The Work of the People

Last year I posted in ‘The Prayer of Work’, how impossible it is to engage with the glorious liturgy of the Church, without it triggering a response to the suffering in the world. Did you know that the word ‘Liturgy’ comes from the Greek words, laos: people and ourgos: work… it literally means ‘the work of the people‘.

It was St Chrysostom who said (I paraphrase) ‘How can we worship God in fine clothes whilst others in the world go poor and hungry?’

High church liturgy, with beautiful vestments, sweet-smelling incense, calm and ordered processions, candlelight and peaceful music, is so very different from the noise, smell and chaos of much of the world, that many people dismiss it irritably as ‘out of touch’. But that is to miss the point in a big way… because the human beings clothed in beautiful light and colour, are the same human beings who afterwards will go back out into the darkness and disorder of the world… it is the human element which is fully ‘in touch’…

So the very sense of incongruity, the sense of beauty and peace contrasting with the misery and disorder, is a force for change…

-As a ‘cradle Christian’, coming from a fairly low church and also Baptist background, I had sat through years of PowerPoint displays about poverty, and video presentations of earthly suffering, and whilst I always joined in with the donations and projects, I was never changed by them… I always thought, ‘how sad -I must try to help’ and then I helped, and then I felt less sad.

But nothing can compare to the effect of BEAUTY in the face of suffering… At first, in very beautiful high church services, my emotional response was always ANGER: deep, unsettled anger which I could not quite understand. Then I decided that it must be hypocrisy which made me angry: here were human beings indulging in beautiful worship when they could have been out working with the poor of the world…

…Many people get stuck at this viewpoint… on retreat in a very pretty cottage in Dorset, I met an Indian Roman Catholic nun, who usually lived surrounded by extreme poverty and was, quite rightly, angry at some of the treasures held and maintained by the Roman Catholic Church… but when she spoke of someone who shared her own experience of poverty and yet had decided, when she had some money, to donate it to beautify the little local church… she was still very angry… and I disagreed -I reminded her of the woman who poured expensive perfume over Jesus and how that was an acceptable gift,  and she said ‘but that was different, that woman encountered Christ‘ and I found myself saying ‘no… it isn’t different… because people still truly encounter Christ -and want to offer him beautiful freewill gifts, and they shouldn’t be stopped’

So, I couldn’t stop with anger and criticism at ‘hypocrisy’ as my response to the beauty of the liturgy… besides, I could feel the truth in some of the services (not all… I’ve been to some ghastly ‘choral evensongs’ which were like performances for tourists).

So I thought and I prayed and I gradually realised that the fact is, there is something TRUE about beautiful liturgy, something unapologetically abundant and undeservedly glorious… at its best, it conveys something of the court of the Kingdom of God. And we stand there as sinners, freely and undeservedly blessed… and my ANGER was actually guilt at my own ingratitude…

Look what you are called to, look what you are given! Look at all the blessings and then imagine them multiplied hundredfold… This is not hypocrisy, this is your life in God!

And now look at your response…

So I came to accept that what was needed was not a change to the liturgy: making it simpler,with services more like the rest of life, but a change to my life... out in the chaotic world, that expressed the kind of gratitude and awareness of the majesty of God, a sense of the beauty of his purposes and order and the innate nobility of every human being… that then rendered the liturgy a true expression of worship.

Anyway, tonight I am starting my first stint as a helper in the night kitchen in Huddersfield. Not, as I might once have done, in order to stop myself feeling angry or hypocritical… but simply as an expression of gratitude to God, and recognition of the nobility of all human beings.

It may not sound like a big deal… but other college students are coming too… and will be able to pair high church worship with practical service… something which from my very first year here at college I longed for… I hope we will all appreciate both liturgy and service more. Certainly in my opinion we should all get a fuller sense of liturgyas ‘the work of the people‘.


About Jemma

Learning to be both a priest and a human being in the Anglican Church
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