The task of the assembly is a task of polarity: make the center strong, the symbols large, the words of Christ clear, and make that center accessible, the circle large, the periphery permeable.
Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things (132)
I am unabashedly smells & bells: I love Gothic cathedrals (and all churches that look like churches), incense, candles, stained glass, beautiful icons, exquisitely rendered crosses, well-chiseled prayers, and sites which reek of holiness. Give me a vestment or church supply catalog, and I’m in hog heaven. I’m a nerd–so I like history, oldness. “You are here to kneel/Where prayer has been valid” writes T S Eliot in his Four Quartets, as if to directly address me.
And I love liturgy. I grew up in a United Methodist congregation that didn’t do a lot of formal, out-of-the-hymnal prayers…but when they did, it was done well. I could recite most of The Great Thanksgiving by the time I graduated from high school, including the puzzling formulation, “delivered us from slavery to sin and death” (why would Jesus deliver us from slavery to sin and death? Didn’t seem like much of an upgrade)–the weakest point in an otherwise exceedingly well-written Eucharistic prayer. Four collegiate years’ worth of Sundays were spent at St Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston, which featured a nearly-Anglican service at “Houston’s Cathedral” and a choir which would sub in for Westminster Abbey’s when they went on summer vacation.
My father, a lifelong Methodist, taught me the importance of literature, history, philosophy, science–engaging the world with a sharp and practiced intellect. My mother did as well, all the while strongly resisting joining our Methodist congregation, in part due to her love of old-school Baptist practice and theology; it was from her teaching and example (Susanna Wesley-like) that I learned so much about what it meant to embrace the call to follow Jesus with your whole life. Liturgy — whether in childhood or at St Paul’s or even singing early in the morning alongside the monks of St John’s Abbey one summer — wasn’t opposed to this dynamic, passionate, wholehearted pursuit of the Jesus-life; it complemented, advanced, and deepened it.
So I continue to be amazed at the resistance and opposition to basic liturgical practices in the church. I’m less surprised to find it among my college students…but am equally curious as to why they would embrace so many new, adventurous, challenging things in their lives and fail to give the same consideration to what might be truly transformational.
Gordon Lathrop’s seminal Holy Things calls us to consider what a difference might be made in the life of all these communities of Jesus followers if we were to give a strong and open liturgy a real try. In an attempt at in-house apologetics, please consider the following ways in which we might broaden and deepen faith individually & communally.
First of all, the kind of liturgy of which I speak is intentional. It puts the worship of the holy & blessed Trinity at the center. You cannot help but notice it in the apostolic blessing that begins the service of worship or in the structure of the prayers. This is not a rock concert, academic lecture, sales pitch, or town hall meeting. It is explicitly, attentively, determinedly a gathering in the name and presence of Jesus Christ to worship Almighty God and be made into a new creation by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is also intentionally Biblical. It centers around that Word which exists before each of us and calls us before we even have ears to hear. The liturgies that have stood the test of time are ones in which nearly every word is lifted from some part of the Old or New Testament. This ought to be an embarrassment to any church that calls itself Biblical, that even speaks a lot about the Bible, but doesn’t actually get people to speak anything from Scripture, nor shape their emotive-intellectual-spiritual lives through the Word. And it is not just one sentence or line or verse is read when it comes time to hear the Word explicitly. No, multiple readings are the norm, from all parts of the Bible…on their own merits, not just as a pretext for the sermon. I don’t want to belabor the point, but this intentionality is at odds with the haphazard and reflexive nature of Christian belief and discipleship today.
A rich & vibrant liturgical practice, despite re-tracing patterns, is neither ecclesial brainwashing nor repetitious boredom. It is an invitation to engage the Gospel message with our whole selves. Pattern disavows rigidity and lockstep enslavement to a particular rule or structure. But it also avoids the illusion of spontenaity (which so often degenerates into inane ) which plagues so much of our worship. More than this, a robust and timeless liturgical pattern avoids becoming stale because it is rich enough to engage us at different times of life. We are different each time we present ourselves to the liturgy, and can therefore find new meaning in old words and sign-acts.
My wife has invited her congregation to begin using the Prayers of the People (as found in the Book of Common Prayer [PDF link], for instance) instead of the usual Methodist practice of the Pastoral Prayer. So my 4 1/2 year old son Ben has begun hearing that pattern of prayer when he worships from Sunday to Sunday with them. He’s quite adept at sensing when prayers are needed in the outside world, so when we were stopped on the freeway by an accident on the way to school a few mornings ago, he led us in prayer as the ambulances and wreckers whizzed by on the shoulder. At one point he said, “We pray for those who are hurt, sick, or in any kind of trouble…” which of course is verbatim what he hears on Sundays at Christie’s church. He not only had solid words to pray, but he also knew when it was appropriate to use them…and he meant them with all his heart.
The paradox which Lathrop invokes seems to me that the stronger we make our prayers, the higher we raise up clear symbols, then the more open we can make our assemblies, both for outsiders to enter in and for us to carry out into the world.
I’ll continue these reflections shortly, but would like to hear what you think so far. How can we best convey the Biblical character of God in worship? Is there such thing as “unpatterned” worship, and–even if it exists–is it possessed of greater virtue than a patterned liturgy? And come back to Liturgical Nerds for more thoughts on liturgy, especially how it might relate to the evangelical, catholic, formative, and participatory character of church.