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'Don't forget what it's all about'

A few of the books belonging to the Bishop of Salisbury Cathedral, Seth Ward
Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 4th March 2018
A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
The Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 20:1-17      John 2:13-22

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Emma periodically gives me things to read. There is a pile of books in my study which are due to be read at some point. There is also a pile of books next my bedside table, towering up from the floor to about waist height on the top of which get added new books that I ought to read. The ones at the bottom I am confident have been there since we moved from Gloucestershire six years ago! The most recent book Emma gave me is being read however. Largely because it is research for a paper which I’m hoping to publish later this year, on the similarities between theatre and the church in terms of preparation for and performance of drama, and liturgy. People have been writing for quite a long time about how in one way theatre and a cathedral are very similar in that both present story in a particularly dramatic and in many cases rehearsed way, with movement, words, music and so on. There are huge differences of course, one of the most interesting being that in a theatre there is an audience but in the cathedral there is a congregation. But a passage of this book jumped out at me as being particularly appropriate for community worshipping during Lent. The author, Peter Brook, a ground-breaking director writing in the 1960s, (I will put the reference in the online version of this sermon in case and if you would like to follow it up)[1] in this book The Empty Space, talks about parallels between the way in which theatre at the time that he was writing was perceived to be dying, or losing its heart, and the way too in which in churches something similar is happening. He is particularly rude about Coventry Cathedral actually, and I don’t know enough about Coventry in the 1960s to know whether it’s true, but his observation is that both in the theatre and in the church, people producing those performances, or liturgy, had forgotten what the story was. They had lost confidence in what it was they were trying to express by way of ritual, and so the rituals themselves became more important than the story.


In Coventry’s case he says that when he built the new cathedral (which I actually know quite well and am rather fond of) the cathedral wasn’t built in order to be a space in which the story could be expressed. The cathedral was built in the shape and size and dimensions it was for other reasons, and then the clergy had to try to find a way to find a story that would work in that building. When he talks about theatre he describes people doing Shakespeare in the “traditional way” because that’s how you do Shakespeare, rather than understanding the motivation for the characters and the author in whichever play it might be. Doing ritual for the sake of ritual, rather than because doing it that way expresses something important about the story.


And thousand different things popped into my mind as I read this. For the last few weeks you will have noticed in the order of service I’ve been encouraging people in the Quire stalls at this service not to turn to face the High Altar for the singing of the Creed. That’s a good example of something that has become a ritual which doesn’t express any more the story of what turning to face East is about. Facing East for the Nicene Creed, the big long creed that we sing at the Eucharist on Sunday is a very recent development, probably in the last hundred years, and it came about by accident, because people were used to facing East for the Apostles Creed, the one we use at morning and evening prayer, which is the creed that is used at baptism. Now baptismal candidates, having prepared through Lent, would, at dawn on Easter day, start off facing West, facing the darkness of the night that was passing, and having rejected the devil and renounced evil and repented of their sins, they would then symbolically turn around 180° (the word repent, of course, means exactly that: to turn around), and they would face East, to face the rising Sun, they would face the main altar of the church, in order to affirm their faith in Jesus, before walking down the steps into the baptismal font to be baptised. So turning east for the Apostles’ Creed makes loads of sense. Turning east for the Nicene Creed, when what that means is those of you in the quire are actually turning your backs on the clergy and other ministers, and during the seasons when the altar is built here under the spire as it will be from next week, also turning your backs on the altar of the Eucharist, is actually faintly bizarre. So that’s why I am encouraging us not to do that. I’m trying to recover the reason for the Nicene Creed, rather than the ritual. The reason for the Nicene Creed is that it is the family Creed of the Christian community, and it makes sense therefore to say that looking at each other rather than a wall. I know that when we sing the creed to the Merbecke setting it’s in the singular, but as many of you know that’s actually a mistranslation of the Greek which is plural. We believe in one God.


Now that’s a relatively minor example, and I’m not going to go to the stake over it. But there are other examples of this thing of ritual becoming kind of stylised and frozen, and sometimes forgetting its story. The 10 Commandments are a good example of that. In the Book of Common Prayer communion service they are read at the beginning of every communion service, or at least the prayer book expects them to be. And certainly of my churches in my last parish at least two of the east walls had the 10 Commandments written up, as it were onto tablets of stone, for the faithful to meditate on. I think this is the only Sunday of the year in which we hear them read as readings though. And they are rather striking. We don’t really use the Commandments that much anymore. The moment when I really started to understand the story of them again, rather than just having them there as a kind of top 10 list of bad things to do, was when I began to prepare to make my first confession when I was about 19 or 20, and my spiritual director at the time said actually you can’t do much better than the 10 Commandments if you want to examine your life. Because he made me go deeper into the motivation which led to these 10 Commandments, declarations put into the mouth of God and carved on stone tablets as the people of Israel were on their way from Egypt into the land that they been promised. They are basic and fundamental guidelines for how to structure a society so that it behaves itself. Basic and fundamental guidelines on how to be a good neighbour, on how to get our priorities right. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” And although we might want to abdicate responsibility for having to think about these commandments by saying, well I haven’t done any murders recently, or worshipped an idol, or possibly even not committed adultery recently, of course all of those commandments have deeper implications. Murder?: When was the last time we assassinated, or tried to destroy someone or devalue them with our words? Adultery?: When was the last time we failed to honour our husband or wife, or our father and mother by failing to treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve. Idols?: When was the last time we didn’t bother saying our prayers, or neatly sidestepped around a difficult bit of the church’s teaching rather than tackling it head on? When was the last time we made our worship of God less than it ought to be, and so set up our own tables in the spiritual temple?


And to come back to Peter Brook and his book, this is exactly what he means when he says that the outward show, the going through the motions of it, fails to honour the story. Theatre, he says, “had in its origins rituals that made the invisible incarnate.” That is what is supposed to happen here. That is what worship is supposed to do. And Lent, therefore, is supposed to hurt a bit. The giving up of chocolate or sweets or whatever, the spending a bit of extra time praying or reading, the foregoing of the Gloria for six weeks, is all entirely pointless unless we remember the story. The story is of humanity in need of redemption. Of a people journeying towards the Promised Land. This is the story of recognising brokenness, and he who comes to us to heal those fractures; to rebuild the temple not in stones, but in flesh and blood and spirit and grace. To complete the story of our redemption. Peter Brook says that sometimes the story, if it is told properly, will hurt. And I think that’s true of Lent. He says of the audience, but I would suggest of the congregation too, that from time to time the story demands that we are “perforated, shocked, startled,…so that at the same time we could be filled with a powerful new charge.”


We are halfway through Lent. Dig in. Remember the story. Seize the opportunity. Be perforated, shocked and startled, so that on Easter morning we may all be filled with a powerful new charge.



[1] Brook, P. The Empty Space (Penguin: London, 1968).