Bosco Peters proposes a new award: the face-palm Jesus. While we all might want to propose categories which would qualify for the prize, he talks specifically about liturgical practice.
Peters writes in the New Zealand context, and has previously pointed out that despite the remarkable flexibility of that church where, for example, any Eucharistic prayer authorized anywhere in the Anglican Communion is permitted in that church.He says even this feels too restrictive to some folks there.
Which bring us to his new award. After opening the envelope, he awards the first face-palm Jesus to an unnamed congregation where everyone in the congregation joins in saying the words of institution.
A priest, new to a community, describes this particular community’s practice and I have the priest’s permission to describe what is a public experience:
In the Eucharistic Prayer (Great Thanksgiving) the priest is proclaiming the story of the Last Supper, “on the night before he died, your Son Jesus Christ, took bread; when he had given you thanks, he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said:”
Suddenly the priest finds the whole congregation joining in with Jesus’ words of distribution:
Take, eat, this is my body
which is given for you;
do this to remember me.
The priest regains composure and begins: “After supper he took the cup; when he had given you thanks, he gave it to them and said:”
And once again the congregation interrupts the proclamation of the story:
Drink this, all of you,
for this is my blood of the new covenant
which is shed for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins;
do this as often as you drink it,
to remember me.
There’s no point in changing to another Eucharistic Prayer – they all have words such as this. And the congregation always joins in.
Peters attributes this to an attempt by a previous priest to teach “the priesthood of all believers.”
Two vicars, two bishops, and several priests-in-charge, have been unable to hinder the heterodoxy. It is a worthy recipient of the inaugural liturgical face-palm award: in one brilliant stroke it confuses the meaning of priesthood of all believers, sacrilegiously mocks the Western/Roman Catholic model of consecration, emphasises one part of the Eucharistic Prayer at the expense of the rest (putting the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble), and makes a pastoral nightmare for anyone trying to bring orthodoxy back to this community.
As we discussed this amongst ourselves as an editorial team, the question came up “Is this sacrilegious?” I don’t find the practice sacrilegious, in the sense that people should be burned at the stake or excommunicated or even forced to light a candle before a comical statue.There is more at work here than just bad liturgical practice.
It is not just a problem where the priest has part of “his job” taken away from him, it is a problem for the community. What does it mean that we have chosen as a community to live within a rule of life that includes a Prayer Book, with both the majestic language and the pesky rubrics?
Certainly Peters correctly lays out the theological problems that the practice implies, but the practice also appears to distort the relationships within the congregation itself. I will bet that this is a congregation where co-dependency is a dominant dynamic. It does not surprise me that various interventions have not corrected their practice, especially if the interventions were limited solely to the liturgical issue.
If a priest can’t say “this is my job” and “this, this and this are all your jobs” and deal with the systems anxiety in a useful way on such a basic issue as ordering worship, then there are probably bigger issues that are not being attended to. I wonder what else in their common might be allowed to slide or is given in to uncritically. I imagine a congregation where conflict is dealt with by giving into the most emotional person in the room.
You can learn a lot about a congregation by seeing how they worship together. Not only is the word preached and sacraments shared, but the community is also demonstrating the quality of their leadership and common life in how they have chosen to order their most public expression: their worship.
Bad liturgical practice, like bad Christian art or bad Christian fiction, may also arise out of bad theology, or when one worthy theological concept is allowed to run amok over all other considerations. Whatever is going on in Peter’s example, it is saying much more about the common life of the congregation than just their worship tastes.