Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Small shiny things

I’ve been enjoying the recent story of ‘the girl who gets gifts from birds’. 

A clumsy eight year old in Seattle found crows picking up accidently dropped parts of her packed lunch.  She then began deliberately to share it with them.  Before long this had grown into a regular pattern of feeding them at home.  And she then found trinkets being left on the bird table in apparent return.  She has built up a collection of small shiny things from pieces of broken glass (coloured bottles, light bulbs) to discarded objects (buttons, coloured paper clips).

Just the sort of feel good story which looks almost designed for a brief internet flare of interest, which is how it came into our own news media.  But it turns out to be a phenomenon which experts recognise.  The regularity of her feeding pattern appears to have been key.  In other places the ‘gifts’ include dead baby birds.  There appears to be a close parallel in crows’ courting rituals - the building up of bonds, the entreating of favour.

As with many such stories, I feel a bad sermon coming on.  Do we look like this to God?  Do the things which we offer as supremely attractive (in, say, church architecture and music) actually look to God more like the crow’s scarps of shiny things than anything else?  Our history of offering has even included dead birds (such as the two young pigeons offered by Mary and Joseph in the Temple at Luke 2.24).

I am reminded of the Church of England’s problem with what to say or pray at the offertory at Communion.

The Book of Common Prayer gives twenty sentences of scripture, the habitual use of only the first of which (‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven’) looks far too self satisfied in that context.

The Alternative Service Book 1980 tried to avoid any suggestion that we took any credit by selecting instead 1 Chronicles 29.11 (‘Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour, and the majesty; for everything in heaven and earth is yours - all things come from you and of your own do we give you’) only for it to dawn on us after regular use that the visibility of offertory processions and a text ending ‘we give you’ managed to nurture for many the opposite impression to the one intended.

I remember the discussions as the present Common Worship provision was being developed.  Those responsible would much rather have done away with anything which drew attention to our apparent glorying in the shiny scraps we bring.  ‘The gifts of the people may be gathered and presented... One or more prayers at the preparation may be said’ is all the text grudgingly allows.

Twelve such prayers are tucked away in an appendix.  1 Chronicles 29.11 survives as the first of these – it does indeed try very hard to say that there is no credit for us. 

Number 4 is a version of the offertory prayers from the Roman Missal.  The grudging rubric really means ‘we realise that many of you will use the Roman prayers at this point but we can’t be explicit here because some of the evangelical members of the General Synod would vote against if we were’.  But these are included with the significant change that the bread and wine is said to be ‘set before you’ rather than something ‘we offer’ - a change more often ignored than implemented in my experience.

Number 6 is an ancient prayer (‘As the grain once scattered...’) which only got in because I suggested it should be during the formal revision process ahead of the authorisation of the service – you don’t need to know that but I wanted to tell you anyway.

Numbers 11 and 12 are very rarely used but try to get all this right with the phrases ‘make the frailty of our praise a dwelling place for your glory’ and ‘pour upon... the weakness of our praise the transforming fire of your presence’.  There is no over estimation there of the value of the shiny things which have caught our eye.

The picture comes from the same walk as the pictures on the last two posts.

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