Messy is the Mass: my experience of Messy Church

While I was writing my reflections on Being Messy, Being Church the recent excellent book  from the Bible Reading Fellowship, I was amused to discover the etymology of the word ‘messy’:

Etymology 1

From Middle Englishmes, partly from Old Englishmēse, mēose(table; that which is on a table; dish, food; meal, dinner; see mese); and partly from Old Frenchmes, Late Latinmissum, from mittere(to put, place) (e.g. on the table), Latinmittere(to send). See mission, and compare Mass(religious service). More at mese; see also mease.


So ‘messy’ is the Mass and Mission!

One of the most attractive elements of the ‘messy church’ movement for me is keeping adults and children together. I have probably said it too often but if our worship is too boring for children then it is probably too boring for adults – they are just too polite to say anything and, as I said in my blog post, the quality of what is, and, indeed, can be done with children, in the time available during the liturgy is all too often very poor indeed.

I believe that the Church does need a mixed diet. One of the negative effects of Vatican 2 was to make the official liturgy the only experience most people have of  worship. Before the Council the majority of people had a much richer diet of popular devotions and cultural religion. I see Messy Church as in some ways replacing that experience in a contemporary way. I was interested to read in Being Messy, Being Church, that the most common pattern for Messy Church is a monthly event. That seems about right to me.

Most of the churches I have served in have been liturgical and within the catholic tradition. An exception was St Andrew, Earlsfield, in south-west London where I lived and worshipped from 2003 – 2011. The parish had what, I suppose, would be called low to middle tradition. Eucharist three Sundays out of four, alb and stole, Family Service on the first Sunday. The Family Service was very similar to what might now be described as ‘Messy Church’, tables were arranged around the church with activities prepared, very often involving craft of some kind. Probably what was not very ‘Messy Church’ was that all the activities were geared for children, often best for quite young children. On Good Friday similar activities took place in the afternoon (following an ecumenical walk of witness in the morning).

Several changes, after the arrival of a new vicar (Jonathan Brown), enabled the ministry team which included three priests and two Readers to develop things further:

First Sundays

On certain Sundays, because of the liturgical year, the Family service was a Eucharist. It was clear that many people missed having a Eucharist on Family Service Sundays. So we introduced a new format; Family Service with activities/crafts etc and two readings, followed by coffee. When this was over we continued the Eucharist by singing ‘Come and Worship, royal priesthood …’ (Songs of The Spirit) without accompaniment. Everyone who wanted to gathered around the altar while those who didn’t want to stay for the Eucharist could leave. The Eucharist continued with the Prayers over The Offerings, Eucharistic Prayer and so on. This pattern worked really well and meant that those who stayed for both participated in both the lively Family worship and in something quieter and more reflective. What surprised me was that so many people and so many children did stay on for the Eucharist, people appreciated the quiet atmosphere.

Sung Vespers – Kindle a Flame

There had been no recent pattern of Sunday Evening worship so, using music from New Camaldoli ‘Lord, Open My Lips’ (published by Oregon Catholic Press), we introduced a very simple form of sung Vespers with lighting of candles and offering of incense, one long reading but no sermon, everyone sitting around the nave altar. This service was introduced following one Lent course on the Office of Compline which included teaching all the plainsong to sing Compline and left people wanting this form of service again.

In some ways this was the weakest part of the programme, although some of us loved it. It probably needed more ‘action’ and easier music to really embed itself. The old Catholic practice of Compline and Benediction might have worked better.


The evening liturgy on Maundy Thursday had always been celebrated, there had been no Vigil and Good Friday was dominated by the Walk of Witness and Children’s activities. We kept the activities but made them more of a carousel with some apparently geared more to adults – someone did a session on films, someone else poetry and I did mindfulness sessions over a number of years. We marked the movement around the carousel by using a bell to summon people back to the choir area where a hymn was sung and the Passion Gospel was read in sections between each movement. After the final session of activities intercessions were prayed around the large cross placed on the floor with votive candles placed on or around the cross and Taize chants sung; the whole afternoon ended with Communion.

I thought this pattern worked remarkably well. No section of the Good Friday liturgy was missed out and the numbers were much higher than might be expected because it was sufficiently engaging for people of all ages.

Messy Liturgy

I think one of the ways in which I would hope to see things develop is not to see Messy Church as in opposition to, or as an alternative to liturgy and sacraments but as an important complement to them. Interestingly in Being Messy, Being Church, Messy Church is compared to the Alpha course, I suspect Messy Church needs something like Alpha, or the Pilgrim course to offer Christian learning alongside the more experiential Messy Church.

Update: I am reminded that I haven’t mentioned …

The Vigil

We introduced a dawn vigil on Easter morning, pretty much according to the liturgical books, Fire, Readings, Mass with renewal of vows etc, followed by fry-up breakfast. I have to say that I didn’t feel any sense of liturgical loss in a Triduum marked in this way with Messy Church type activities on Good Friday afternoon built into the liturgy. Quite the opposite, it felt like a very full liturgical diet. The Vigil attracted (and continues to attract) good numbers and be very much at the heart of the ‘tradition’ now in Earlsfield.


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