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Doing God by Doing Good: a mini-series

13th January 2017

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This blog is part of a mini-series of blogs that looks at the idea of Christian Social Liturgy as outlined in Theos’ ten-year anniversary report Doing Good: A future for Christianity in the 21st century, and explores what it means and what it might look like in practice. First up, Nick Spencer on

What (on earth) is Christian Social Liturgy?

Everyone knows what liturgy is, or at least what it looks like. The mental image we have is often ceremonial, usually traditional, and definitely ecclesiastical; men in frocks walking in a crocodile, and doing normal things just a little bit slower than normal.

What then, one might reasonably ask, is Christian Social Liturgy and what does it have to do with the future of Christianity in a 21st century Britain which, for all its many sudden twists and turns over recent years, shows few signs in becoming more liturgical?

Our word liturgy derives from the New Testament Greek word, leitourgia. Like all words, not least complex ones from historically distant cultures, leitourgia was used in different ways and can be understood to have meant different things (something that is further compounded by the fact that the word, although not uncommon in the ancient world, is used only six times in the New Testament).

In the first instance, leitourgia was clearly used to mean a service that was obviously ‘religious’ or sacrificial – a priestly or Levitical service that was conducted, more likely than not, within the Temple. Thus when Luke’s gospel talks about the priest Zechariah completing his “time of service in the Temple before returning home”, it uses the word leitourgia.

The word could also be used, however, in a less overtly ‘religious’ sense to refer to the kind of charitable activity or gift or benefaction such as was central to the life of the earliest Christian communities. Thus, when Paul writes in his second letter to the church in Corinth praising them for their readiness to give and their enthusiasm for action, and commending their “service” in supplying the needs of the Lord’s people, he uses leitourgia. Similarly, when writing to the Philippians about his co-workers Timothy and Epaphroditus, he says of the latter that he risked his life “to make up for the help [or service] you yourselves could not give me”, again using the word leitourgia.

Sometimes, the word hovers between these two meanings, in such a way to as suggest their potential coherence. Thus, a little earlier on in his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes how he is being “poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith”, thereby framing discussion of his own pastoral efforts in a sacrificial understanding.

Attempts to say, authoritatively and definitively, ‘this word means that’ are doomed to failure, as people invariably point out that someone is using the word to mean a subtly different thing. Words evolve, decay, slip, slide and perish. One cannot say that leitourgia definitely did (/does) mean x, or y, or even both x and y.

But what you can do, and what the use of its derivative in the phrase Christian Social Liturgy tries to do, is say that given the way the word is used in the New Testament, it is quite proper to derive from it ‘this meaning’, this meaning (in this instance) being the idea of loving, generous, even self-sacrificial service, which is directed at both the human and the divine Other.

The reason for using this word, and coining this phrase, is that, for all their achievements, the obvious alternatives – Christian social action, social service, social provision – are in danger of ignoring of Christian element, failing to capture this dual-directed service, or elevating love of neighbour over and above love of God.

Christian social liturgy, an admittedly unfamiliar and even awkward phrase, is intended to capture the idea of charitable public action – working for and ‘being with’ the other – that is also deliberately God-conscious, or priestly. It is a way of serving the other in a way that is also publically and demonstrably serving God, loving neighbour in a way that visibly refects love of God.

Doing Good talks at some length about the rise of Christian social ‘action’ (reverting to the familiar term) in the UK over recent decades, and it argues that this will be central to the future of Christianity in the UK (and, for different reasons, to the future of public legitimacy in the UK – but that is a different argument).

But is also makes clear that for it to be central, Christian social action must become Christian social liturgy: authentic, distinctive, unapologetic Christian activity; a window onto the love of God, rather than a substitute for it.

This is far from straightforward and there are plenty of obstacles: needlessly fearful secularists, nervous statutory bodies and funders, and apologetic or diffident Christians. Before even we reach those obstacles, however, there remains the question what might Christian social liturgy actually look like in practice. Every example and answer to this question is liable to be different. This mini-series offers a few snapshots of what it might look like.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick

Next in our mini-series: Ben Ryan on Christian Social Liturgy and the Christian charity sector. Read it here


Image from flikr under a Creative Commons License. 

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