I am supposed to be writing a 3,000 word essay in Apt Liturgy by Wednesday. Sadly what I have so far is a 600 word blog. I hope it might be enough.
There is an incredibly powerful moment in the recently-released film Selma in which Dr Martin Luther-King is struggling to find an apt liturgy to help his community respond to a moment of crisis or Kairos.
King is leading thousands of people on a march campaigning for voting rights for Black Americans – it’s the second time they have set out on the march. The first time the Black protesters met a wave of state-sponsored violence and brutality which led King to call for people of God and goodwill of every colour to join him. And they did.
This time, when they reach the line of armed troopers, the order is given for the sheriff’s men to disperse. King pauses unsure if this is a victory or a trap. He needs to say something and do something that will make God present at this liminal moment. He kneels silently in prayer and the thousands of marchers kneel beside and behind him. They stay in silent prayer for a number of minutes. Then he rises, turns and walks back the way he came.
Apt liturgy is something that has probably happened in all faiths and in all times but recently Ann Morisy et al. have documented and defined it as a spontaneous response outside of church to a time of change or crisis experienced by a community of people who would welcome the offer of religious symbol, prayer and word that speaks of God.
By this definition Jesus certainly used apt liturgy. In fact the liturgies that shape our Eucharist, the last supper, the breakfast on the beach and the meal at Emmaus all fit the definition.
In his beautiful meditation on the story of the Emmaus Road, With Burning Hearts, Henri Nouwen claims that the Eucharist itself can become apt liturgy as it is infinitely adaptable. He says:
“The Eucharist, sometimes, is celebrated with great ceremony, in splendid cathedrals and basilicas. But more often it is a “small” event that a few people know about. It happens in a living room, a prison cell, an attic – out of sight of the big movements of the world. It happens in secret, without vestments, candles or incense. It happens with gestures so simple that outsiders don’t even know that it takes place. But big or small, festive or hidden, it is the same event, revealing that life is stronger than death and love stronger than fear.”
The truth of this quote was made clear to me in a telephone conversation with a Muslim friend today. As I described my bookgroup in which women of faith gather to eat, drink and through the vehicle of literature discuss life and faith, he said: “It is amazing how someone sitting on your sofa and breaking bread with you is such a significant moment.” Suddenly serving Kettle chips and elderflower juice at book group appears to be an apt liturgy.
I am not sure exactly how to define an apt liturgy but I hope understanding it more may help us respond to human communities needing the reassurance of glimpses of a loving God.
What I think I do understand so far is that it speaks of a faith seeking relationship, a faith seeking to be guest as well as host and a faith that listens before it speaks. I hope we can all learn to recognise it, lead it, respond to it and celebrate it as it builds hope and reconciliation into our shared lives. And now back to my essay….