If England, and the English, exist, they do so very much secondary to local identity. This is something I have noticed as we have moved from Sheffield to Liverpool to Sunderland – all northern cities, but with very different cultures.
Theories of evolution have demonstrated that creatures adapt, over time, according to their environment. That we are shaped by place. This is as true of human beings as it is of any other species: the adam is not only the generic earthling, capable of roaming across the face of the earth, but is brought forth from a particular soil.
My vocation finds expression within the Church of England. Within our tradition, we have a shared liturgy, a national liturgy or form that corporate worship takes. But that liturgy – which, though led (often by me) is the work of the people – must take on a localised expression.
Today I received the gift of spending an-hour-and-a-half with Steve Taylor, a friend from New Zealand, whose incisive listening helped me to dig a little deeper into my still-new, still unfamiliar, context.
The natives of Sunderland have adapted to three key forms of employment. None of the three still exist, but environments can change far quicker than the creatures living within them can adapt. These three are coal mining, ship building, and brewing. How might each of these shape the liturgy?
The first is coal mining, the pits of the Durham coalfields. I place this first, because it forms the wider context. Generations of men worked below ground, and this has shaped them and their descendants. The pits are closed, but the people have deep, deep seams that are not visible at surface-level, and are potentially no longer accessible even to themselves.
The liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the Prayer of Preparation, Confession and Absolution, and the (in our context, sung) Gloria. Might we experience the Prayer of Preparation as a descending into the deep of our interior life; Confession and Absolution as the hard work of cutting away at the coal face and extracting something useful, formed under pressure; and the Gloria, with its vertical axis joining the heaven (sky) above and the earth below, as rising to the surface again, alive, blinking at the brightness, gulping in the air?
Might the activity of taking part in the liturgy keep the seam open? Might it give words to a people who are not talkative – who can value poetry, but wouldn’t consider themselves to be poets? The pits themselves were closed because they were no longer considered to be economically viable. Might the church be guilty of devaluing the local community in the same manner if we were to abandon this liturgical form as no longer relevant, or even close churches on economic grounds?
The second context is ship building. This is what gives Sunderland its distinct identity. The locals know themselves as Mackems, from the local dialect ‘mak’ for make, those who make (ships) and in contrast to Tackems, those from elsewhere for whom the ships were made and who took possession of them. Sunderland folk are makers (today, they make cars instead of ships). But the mackem/tackem distinction goes deeper than a pride in making: it is a rare Mackem who sees it as their place to jump on one of those ships and discover new horizons. This is a more settled and less transient city than any I have known, with tightly-knit communities.
Ship building is a noisy business. Communication is by necessity minimally verbal, dependent more or routine actions and familiar gestures. This, too, ought to inform a localised articulation of the liturgy. The heart of the Eucharist is the Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer of thanksgiving. While this prayer is led, in word and in actions, by the priest, everyone prays this prayer together. This includes familiar patterns, of standing and sitting or kneeling, of signing oneself with the cross, of moving forward to receive and stepping back again; and might even include lifting hands in prayer (which is not magical, and need not be restricted to the priest alone – one of the highlights of presiding is when an engaged young child imitates you).
We use different Eucharistic Prayers – and different settings for the sung parts of the Sunday morning Choral Eucharist – in different Seasons. If we get the balance wrong, this can be deeply disturbing. If we get the balance right, might it open up new horizons to a settled people?
The third context is brewing, and in particular the Vaux brewery which stood a stone’s throw from the Minster and is now a derelict site awaiting development. Vaux was a major employer, of women as well as men, and in a wide variety of roles. Its core business, however, was the transformation of water, grain and hops into beer. And this transformation has a very direct parallel to the Eucharist, where grain and fruit are brought forward in the form of bread and wine, and are transformed into something new.
As we gather around the altar, a number of women and men – including teenage girls and boys – work together in a variety of roles in order to give something to the wider group. Some bring forward the raw ingredients; others have quite technical roles, that carry on traditions down generations (I find it particularly moving when a sub-deacon or acolyte pours water on my hands, as Jesus poured water on Peter’s feet); others help with the distribution; and all benefit from what we have done, together, under the grace of God as we encounter Jesus in the ordinary and every-day and yet, at the same time, very particular to our context.
The liturgy, then, is not something imposed from elsewhere, but something given local expression, a Mackem accent (not from my mouth, you understand – I am not a native) through the work of these people, shaped by this place. Because God has only ever met anyone where they are, who they are. And yet, that is always and everywhere part of a bigger story.
This has far less to do with relevance than it has to do with resonance. The pits, the yards, and the brewery are gone. No-one (well, very few people) is thinking, I’d come to church if it were a Choral Eucharist. But the words, spoken and sung, tap into something that is there to be mined, riveted, or fermented.
How does local context shape liturgy for you?
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