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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. Today, it’s Hannah Malcolm on
Hilfield Friary and Unnecessary Good
Hilfield Friary is a community of the Anglican Society of St Francis, made up of Franciscan brothers and lay community members. The community shares in a rhythm of daily prayer, helps to look after the Friary land and buildings, and offers hospitality to guests and visitors. The Friary is the first recipient of the Eco-Church Gold Award, an A Rocha UK initiative.
It’s hedge-laying month at Hilfield. Trees that were planted years ago are now being cut and woven into a living, growing, sculpture that will give shelter to creatures and protection for land. Blackthorn – that most insidiously spiky of trees – is laid alongside hawthorn and hazel, the smooth tangled up with the rough. It is hard, time-consuming, sometimes painful, work. It is also not strictly ‘necessary’, in a utilitarian sense: a fence would in no way damage the land we care for, it would easily contain livestock, and we could all go home early. And yet hedge-laying – a truly unnecessary ‘good’ – remains part of the liturgy of the working year, as much woven into the pattern of Hilfield life as the celebration of saints’ days and welcoming strangers at the morning tea break.
It is a conviction at Hilfield that Christian living cannot limit itself to aiming for the ethically neutral – not being perpetrators of harm – but must strive for the ‘unnecessary’ Good – being perpetrators of healing. If our service is truly expressed as a window into the grace of God, it will be extravagant in the overflow of its offering, beyond all reasonable expectation. It will provide more than enough. The Church will, in short, punch above its weight. And, as identified in Theos report Doing Good UK churches and Christian communities are doing just that. They are participating in ‘social liturgy’, or, in Church speak, ‘bringing in the Kingdom’.
One of the most striking things about Doing Good’s description of ‘social liturgy’ is the underpinning value of communal repetition in the pursuit of the Good. Amongst the many associations the word ‘liturgy’ carries with it, repeated communal word and action may be the most basic – and most essential. The most effective social liturgies might thus be identified as long-term commitments to repeating the Good, whether there are immediate results or not.
These repetitions are not to be attempted alone: a liturgy that gathers around a common table also goes out in a common work. Social liturgy does not require us to bear the burden of solo service, nor does it permit us the human praise of solo accomplishment. Rather, it remains distinctive in being the collective mission of the Church.
A live-in Christian community like Hilfield is, of course, an easy example of this communal repetition: scheduled prayer, work, and food drive its daily liturgy. But the same principle can be seen in church communities all over the UK. Weekly food pantries, marriage courses, English classes for new arrivals, even remembering to do the recycling – all these give shape to the life of the Church, forming its liturgical rhythm just as the celebration of Eucharist does.
These liturgical acts crucially influence each other: social liturgy is at its most potent when the Gospel and the Good are woven in such a way that they are the distinct but inextricably tangled branches of Christian life. The hope of the broken bread and poured wine at the altar gives essential meaning to the food offered to a struggling family. And the street pastor’s ministry helps us better understand what we pray when we say ‘your Kingdom come’: we are praying God moves the Church away from the pursuit of the ethically neutral and into the pursuit of the unnecessary Good.
Hannah Malcolm is a former Theos researcher. She currently lives and works as a community member at Hilfield Friary.
Next in our mini-series: Natan Mladin on Christian Social Liturgy and chaplaincy. Read it here
Image from Flickr available under Creative Commons