change a half century ago, there have been Christians willing to experiement with new cultural models in order to better  express the ancient Christian faith in today’s world.  Motivated both by their own need for integrity and a deep desire to share the transforming love of God with those around them, these Christians are recognisable as prophets, missionaries, visionaries and mystics – calling us to a deeper commitment to Christ and to each other as Christ’s beloved.  In current world Christianity, some of these experiments are known collectively as the Emerging Church. In The Hospitality of God, two ‘ordinary’ Anglican Bishops – one from the UK, one from the US, record their learnings from a “pilgrimage of grace” visiting 14 Anglican Emerging communities in those two countries.  The result is some very interesting theological reflection and some wonderfully inspiring stories about ‘worship for a missional church‘.  They reflect on the use of Scripture, Prayer, Music, Image, Ritual and a Theology of worship.

Anglican Tradition has always tried to combine the ancient traditions of Christian faith with local, indigenous expressions of it.  Our identity is primarily contained in a vernacular prayer book and a bible: lex orandi:lex credendi as theologians would say – the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.  Understanding this particular dynamic is key to understanding why many in the Emerging Church movement are so comfortable in the Anglican tradition and see the freedom to grow something fresh and new out of it.  Since our (not so) illustrious beginnings, Anglican liturgies have attempted to combine the ancient and ongoing Christian tradition with contemporary expressions of present and active faith, driven by the massive cultural upheavals of the 16th century.  Bishops Gray-Reeves and Perham identify 2 cultural shifts in our time dominating the drive for liturgical renewal in the Emerging Church.

The first is a changed perception of how authority works: Christians living out of a Postmodern cultural framework have a flat, relational view of hierarchy and authority.  The Bishops’ coined the helpful phrase “indigenous authority” to describe the process whereby liturgy is received and adapted within an egalitarian framework.  The whole community is involved in the process of creating the liturgy and interpreting it’s meaning (applying the tradition) because the locus of authority lies somewhere in the intersection between Scripture and other traditionally recognised sources of authority: Tradition, Reason and Experience.  Interestingly, this is an excellent illustration of Archbishop Rowan William’s theological method – the continuity of the tradition is found in the ongoing intersection of the person of Christ with real people’s lives: “We constantly return to imagine the life of Jesus in a way that will help us to understand how it sets up a continuous pattern of human living before God”  (On Christian Theology, ch.2).  Theology is first and foremost a conversation.  So too is liturgy.

The second cultural change which the Emerging Church is striving to integrate with the ancient Christian faith is a radical inclusiveness in community.  ‘Belonging comes before believing’ – and  when it comes down to it, belonging even comes prior to expectations about behaving.  Traditionally, Anglican spiritual formation has worked on a linear progression of the Christian person living their entire life under the banner of the Church, belonging was assumed!  So whilst  the Bishops argue that the belonging:behaving:believing order is revered in postmodern culture, I would argue that relationality has always come first but it is now necessarily a new connection.  Nobody opens up their soul for a complete overhaul in unsafe company!  How do we re-create community with those not yet in relationship with us in order to share the journey of Christian discipleship?

One way most Emerging Church communities express the invitation to belong is to have an Open Table policy for Communion, seeing it as a missional invitation, not just a sign and statement of Christian commitment.  It makes sense missionally, but what does it say about the meaning of Communion? The words of the eucharist are full of doctrine of the highest order, yet it also stands as a non-literary image and action which, to the congregation, may communicate something very different to that which was first intended in our prayer books.  Liturgical theologian Graham Hughes argues that the historicity of our liturgy means that its signs and symbols were created in a cultural framework not our own.  That leaves the majority of worshippers with a ‘meaning gap’ that they must broach with something that makes sense to them, from whatever set of possible meanings are available to them in their own experience of God (Liturgical Theology, ch.7).  In our fragmented culture, it is safer to assume that worshippers will not close this gap in uniformally and worship leaders must now always grapple with this complexity.

In the final chapter of this stimulating book, Bishops Gray-Reeves and Perham identify 6 elements of Emerging Church worship which pose interesting learning opportunities for traditional worship:

  1. Emerging Churches welcome those who have painfully felt excluded by mainstream Traditional Churches.
  2. “If the invitation to the alter is about not having too much concern about who is qualified to come, what is happening to the long, almost unchallenged tradition of the church that the Eucharist is for the baptized?”
  3. The planning and preparing for worship is as important as the event itself.
  4. Emerging Churches often include a time of ‘Open Space’ where there is freedom for individuals to direct their own engagement, acknowledging the individual journey at the same time as travelling together.
  5. Postmoderns are comfortable with multiple, simulateous stimuli hence there is a return to liturgical complexity.
  6. ‘New monastisticism’ reasserts the importance of a spiritual rhythm of life and everday missional living.

A final encouragement:

“The greatest gift is not to copy [the Emergent church’s] every idea, as if it would translate into the different circumstances of our worship week by week, but to recover their sense of confidence in what we have been given and its potential to draw us and others more effectively into the experience of the love and beauty and holiness of God.  Such confidence will make us more creative and more adventurous in our worship and will allow the grace of God to be experienced both in the traditional things we shall do better and in the new things that we shall do well.  And if and when that happens, for all that the emergent churches are few and small and may remain so, we shall want to honour them for the part they will have played in our renewal.”

 

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