St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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To the Laos - Christmas 2009

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Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours’ proclaimed the heavenly host, as the Angel of the Lord amazed the shepherds with ‘good news of great joy for all people – for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (see Lk 2:10-14).

This is the wonder that once again we celebrate, many of us at our Midnight Mass services, which are such a highlight of our church calendars.  The richness of our liturgical heritage is one of the great treasures of Anglicanism, and it recognisably binds us together, even though Provinces have adapted the historic Book of Common Prayer in ways appropriate to our own circumstances.  Here in Southern Africa we give life to our own Anglican Prayer Book though 13 languages, and worshipping in a myriad different styles across our cultures and communities – and yet all of us bound together in our shared liturgical life.

One of the great joys and privileges of being Archbishop is travelling around both the Diocese of Cape Town and the whole Province of Southern Africa, and joining in true and authentic Anglican worship in such a breadth of expressions.  For the most part, what I experience is hugely uplifting, and bringing ‘Glory to God’, alongside the heavenly hosts.  As we say in the Eucharist, in worship we are caught up ‘with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven’ as we ‘proclaim God’s great and glorious name, for ever praising him and saying, Holy, Holy, Holy …’

Yet, as the Prayer Book itself reminds us (p.10), though its services provides a shape and structure for the worship of the Church, using the words within its covers ‘does not work automatically or magically’.  Rather, ‘liturgy becomes true worship when the people of God, clergy and laity, clothe it with devotion of heart and mind.  Then it becomes a flame, kindled and rekindled by the Holy Spirit, for our benefit and God’s glory.’  What a wonderful description!  So please do not ever be downhearted with the thought that the words of our services appear dull and dry, dusty with age.  Rather, they are a well-constructed skeleton, strong yet flexible, perfectly balanced, and ready to spring into life when invigorated with the vibrancy of our faith, and the breath of God’s Spirit.

How then, do we do this?  Careful preparation is key – preparation that includes much prayer.  It is also important to use the liturgy to create places, and spaces, for those present to be conscious of encountering God;  though recognising that we are different in our needs, and what works for some may not necessarily work for others.  That said, we do not need to try to do ‘everything’ at every single service.  Sometimes, as I travel around, I suspect that an Archbishop’s visit becomes an invitation to include all possible options!  But often ‘less is more’ and beauty in simplicity, with careful dovetailing of music and words or occasion, can better draw us into the presence of the God whose still small voice talks of love and hope, healing and wholeness.

One of the emerging priorities in our visioning process is in the area of liturgical renewal for transformative worship.  For worship – the service in its entirely, from the opening greeting through to the blessing and dismissal – should be occasions not only of drawing us close to God’s presence, but of expecting this encounter to challenge and change us, refining us in Christlikeness, before sending us out as God’s people in God’s mission to God’s world.  Already there is an allocation of money for our Liturgical Commission to run workshops around the Province, to ensure that the good work that they have steadily been doing over many years is as widely known as possible.   These can also be occasions of sharing the best of more experimental approaches, especially those that connect with young people.  Our liturgical foundations, with their careful structuring – generally around preparation, praise, penitence, the reading and preaching of Scripture, of response in prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharist at Holy Communion services, and the final conclusion of blessing and being sent out into the world – are both supple and robust enough to be adaptable to all manner of styles.  And at the same time, they ensure we do not lose any of the essential elements that characterise the great strengths and riches that Anglicans have enjoyed over the centuries.

We also have great liturgical treasures for private, as well as public, worship, and regular readers will know how much I value the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, and the Lectionary, which, every two years, takes us through the whole of the Bible.  Often we, and others, do not realise that Anglicans, as much as, if not more than, any other Christian denomination, systematically read our way through Scripture so comprehensively.

Recently a 13year old girl said to me “our church is dead”.  I understood better what she meant when the next day I attended the Carol service at my daughter's school. The story of the Christ child was told with such awe, drama, dance and music. I caught a glimpse of what it means to put soul and life into the liturgy, including waiving to the audience whilst singing.  As I write, I am humming a juxtaposition of O Holy Night  and O come all ye faithful.

Looking ahead, may I also wish you a blessed New Year.  Alongside the World Cup, we can only begin to guess at what 2010 will bring us.  But of one thing we can be sure:  that we can go forward with the same words of God ringing in our ears as Joshua heard as he prepared to cross into the Promised Land: ‘Be strong, be courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go’ (Josh 1:9).  I also hope that over the holidays, you will have a chance for rest and refreshment.  This is my aim too – so there will be no letter in January.

Once again this Christmas, let us rejoice as we, with the shepherds, worship the Word made Flesh, the Saviour who is born to us.

Yours in the service of Christ

++Thabo Cape Town


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