Thinking through Liturgy

It’s Holy Week. A good time to talk liturgy.

lit·ur·gy   [lit-er-jee]

1. a form of public worship; ritual.
2. a collection of formularies [namely, the Book of Common Prayer] for public worship.
3. a particular arrangement of services.
4. a particular form or type of the Eucharistic [Communion] service.

Whenever I say (to fellow Christians) “I go to an Anglican church,” I usually get one of three responses: a blank stare, a look of worry, or a look of pity. As I go on to explain why the liturgical services are so meaningful to me, I often get some variation of the following statement: “Well, at least someone isn’t just going through the motions.”

And that seems to pretty much sum up what most non-liturgical church-going folk (except for a handful of intellectuals, artists, and Millennials) believe about liturgy and the people who attend liturgical churches. The sentiment essentially implies that people in liturgical churches are spiritual automatons who have never opened their Bible, whose faith is dead or non-existent. This is simply not true of the people I know, and it’s an attitude and assumption that seems to derive in part from a romanticized view of reality–that worship (ie. prayer) has to be spontaneous to be genuine. Again, this is simply not true.

Of course there are people in liturgical churches of whom such a description would be accurate. But is that really different from those who sit in non-liturgical churches every Sunday who have never opened their Bibles? Who tune out the sermon with hard hearts? Who don’t know Jesus? They too are merely going through the motions. The motions are just different.

 

Let’s pause to look again at the definition of liturgy.

lit·ur·gy

1. a form of public worship; ritual.
2. a collection of formularies [namely, the BCP] for public worship.
3. a particular arrangement of services.
4. a particular form or type of the Eucharistic [Communion] service.

Consider how all four definitions, especially one and three, are broad enough to define all churches. All churches have a largely regular order of service and a particular way of practicing the rite (or ritual) of Communion. In a typical Southern Baptist church, for example, congregants participate in Communion once a quarter and the order of service, or liturgy, might look something like this:

  • Introductory Song
  • Call to Worship
  • 3 additional Worship Songs (2 contemporary, 1 hymn)
  • Prayer
  • Sermon
  • Offertory
  • Alter Call
  • Announcements
  • Dismissal Song
The church calendar might revolve around Fall Festivals, Christmas choir practices, VBS, and monthly potluck dinners rather than Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Pentecost. The difference, then, seems to be between an informal liturgy—where church members are generally less intentional about, or even aware of, the patterns of their public worship—and a formal one, where such patterns are highlighted.

 

I come from a non-liturgical background, so I understand where the fear of words like ritual and liturgy comes from. Most folks who express such fears either grew up in Catholic experiences with an orthopraxis (theological understanding and everyday practice) that connects certain rites to salvation (#NotAllCatholics), or, more often, they grew up in Protestant denominations that provided them little to no exposure to any formal liturgy. The latter fear liturgy because they have only heard about the dangers of liturgy and have no other context for thinking about it.

We all have liturgical rhythms and patterns and habits that form the function of our spiritual lives. And we need them! The world has patterns, or liturgies, that direct our hearts toward worship too, but not worship of the One True God. If we do not actively participate in patterns (liturgies) counter to those of this world, we will fall into worldly patterns. This is a big part of why being intentional about liturgy is helpful to me.

Here’s why I like a formal liturgy.

  1. I need institutions that “make me” do stuff that’s good for me that I’d rather be lazy about and not do.

    There are some people who are super disciplined and self-motivated. That’s not me. I come across that way because I am highly motivated by achievement, but the truth is I’ve always been a part of programs or groups that provide structure, encouragement, and exhortation.

    What sports teams and writing groups and academic coursework do for my exercising, writing, and reading, liturgy does for my spirit and my relationship with God.

    The church helps me be more intentional about preparing myself to meet with Jesus. Often on a Sunday morning several people can be found kneeling in prayer before the service as a way of preparing the heart and focusing the mind. I’ve started doing this, and I’ve noticed a difference.

  1. Liturgy is holistic: heart, mind, body.

    The position of our bodies often shapes the condition of our minds and hearts. Each Sunday my knees bend to bear the weight of my body upon the worn, padded kneeler. Kneeling in the pew week to week, my heart is readier to kneel, to submit, and the dull ache in my knees is a gentle reminder that the Christian life is to be a sacrificial life.

    “High” churches also typically have an appreciation for “high” art, which is essential to Christianity and the Gospel. Art speaks not only to the “public part of us that considers interesting thoughts about the Gospel and how to preach it,” as one of my favorite writers puts it; but to “the private, inner part too, to the part of us all where our dreams come from, both our good dreams and our bad dreams, the inner part where thoughts mean less than images, elucidation less than evocation, where our concern is less with how the Gospel is to be preached than with what the Gospel is and what it is to us” (Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth).

    Christ Church Plano
    Christmas Candlelight Service
     

    Where I worship Sunday mornings (pictured above), the architecture is designed to point us to the cross. The sanctuary is built in the shape of the cross, at the center of which is a beautiful cross with different colored stained glass in its circular center (different colors for and during different seasons of the Church calendar). I cannot tell you how many times I am compelled to physically look to the cross during the service, to dwell on the cross, to take comfort there. I cannot tell you how many times my eyes blur with tears of joyous relief and gratitude.

    The choir is remarkably talented and their voices come, literally, behind ours, lifting and supporting the heart song of the congregation throughout the beautiful sanctuary built with acoustics in mind. On the anniversary of 9.11, the choir sang a requiem in Latin that spoke to my soul about that tragedy more than anything else that day (even though I don’t know any Latin).

    These are just a few examples of how my whole self is ministered to during a service. Another is…

  2. Communion every week.The Eucharist is a physical reminder of who I am. I belong to Christ. I am a member of his Church (I am not alone) and we are his hands and feet to the world (I am not without purpose). The more I can be reminded of these truths the better.

    The weekly recitation of the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer serve as similar reminders of who I am (via what I say I believe) and to Whom I belong. My weeks are often more focused when they begin with “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done.”

 
There’s more that I find spiritually enriching about liturgy, but those are my top three. I’m not an expert on liturgy; this is just my story. But I hope it’s a story that can add to what I see as the limited conversation and misconceptions among many about formal liturgy.
11 Comments

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *