Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Defense of Liturgie...*

Stuart at Dog collars and Rabbit Corpses is training for ministry in the United Reformed Church, but has recently survived the experience of an Anglican Baptism service, and is decidedly sceptical about the benefits of a formal liturgy. I'm not certain whether it was the weight of the ritual, or the whole business of a text laid down in advance that perturbed him, but he was left wondering how I coped with it at all.
I, on the other hand, feel passionately that liturgy is a Good Thing…without which my particular Christian community would be likely to go off the rails.
Well, for one thing liturgy provides a body of known prayers (even in these days of multiple- choice worship). I’ve been increasingly aware of the value of this when praying with the very sick…to use a collect they’ve heard every Sunday of their life is hugely helpful when they are beginning to drift away from us (though I’d always use something specific and personal to their situation too). There are so many times in life when feelings are too big for coherent prayer to emerge…but a reservoir of long established words to draw on makes things better as does the sense that others have been here before, in just this kind of pain or fear or joy.
A shared body of texts is also helpful in creating a sense of a community, with its own specific identity . This is specially important for the Anglican church, which expresses so much of its beliefs through its worship, rather than through a series of doctrinal statements. If you want to know what an Anglican believes, looking at the text of Common Worship might well be the best starting point.

Liturgy also creates a balanced diet in which contrition and absolution, as well as praise, thanksgiving and intercession are guaranteed a place, and prevents any church leader from imposing his/her own theological preferences upon the congregation. I wouldn’t trust myself to find the right prayers, the right structure week after week. I love creativity in worship, but I value having boundaries which ensure that the essentials have been taken care of too.

The sense of being part of a community so much greater than those who are present is also very strong. I’m still bowled over when I think of my first Eucharist, and the reality of those words
“Therefore with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven….”, which really bought it home to me that I was saying those words of praise with everyone whom I’ve loved who is now with God. Awesome, truly.

This, I suppose, is just another example of the role of liturgy as a sacramental sign, that accomplishes what it describes. Repeatedly I'm amazed by this...the way that the funeral service, for example, takes us through from raw grief via thanksgiving to a measure of trust and resolution...and does so, if the comments afterwards are any sort of gauge, even when the family have little or no faith to hang on to...or the way by the time we reach the Peace during a Sunday Eucharist we've been transformed into the Body of Christ in that longer an assortment of individuals with their own agendas and burdens but a community with one focus, the celebration of the Eucharist.
For me, the structure of the liturgy is crucial in achieving this.

Of course there can be difficulty in adapting our formal structure to the needs of an un-churched baptism family. I’m not sure, in those cases where the whole experience is utterly alien, whether the absence of a prescribed liturgy would make things any better though…might it not be tempting to present “Baptism lite” and so miss out on the huge teaching opportunities that the service present? . I really enjoy talking through the service with families who approach us, and have found some good questions and discussions emerge as a result, but I certainly can’t see there’s any value in subjecting people to sung responses and complex directions, though…I (on the experience of one baptism conducted personally…) do an awful lot of commentary on the hoof…“we are going to make the sign of the cross on X’s forehead…This reflects our understanding that…” “please join in the words in heavy type…”

So perhaps the message in terms of Baptism is to go against the received wisdom that it is always better to baptise within the main Sunday Eucharist. It’s good to have a body of welcoming believers…It’s good to have people who are used to the way things are done…but the layers of formality which have all but petrified the worship here would not be helpful to anyone beginning their voyage of discovery.
OK, Stuart…maybe you've got a point…. Now, how to integrate the baptismal liturgy into our informal family worship…?

[*In the sixteenth century, Samuel Daniel wrote a "Defense of Rhyme..." and Philip Sidney "An Apologie for Poetrie": every now and then my English Lit roots show
:-) ]


stuart said...

Gosh, where do I start? I think first of all I would like to go back to one of my statements at the start of the blog I posted, 'it wouldn't do for us all to be the same'. I think a certain amount of personal preference comes into play with anything.

You may be surprised to hear me say that in many ways I find it hard to disagree with what you have said and can indeed see the points you make. However it would be no fun at all if I didn’t look at a couple of the points you make and then throw in an extra discussion subject that came out of my original blog. I hope in countering your arguments I do not simply raise the opposite points but feel I need to make some kind of reply.

I too have been beside the sick and dying and those who need the support of prayers. These people all though not exclusively have more often or not come from a Christian background that has not included fixed liturgy. It is important here to note the word fixed. To suggest that denominations such as the U.R.C use no liturgy is wrong it is only that it is not fixed nor prescribed. I am reminded of the words printed in the front of our own service book ‘The orders found here are not prescribed. It is not expected that they will be used in our churches to the exclusion of others.’

However as I was saying when I am in the same situations you find yourself in I have no words to draw upon and neither does the person I am with. I am not saying this is better or worse but just different.

I agree totally with your comments on funeral liturgy and would also use liturgy in the way you described. Once again I wish to make the point that it is not liturgy I am against but just the prescriptive way in which it is often applied.

However I do take issue with your point that ‘it prevents any church leader from imposing his/her own theological preferences upon the congregation.’ In my first year of training my full time placement was in an Anglican Church. This was an evangelical Anglican Church where the evangelical nature of that leadership came through very clearly in the service. The reason being is that the liturgy forms only a small part of the overall act of worship. What is placed within the liturgy in the way of sermon / homily, hymns and prayers give plenty of space for theological preference to be played out.

My real beef with liturgy is when its prescriptive nature prevents understanding and meaning being taken by those for whom it is intended. I think this was the real point I was trying to make about the Baptism. So I leave you with some more words from the U.R.C book of worship (liturgy).

‘What has changed at the beginning of the 21st century is the context in which public worship is offered. We now find ourselves in a missionary setting where the church can no longer take for granted that most people understand the religious language and imagery of past generations. Language is changing and the language of worship has to take account of this. Our words may be beautiful and doctrinally sound, but if they are not ‘something understood’, they do not aid our worship.’

As for the other point in my previous blog I think I will re blog it so to speak!

Daniel said...

Wow, this is a topic I have been musing over so, so much recently... I started to discover Anglo-Catholic liturgy a few years back, and have been falling more in love with it each and every day since. However, much of it is arcane and needs a guide to help understand it all... In fact I remember trying to hunt in vain for a guide to the meaning of the liturgy a few years ago - but alas, all in vain. Now I just pick up little titbits here and there and it makes more and more sense.

My dilemma is that while I find massive depth to the liturgical traditions, as Stuart says its not really very missional...

I'm not sure what the answer is though!

Anna said...

I find that the liturgy prompts me to worship and to think in ways I wouldn't do on my own.

Let's say I'm in a funk one Sunday. My prayers (if I bothered to pray) would be all complaints and petitions, no gratitude at all. Or when I'm happy, it's likely to be all thanksgivings and "God's wonderful and I'm wonderful and isn't life grand?" The confession brings me nicely back to earth.

Liturgy gives me balance and shows me my place as an individual in earthly and heavenly community.

Plus, the words are often so much better than I could come up with. I wish the congregations I've known would take the freeform intercessions in the Prayers of the People more seriously, actually offering petitions and thanksgivings loud enough that everyone can join in. But otherwise, I like having words that have been carefully crafted-- thought and prayed over for quite a while. I've been to "non-liturgical" churches and heard a little too much of "Oh Lord, you are so big...Gosh, we're all really impressed down here I can tell you..."

Kathryn said...

Message for Stuart..
Not sure where is the best place to post this, so think I'll put it both here and in the comments on your blog. I'm worried, reading your comment that you might have thought I was trying to come and you with all guns blazing...Truly NOT the case in any way, and I'm hugely sorry if it read that way.
If, of course,I'm just being neurotic, well, I'm sorry about that too ;-/ but I guess I should be used to it by now...

stuart said...

Kathryn, please do not apologise I have found this really helpful. As I say I spent my first year of training in an Anglican church and had many a conversation with both the vicar and the curate about liturgy. However I fond it hard to vocalise my what it was that troubled me. This has been so helpful in claryfying things to me, so thanks:-)

Sue said...

Great post Kathryn! I am United Church of Canada and I often bristle at our insistence upon re-inventing the liturgical wheel every week. Some weeks I would love to have the BCP to guide the worship.

On the other hand, I do at times like the freedom to incorporate the lections into the prayers so that the service feels even more thematic and cohesive. I suppose the key, as you mentioned, is balance.

In our congregation,we find that balance by using essentially the same order of service weekly, and my task is to write the prayers and bring the service together thematically with prayers, hymn selections, sermon, and (once a month) communion.

Thanks for a wonderful, thought provoking post!

bls said...

The previous rector at my parish would stop during the service, just before the Rite of Baptism - especially when there were a lot of unchurched folks in attendence - and explain what was going to happen. He made a point of saying that the Rite itself contains ancient language, language unfamiliar to many people today, and also that everyone who'd ever been baptized into the Church had been baptized using that language.

I thought the explanation was excellent, and it meant that the Rite could go on as usual, and that the people attending were prepared.

stuart said...

Sorry its me again, the last comment made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I really don't want to cause offence to anyone and echo Kathryns concerns. Let me say again I am not against liturgy or order. Goodness me you should see me order of service for Sunday including where I can and cannot stand. However explaining baptism rite's is great, saying this is the language been used to baptise all before you into the Church of Christ is however wrong. Some of us have and still do belong to different traditions.

Kathryn said...

I guess the "I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" is a Christian universal, though?
If that is all that was meant, it's fine...but then,that's surely not that incomprehensible (give or take the actual word "baptism"). Perhaps this is what was intended...otherwise, with you all the say, Stuart. To say that any particular form of words has been used always is just plain wrong...
btw...I've been invited to visit the local URC for a couple of services in the next few months, as their minister has moved be prepared for frantic appeals for guidance, S :-)

stuart said...

Kathryn you will be fine our liturgy goes like this: Hymn prayer hymn etc......

Lorna said...

Fascinating stuff.

Our local UMC* isn't liturgical. I find there's a gap in my spiritual diet and so from time to time (prob once a month) I nip over to the cathedral to the English lutheran service there.

I love it. Mia the pastor there is thinking of doing a series explaining the parts of the service, if she does I'll prob attend each week. Too bad it's not before my liturgics exam in August.

Many methodist services here are liturgical, but our local church isn't. Go figure :)

bls said...

Stuart, I didn't say "Church of Christ." I said "the Church" - and we were in an Episcopal Church. i.e., the tradition of the Church we were all gathered together in. He may even have said "the Anglican Church." This is how I understood it, at any rate.

He was speaking specifically about the Rite that was going to occur, IOW, and its relevance to our tradition. I'm sure the pastors of your Church doesn't take the Anglican tradition into account when talking about its own rites and rituals, do they?

bls said...

And he wasn't referring to "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," but the stuff about renouncing Satan. This is heavy-duty language for modern people, and it needs some context.

I think he was absolutely right to explain it this way, and I don't think it's necessary to discuss other tradtions, if you're referring to your own.

+dale said...

oh my, the cans of worms . . .
this is a wonderful discussion, and i hardly know where i want to jump in, because it confuses set or prescribed) orders of service with liturgy.

so, i'll leap into the set order of service first. i have never been to any congregation, and i was raised in the southern baptist american south, in which the order of service was not pretty well nailed down. even when i visited with my friends who were members of the "pentecostal" assemblies of god, there was a repetition from sunday to sunday of the moanings of the spirit. annie dillard in her wonderful book holy the firm describes the little low congregation in which she worshipped in which the minister stopped in the middle of his pastoral prayer one sunday and say, "lord, these are the same things we ask of you every week."

so my concern for a fixed order of worship is whether it is an order worthy of presenting to the holy one.

one of my friends who is a methodist minister, introducing what was going to happen at a baptism, at which he presided very sloppily and embarassingly so to me, by the way, greatly diminishing the power of the "liturgy," and specifically leaving out all the references to repentance and ". . . stuff about renouncing satan. heavy duty stuff . . . ," did make the point that the church is the only organization of which we become members which is eternal. it is a conversation--in both the emerging church and benedictine senses--which began long before we were born and which continues long after our souls depart this mortal coil.

in that context, it seems that chesterton's description of tradition as the democracy of the dead (which i would paraphrase as the democracy of the communion of the saints) serves us well. and i really do think we are a bit demeaning of all of these folks we so glibly describe as "post-modern" or something by thinking thatbecause they do not come from a Christian background they cannot understand what we are saying. but it helps if we say it well and profoundly and often. "father god we just . . .," which is one of the most popular phrases in "free church" worship in my neck of the woods, is just weak gruel compared to the rich stew of the prayer book collects.

having ranted on for much too long about orders of worship, let me now get to my real point: liturgy means the work of the people. of the laity. the people of god. the people who were once no people but who are now called to be a royal priesthood. so the real question becomes, what methods allow baptised members of the body of christ do our work in worship?