A time to rediscover Mattins
I recently preached at a service of the word led by lay ministers on Zoom. The design of the liturgy was exemplary, as was the choice of pre-recorded hymns. The intercessions were beautifully composed and illustrated by well-chosen photographs of people and landscapes. At their heart was the current crisis and tragedy of the pandemic. It was inspiring for me, having spent my fourteen years as a bishop in two largely rural dioceses. During this time, I have been promoting good quality non-eucharistic worship which lay people can lead and deliver ably to the glory of God.
It is heartening to read a bishop expressing the desire to promote "good quality non-eucharistic worship". As Michael Ramsey indicated in his 1956 essay 'The Parish Communion', the loss of non-eucharistic worship - "whereby congregations were nurtured in the Scriptures" - as a regular public liturgy was one of the weaknesses of the Parish Communion movement.
That said, there are two assumptions made by the bishop regarding such "good quality non-eucharistic worship" that should be challenged. The first assumption is that non-eucharistic worship means liturgy "which lay people can deliver", presumably enabling priests to focus on the Eucharist. This entirely overlooks how presbyters exercise key aspects of their ministry while leading non-eucharistic worship: absolving, leading public prayer, preaching, blessing. To quote from the Common Worship rite for the ordination of priests:
They are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to ... lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name.
To lead the people in the saying of the psalms, Te Deum, and the Creed is to declare the mighty acts of God. To preach is to unfold the Scriptures. To lead the General Thanksgiving is to join with the people in offering a spiritual sacrifice.
Now, yes, of course lay people can lead such worship when a priest or deacon is not available. This does not mean, however, that priests and deacons are not exercising their particular ministry when they lead such non-eucharistic worship. The implicit assumption, then, that non-eucharistic worship is for those occasions when clergy are not available not only misrepresents the ministry of presbyters and deacons, but also suggests that non-eucharistic worship is somehow 'second best'.
Which brings us to the second assumption: that non-eucharistic worship will be 'designed' and 'composed' on the basis of the Service of the Word format. What this ignores, of course, is that the basic Anglican 'service of the Word' does not need to be designed or composed: it is called Mattins. It provides common prayer: text, structure, and content to shape us, and our prayer and praises, over years and in communion with others. That which is 'designed' and 'composed' is not common: it does not allow texts, structure, and content to shape us because these are constantly changing. It is an exercise in choice rather than inhabiting a received discipline of prayer and praise.
This is not to say that such a 'Service of the Word' cannot have a place in Anglican worship. It might, for example, mark particular events or feasts. But the routine, ordinary service of the Word is Mattins (or Evensong). It can easily be led by laity and requires none of the 'design time' necessary for a Service of the Word. It ensures that Scripture is central in a way not always the case with locally designed Service of the Word formats. It roots praise, through psalm and canticle, in Scripture. It ensures that the common baptismal faith is confessed in the Creed. In other words, Mattins is the "good quality non-eucharistic worship which lay people can lead and deliver ably to the glory of God".
In his essay on the Parish Communion movement, Ramsey declared:
I believe also that there is still much to be learnt from the Matins and Sermon whereby congregations were nurtured in the Scriptures. May never have a generation of worshippers unfamiliar with the Canticles and the Psalms! ... I am pleading that we should be careful about values which may be lost.
Ramsey's fears have come to come pass. Contemporary Anglicanism - not in every place, to be sure, but in too many places - has forgotten the value of Mattins and Sermon as the basic, normal non-eucharistic act of public worship. In a time when lay-led public worship is not unusual in many Anglican contexts (itself something of a return to past practices when lay clerks would lead Mattins in the absence of clergy), we have forgotten that a liturgy does not have to be devised for this.Prayer Book Society online seminar on the BCP's Advent collects. Speaking on the famous collect of the Second Sunday of Advent, she particularly commented on that collect's use of the phrase "inwardly digest" regarding Scripture: "I receive it as I receive the Sacrament". It is a reminder of the richness and depth of Mattins, of the place it can have in sustaining us in the Christian life.
Anglicans do not need to design "good quality non-eucharistic worship which lay people can lead and deliver ably to the glory of God". We need to rediscover Mattins.