Last Sunday, a member of the congregation came after nearly everyone had left and said “My car won’t start!” So I went out to have a look. Having dealt with two stroke engines for a long time, I am used to the idea that the only reason a motor won’t go (if it is not seized up) is lack of battery to turn the starter motor, lack of spark at the cylinder head and lack of fuel to burn. So this turned out to be a fuel matter. I looked at the engine, and could not find where the fuel came in. (New engines are beyond my skill set to fiddle with). So we called the emergency help man. His diagnosis was the same as mine. Then this amazing thing happened. He went over to his tool kit, took out a hammer, lay under the car and banged on the fuel tank. We turned on the ignition and bingo! The car started. What!!!? I asked him what was happening. He said “Inside the main fuel tank is a reservoir. If the main tank is allowed to get too low on fuel, some of the junk that accumulates in fuel tanks can get into the reservoir and block the fuel line. Hitting the outside of the tank stirs up the ‘junk’ thus clearing the blockage. I was amazed. Just one little piece of vital knowledge made all the difference!
So then, I started to think about all of the things that require specialist knowledge in order to fix them. The electrician came the other day and made a fluorescent tube work, which I could not, even though changing a light bulb is an easy matter. His intimate knowledge of the hidden workings of the mounting of the tube enabled him to fix it.
Thinking about my own work, I am reminded of the preparation for the last funeral I took. As with many families. There are particular things like music and readings that they would like to have in the service. But the questions that I have to ask is “What function does this music serve? Where is it going to fit in the service?” Behind these questions is the ‘liturgical knowledge’ (like the mechanic’s) that a liturgy has a ‘plot’. It tells a story, and helps the worshipers move smoothly from one place to another. When there is no knowledge of this ‘plot’ then liturgical action tends to be just ‘one thing after another with no reason for it’ and if that is the case, these liturgies will not help us to do the work that they are meant to do.
This is the other side of the reflection that I wrote about the ‘inner’ nature of priesthood. There is a lot in priesthood that involves not just the sensibilities of ‘being’ a priest, but the way in which these sensibilities are honed and trained up by learning the skills, and having the knowledge about the ‘inner workings ‘ (the hidden fuel tank!) of church life.
This skill development happens over a long time. As youngsters we were required to ‘present papers’ to Christian Endeavour: a task that taught us the logical structure of a verbal presentation. We were read stories from the Bible, which gave us the idea of ‘narrative’ as a literary genre. As Bethany-Ann’s children now do at the Wednesday Eucharist, we learned to handle the vessels and to become familiar with how things worked ‘in the Church’. By participating in innumerable church services we imbibed the ‘how’ of a liturgy, so that when the ‘plot’ is wrong, we felt it in our bones. All this young training was a development in being skilful with the things of the ‘sanctuary’. Later, as I began to read books on liturgy, and Church life, these unconsciously developed skills were reinforced by the knowledge that I gained. One of the gifts that clergy bring to congregations is this deposit of skill. This skill set is put into the service of connecting us up with God. My plea here is for this professional knowledge to be recognised and respected, even though it deals with what is most obvious, yet most secret.
Our Faith Renewal Group is, at the moment, making their liturgical calendars for the coming year. This task will give them the explicit knowledge of how the Church’s year begins, and flows through the seasons. They are coming to understand how the date of Easter governs much of what happens after Christmas, and the number of Sundays after Pentecost. They are learning about the seasons of the Church year, and their colours. Just as other calendars structure our lives around school holidays or planting and harvesting, or annual vacations, so this explicit knowledge of the Church year will help to locate their lives in a Christian fashion in the years to come.
This is the kind of skill that members of congregations ought to have too. I was really pleased last week when an intercessor whose prayers were due to be offered in Advent came up and said “Now let me see if I have this right. We will have started a new year Church year by the time I do my prayers, and we will be in year C. Right?” “All good!” I replied. Another member of the congregation, who is new, was asking about the liturgy. I gave them a copy of our document that outlines ‘what we do and why’. They were pleased to have it. They said “It’s one thing to just come along, but its another thing to see the process, and why it is that we do what we do.’
The delight of these two members of the congregation in either displaying their skill, or gaining some knowledge of the ‘hidden parts’ of the Eucharist is the same as my delight in watching the car mechanic use his hammer.
In the pattern of human development, there is a period of time between six and ten years of age (about) when the learning skills of is important. On the foundation of a basic trust in the reliability of the world and an ability to control ones emotions enough during the learning process, the next step is the building of genuine self worth on the basis of skill. To ‘be able’ to do something is a great delight. It makes us feel genuinely proud. As Eric Liddell says in ‘Chariots of fire” “The Lord made me, and he made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure!” Long live the acquisition of skills and the knowledge of the hidden, inner workings of things.