The word itself
The word ‘liturgy’ denotes a pattern of worship used in church, usually in a prescribed form. The root meaning of the word comes from the ‘work’ or ‘service’ of the people of God. This is illustrated by the translation of Romans 12:1 in different versions of the Bible. In some, we offer God our ‘spiritual worship’, while others translate the same words ‘reasonable service’. A church poster to be read by people leaving church puts it like this: ‘The worship is over; the service begins’, but it could just as easily say, ‘The service is over; the worship begins.’ The Bible declares that worship or service are to be all of a piece with the whole of our lives, if we are not to become hypocritical. Those who worship God are called to live holy, just and compassionate lives.
Liturgy in life
As liturgy has to do with the whole of life, then what we do in church is akin to what we do elsewhere: we order and structure our lives, not to restrict, but to enable ourselves to live to the full. We cultivate certain habits: we get up at a certain time of the day, go through our morning routine, eat our meals in a certain order, travel on the same routes, and develop a pattern which enables us to get everything done, and to give priority to the things and relationships which are of most importance to us. We don’t constantly reinvent our ritual acts of meeting and departing: they come to us as naturally as the air we breathe. Liturgy is like that as well.
A pattern of worship
Liturgy gives shape to our worship. The Acts of the Apostles reminds us that the early Christians followed a pattern of worship. It is expressed most succinctly in Acts 2:42 as ‘the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ (Note that it is not just ‘prayers’ but ‘the prayers’, suggesting a pattern of prayers, as was the case in the synagogue). This is what the followers of Christ ‘devoted themselves’ to when they gathered for worship, initially in their homes. The shape of their liturgies was set for them by what God was calling them to be and do. This pattern is both scriptural and sacramental, allowing for both formality and informality.
Liturgy: written and unwritten
The Church of Ireland expresses its liturgical tradition in The Book of Common Prayer (BCP). In the first BCP of 1549 Cranmer drew on previous riches of liturgical worship going back to the earliest church. The book itself has developed over the course of time with particular revisions: in 1662, when Anglican worship was restored after Cromwell; in 1878, after the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland; in 1926, taking account of new political and social realities; and most recently in 2004, after a long period of liturgical renewal.
While the invention of the printing press eventually allowed wide access to the book, liturgical worship can continue to exist perfectly well where people learn or memorise responses, creeds and prayers and use them in a meaningful framework. It can also exist in the days of PowerPoint and YouTube clips, without losing either its power or rationale. Churches which may consider themselves ‘non–liturgical’ often have patterns of worship which are every bit as structured as those with written liturgies.
For many years, there was a sense that Christians had to opt for worship that was either formal or informal. But it is now quite usual to have a place for the spontaneous in the midst of a set structure. Indeed the structure offers the security which makes space for such freedom.
Liturgy involves participation
Doing things together: sitting, standing, kneeling, coming forward for communion, enhances our corporate sense of worship. Liturgy, through giving us shared things to say and do, also prevents worship from simply being the preserve of the leader.
Liturgy ensures that the whole Christian faith is proclaimed
Following the appointed scripture readings, we celebrate the liturgical year together, observing its times of lamentation and rejoicing. These patterns of worship ensure that we do not omit any of the key elements of Christian spirituality.
Liturgy teaches the faith
What we do and say in worship forms us as disciples and informs what we come to believe about God. Liturgy helps us to attend carefully to our words and actions in worship.
Liturgy passes on the tradition of faith
Each generation comes to worship shaped by what it has inherited: church buildings, prayers, liturgical actions, hymns and songs, teachings and creeds. Liturgy enables us to benefit from our past heritage while allowing for appropriate revision.
Liturgy offers us words and actions when we struggle to find our own
Liturgy can speak powerfully into the ‘wordless’ moments of our lives, by giving us a means of expression through the wise and beautiful words of others. It provides for times of tragedy and sadness and also for times of great joy and blessing.
Liturgy engages head and heart
Liturgical worship can express the deepest longings of our hearts. The Preface to The Book of Common Prayer 2004 gets it right when it says:
‘….we must remind ourselves that words, however memorable, beautiful or useful, are never to be confused with worship itself. The words set out on these pages are but the beginning of worship. They need to be appropriated with care and devotion by the People of God so that, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, men and women may bring glory to the Father and grow in the knowledge and likeness of Jesus Christ.’
Our liturgical response is: ‘Amen!’
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