Progressive Liturgy

BOOK REVIEW

When Progressives Gather Together.
Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations

Author: Rex A E Hunt
Publisher: Morning Star Publishing, Northcote, Vic, 2016
P/Back, 405 pages, RRP $30.00

Reviewed by
Rev John Churcher [Former Chair, Progressive Christianity Network, Britain]


Rex Hunt's publication is steeped in his years of experience of preparing and leading Progressive Christianity worship and preaching materials. It is both theological and practical, designed to be of immense value to those seeking greater understanding of what is necessary to create contemporary progressive liturgy and relevant worship resources.  

In the Introduction Rex states that the book itself probably began in the mid-1960s – as both a reviewer of the book and a worship leader and preacher who has used liturgies and sermon ideas created by Rex over many years, it is obvious that Rex has put 50 years of his personal creative experiences [and his lively personality!] at the disposal of readers. All of this is set within a scholarly accessible format that avoids a heavy academic approach.

The book is divided into major sections. The first is an in-depth analysis of what makes for the effective development of Progressive Christianity worship. The second section is a treasure trove of resources [Rex calls this a 'Toolbox' of resources] and the whole book offers a great deal of help to those who not only want to understand the principles that under gird Progressive Christianity worship but also relish the opportunity to turn principles into practical worship. Rex's humility comes through in a comment that occurs in the Introduction, “I offer this collection not as an expert, because I am not, but as an explorer. Not as academic, but as practitioner. In the end I hope something of the spiritual vitality and expressiveness of progressive liturgy, combined with intellectual integrity, will be suggested. Plus some sympathetic curiosity for others to either 'keep going', or at least explore beyond the negative comments and 'road blocks' put in place by frightened church hierarchies.”

There is a wonderful opening chapter “It's a Story! Liturgy, Lectionary, and Landscape” in which Rex explores Liturgy as story based upon [a] biblical scholarship concerned with the 'historical' Jesus, and [b] the fact that we are all narrative story tellers in our quest for meaning. Rex deals with gathering into space and involving the congregation in a sacramental co-operative participation and celebration. There are various practical examples and relevant resources throughout the chapter.   

“Emerging from Water: Baptism in Tradition and Progressive Thought” is the exploration in chapter 2. Again, the chapter is a thorough analysis of the history and the various theological interpretations [old and new] concerning the sacrament [or rite of passage] of baptism, highlighting early on that for the progressive Christian baptism is concerned with the celebration of “the pre-existence of the sacred within the person – a child or adult. Supported by a caring and compassionate community.” The liturgies and the examples are set within the elements and the landscapes of Australia but all “shaped by   language that is more relationship-building than 'doctrinal specificity and ecclesial distinctiveness.”

Chapter 3 looks closely at Holy Communion under the title “Sometimes Hard to Swallow! Meals, Holy Communion, and the Jesus Banquet.” Rex not only explores the different New Testament contexts in which Holy Communion / The Lord's Supper was developed but also offers some practical progressive liturgical suggestions and examples as “The Jesus Banquet.” For me, the most impressive of the sample liturgies is the 'Flower Communion'. Towards the end of this chapter Rex makes the point that the renewal of communion liturgies is a challenge not just for progressive Christians but it should be central to the revitalising of “traditional expressions of Christianity”.

Prayer is always a challenge to progressive Christians who ask of whom or what the prayers are asked. Chapter 4 explores “The 'Jesus Prayer', Jesus Never Prayed! And Other Prayer Thoughts.” In this chapter Rex considers the social, economic and religious contexts in which Jesus may or may not have prayer “The Lord's Prayer.” By references to works by scholars, including Robert Funk, Rex states, “The origins of Christianity, understood as a movement among Jews, not a s a new religion, lay 'in the ideas and practices of Jesus and his first followers.' But in reality, Jesus of Nazareth contributed very little to what emerged as orthodox Christianity.” There is an interesting analysis of the Q document and the Q People, followed by a detailed look at each part of the Lord's Prayer [a good resource for a series of sermons!].

Chapter 5 looks at the extent to which modern-day preachers all too often overlook the human story. The chapter is titled “You Are The Voice! Parables, and Reimagining the Art of Preaching” and here Rex explores the role of the voice as one of several models of communication within our religious tradition. Along side this Rex challenges the telling of the Jesus story within a culture of print. Although Rex does touch upon electronic communications and digital technology I wish that he had gone a step further and considered in much greater detail just how we can tell the Jesus story within the age of the Internet [perhaps that is another book?]! Examples are given as to how progressive preachers can communicate in parables and by using striking, perhaps edging on blasphemous advertising. Consideration is given also to preaching that is shaped around ideas or experiences, and Rex gives practical examples of how his own preaching developed, and continues to develop, by use of short creative conversational cameos. One of the many high points for me was reading the following where Rex asks, “The goal of my preaching? I seek to enlarge the conversation by inviting others to both resonate with and to get curious – even excited about – what they hear, and to both imagine and to explore further.” What better advice could there be for progressive preachers?! The chapter ends with a brief appreciation for the life and gentle ministry of Marcus Borg.

And then the book continues into its second section, the Liturgy Toolkit. All I can say is, “If you want resources that give practical ideas and full liturgies then I cannot tell you just how much is here – go and buy the book!” There are 156 pages of liturgies written by Rex himself, along with source material, hymns, prayers and liturgies from, for example, Ian Lawton, Andrew Pratt, Shirley Erina Murray, Gretta Vosper, Charles Birch, Kathy Galloway, Lloyd Geering, Tom Hall, Glynn Cardy, Elizabeth Howie, Lorraine Parkinson, Jim Burklo, George Stuart, William L. Wallace, Rod Mitchell, and so on. The liturgies cover a wide range of worship services including baptism/naming services; Christmas and other seasons; funerals and internment of ashes; the environment including The Rite of Homecoming for Earth Children; Peace issues; etc. There is consideration given to non-theistic and soft-theistic prayers; to lifestyle being more than beliefs or economics; etc.

Three pages form a thoughtful Epilogue which concludes with the statement, “A significant paradigm change is urgently needed. It is overdue. Liturgists, worship leaders, and preachers, shaped by a progressive theology have it within them 'to imagine new stories, new ways to engage the human heart, new technologies that can guide our neurological development towards greater empathy'... It will be an opportunity where the challenge, the hope, and the vision of creating a new language and a new sense of community is taken with radical seriousness.” This book is a major contribution to the debate and also offers practical guideposts to the future for a living community based Christianity. 

And finally, the Combined Reference Bibliogrpahy is 14 pages long – demonstrating the breadth and value of this publication. This really is a 'must buy' for all who are interested in developing and leading relevant progressive worship services. 

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