Anglo-Catholic Future: Liturgy is Messy

I was unable to attend the recent Anglo-Catholic Future event, but  Prof. Alison Milbank’s keynote is now available on-line. It is worth reading, and much of it I agree with. With Prof. Milbank I acknowledge both the strangeness and beauty of the catholic tradition. But where we may differ is our experience of what is beautiful. I truly believe that liturgy is messy, that this is beautiful, and that we need not fear mess.

My first experience of the catholic tradition was as a child in a mission parish on an estate in Gravesend. Holy Family still looks pretty much the same today as it did back then. I remember the richness of the experience, the images and colour - but a cathedral it is not.

I re-entered the catholic tradition through suffering. After my mother died I found myself, by accident, in a church where suffering was not packaged away but hung messily from every crucifix. Catholic spirituality embraces the reality of pain and suffering in the world as well as seeking supernatural healing.

I have been nourished in the catholic tradition through spiritual encounter. Catholic worship and practice is essentially ecstatic: an inability to move from adoration of the sacrament, a glimpse of Christ through palm branches, a strangeness of a statue of Our Lady. These and other supernatural experiences have shaped my relationship with God, even during those seasons when I have struggled to believe in God.

I have persevered in the catholic tradition through the sacrifice of the mass. The disruptiveness of the sacrifice offered corporately on the altar even when God may seem distant to the individual. Christ present in bread and wine, broken and blessed at the heart of a wider sacramental life. I long for a renewal of our shared intention at the altar in the catholic movement.

I have been renewed in the catholic tradition by walking with the apostolic teachers of an early missionary church. Seeking to engage in mission within a diverse and fractured culture around us. A plain reading of those who knew the apostles makes little space for obsessive aesthetics.

Mess does not mean disorder. Mess can have shape and form. But none the less embracing suffering is messy, the charismatic and ecstatic is messy, the disruptive sacrifice is messy, mission is messy. I believe that catholic worship and community lives and thrives when space is made for mess, for contemporary worship, for creative prayers, for prayer ministry and charismatic gifts, for flags waved and hands lifted high, for risky evangelisation and invitation.

I cannot help but return to Augustine:
Then, indeed, such a shout of wonder rose from men and women together, that the exclamations and the tears seemed like never to come to an end. ... They shouted God’s praises without words, but with such a noise that our ears could scarcely bear it. What was there in the hearts of these exultant people but the faith of Christ, for which Stephen had shed his blood?
Messy yes, and profoundly catholic. As it was then so may it be in our anglo-catholic future.

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