What is this thing called the "liturgy"?




BY JOEL LIAN

What is this thing called the liturgy? Is it the set of prayers we say when we celebrate Holy Communion or Baptism? Is it the order of service? Is it ritualism, as opposed to dynamic, Spirit-led worship? What is the difference between a “liturgical service”, as some churches term it, and a “contemporary service”? Can there be, in fact, non-liturgical worship?

These questions would require a multi-book response to do them any justice, and I will not profess to be anywhere near qualified enough to do so. But every Christian is called, in their own degree and fashion, to be a student of theology, and so I offer my reflections on these questions as one layperson to another, in the hope of shedding a bit of light.

Liturgy as the corporate worship of the church

To begin with, the word liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which means “work for the people” or “public service”. In ancient Athens, a leitourgia was a public office or service performed by a wealthy citizen to benefit the republic. The word is also used several times in the New Testament to refer to a public service (like in the original Greek sense) or the ministry of a priest. For example, in 2 Cor 9:12, Paul praises the generosity of the Corinthian church and writes, “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God”. In Heb 8:6, Jesus himself is described as performing a leitourgia – “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises”.

The word liturgy therefore carries with it two emphases: firstly, it is about service; secondly, the nature of the service is public. Quite naturally, this word came to be applied to the worship of the church. I do not mean the worship of individual Christians by themselves; those are private devotions, which cannot be properly described as liturgical though they may use liturgical forms. Rather, I am referring to the corporate worship of the church when the people of God gather. For whenever the people of God gather in worship, two things happen: firstly, the church serves God by offering Him the worship He alone is due, and secondly, a public service is performed. The second sense happens regardless of whether the church is underground or publicly tolerated; in any true Christian worship, the church prays not only for herself, but more importantly, for the life of the world as well.

In the broadest sense of the word, then, the liturgy simply refers to the corporate worship of the church – what Christians do when they gather to worship – the sequence of events, the words to be said, the actions to be done, the roles to be fulfilled. Simon Chan writes, “The liturgy may be described as embodied worship. It is worship expressed through a visible order or structure (thus the phrase ‘order of service’)”.

Patterns and Rhythms

From this perspective, every church follows a certain liturgy. Liturgies can range from highly elaborate, tightly scripted and structured affairs (think of an Anglican ordination service), to looser frameworks with greater room for improvisation. COR’s own services fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. As an Anglican parish, we use the liturgies prescribed in the Diocesan Service Book, most notably whenever we celebrate Holy Communion or Baptism. During such services, there is a greater use of written prayers, and we see the clergy and lay readers wear the prescribed vestments. At the same time, our liturgies typically allow for significant amounts of improvisation, particularly during non-Holy Communion services (also known as Services of the Word). The clergy and chairpersons improvise their own prayers at certain points in the service. Even so, all of our services follow a regular structure.

The common factor underlying all liturgies is that they are patterns of behaviour. From the most traditional church to the most contemporary, no congregation can possibly gather week after week and come up with worship on the fly. A pattern begins to form, regularity sets in. That regularity is part and parcel of worship.

This should be no surprise to us, for humans are creatures of habit, created to live in a world that is shaped by rhythms and patterns. Think of how your own life, behaviour and frame of mind are shaped by the passage of time across a day or a week. For many, the morning signals a flurry of activity, often repetitive, to get ready for work. As the evening draws near, the pace of life starts to slow down.

The power of patterns to shape how we live and what we believe is one of the reasons why the church has always paid much attention to the how of corporate worship. If liturgies are patterns of behaviour, then they will inevitably shape the life of the worshipping community. The normative role of worship is perhaps best encapsulated in the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi. Coined in the fifth century, the phrase means “the rule of praying is the rule of faith”. In other words, how you worship affects what you believe.

The reverse is no doubt true. What we believe will also shape how we worship. These two elements – practice and doctrine – will always exist in a relationship where they reinforce and shape one another.

If all this is correct, then several questions arise when we examine various liturgies. What beliefs do these patterns of behaviour embody? How do we evaluate them? Is Christian worship simply a matter of individual preference?


Telling God's Story

A good way to approach these questions is to think about corporate worship as the telling of God’s story – specifically the story of God’s work through Jesus – and our response to that story. Robert Webber argues that “In worship we recall the Christ event that accomplished our redemption, and we offer our praise and adoration to the Father through the accomplished work of the Son. Thus, the character of Christian worship is informed and shaped by the retelling of the Christ event”.

What this means is that whenever we gather for corporate worship, we ought to be retelling and proclaiming the story of God in Christ, and then responding to that story. This basic two-part pattern of worship is the backbone of any liturgy worth its salt. Simon Chan writes that “True worship is always the church’s response to God’s initiative of revealing who he is”.

We can observe this pattern throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, Israelite worship was basically centred around recalling God’s mighty acts of salvation (both in the past and in the present), and facilitating the people’s response to God’s acts. The feast of the Passover, for example, was deliberately designed to remind the worshipper of the Exodus, while the sacrifices of the Tabernacle and the Temple were ways by which the people expressed their thanksgiving to God and renewed their commitment to Him.

When we move to the New Testament, and look at the records of the early church that have survived, a similar pattern emerges. There, obviously, the recounting of God’s acts of salvation are focused on the work of Christ, as well as on reinterpreting the stories of the Old Testament through the lens of Christ. The early church quickly developed a two-part structure to its liturgy based on Word and Sacrament. In the first part, the scriptures and the writings of the apostles (soon to be given the status of scripture themselves) were read and reflected on. Then in the second part, the church offered its thanksgiving through the great eucharistic prayer (thanksgiving prayer), recalled the work of Christ, and participated in the new creation through the Holy Communion.

Beyond the weekly services, the church also took the secular calendar and recast it in the image of Christ. The church calendar is simply a way of saying that in Jesus, all things are made new. “Christ is the cosmic centre of all history,” writes Webber, “Everything before Christ finds its fulfilment in him. Everything after Christ finds its meaning by pointing back to him”. And so it is only fitting that the church, the Body of Christ, now lives in time through the story of Jesus: His incarnation, public ministry, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension and gift of the Spirit. The traditional prayer that is said when the Easter Candle is prepared expresses this view beautifully: Christ yesterday and today,

the beginning and the end,

Alpha and Omega,

all time belongs to him,

and all ages;

to him be glory and power,

through every age and for ever. Amen. The biblical theology of worship recognises that Christian worship is grounded in the story of God. “Worship of God as redeemer, the lover and rescuer of the world,” according to N.T. Wright, “must always accompany and complete the worship of God as creator. This means, of course, telling the story of the rescue operation as well as of creation. Indeed it means telling the story of salvation precisely as the story of the rescue and renewal of creation.”

The telling of God’s story in Christ – this is the objective of any liturgy, be it traditional or contemporary. Many contemporary Protestants have become so used to only one mode of storytelling – the sermon – that worship has become segmented, reduced only to the portion of the service where there is singing going on. The time is ripe for a return to the biblical roots of worship and to ask two basic questions of our liturgies: are they proclaiming the story of God in Christ, and are they facilitating the people’s response to God?


How Did We Get Here?

Many contemporary Protestants think of the liturgy as a particular style of worship, one characterised by heavy ritualism and rigid adherence to tradition. This is no surprise when we consider what Protestant churches broke away from. The Reformation was a rethinking of fundamental Christian doctrines that, by the late Middle Ages, had become misunderstood or corrupted by false teaching. These wayward beliefs were expressed most visibly through the liturgy of the church – people paid priests to perform masses on their behalf; there was poor understanding of what went on in worship since the liturgy was conducted in a foreign tongue, Latin; the church calendar had become so heavy with days dedicated to saints that the focus on Christ became lost.

And so the Latin Mass became a symbol of what was wrong with the Catholic Church. The Reformers duly reformed the liturgies they inherited, to varying degrees. In the Anglican Church, the language of worship was changed to the language of the people, and the text of the liturgy itself was amended so that it hewed more closely to scripture.

More recently, the charismatic movement within most denominations has emphasized individual and corporate freedom in worship, spontaneity, joyful expression and the use of contemporary music styles. The great popularity of contemporary styles of worship can partly be explained as a reaction to a lack of understanding of traditional worship. People felt that they were going through the motions; they had to cross themselves in this manner, or kneel at that point, or bow at that word, just because. When the understanding of how a form comes to be is lost, then the form becomes an empty shell. It comes to be viewed as a shackle on true worship, or worse, as the rituals by which a person might please God.

There is much to be said in favour of a contemporary liturgy. Its use of popular styles of music and speech make it easier for worshippers and newcomers to engage with. Its looser structures allow greater room for joyous expression. Yet there are two things to bear in mind.

Firstly, corporate worship is not just about the individual worshipper coming to express his or her thanksgiving to God. Corporate worship is also about the worshipper being formed into a better Christian. Remember the old principle of lex orandi, lex credendi – how we worship affects what we believe. If a liturgy is simply modelling and communicating the values of the secular culture instead of proclaiming God’s story, then it is worth asking what is the point of it.

Secondly, the danger of ritualism is not unique to traditional liturgies. Contemporary styles of worship can easily fall prey to it as well. I offer, as an example, a personal anecdote. I was once asked by a fellow churchgoer why I made the sign of the cross during the benediction. In response, I asked her why she raised her arms whenever she sang. To cite N.T. Wright again, “Anything that needs to be done during worship can become a ritual performed for its own sake. Likewise, anything that needs to be done during worship can be done as an act of pure gratitude, a glad response to free grace”.


Holy Week

This week, we enter Holy Week once again. The existence of this very week is an excellent example of worship as telling the story of God. In Holy Week, the church is called to live through the events that led to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in so doing, come to be formed a little more into His likeness.

I invite you to pay attention to the words and actions we will experience this week through the services of the church. Some of them are ancient; prayers that Christians through the ages have felt best expressed what needs to be said. Some will be new; fresh expressions of thanksgiving in response to a God who speaks to every generation. As we gather again at the foot of the cross, and stand in awe before the empty tomb, may we enter into the story of Jesus Christ and find there a beauty that is ever ancient, ever new.

Joel has worshipped in COR all his life. Although he grew up in a charismatic and contemporary worship culture, he found himself drawn to traditional forms during his university days. He has come to accept COR’s hodgepodge liturgical style as another example of the Anglican via media. References:

Chan, Simon. Liturgical Theology. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Webber, Robert E. Worship Old and New. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.

Wright, N.T. Simply Christian. London: SPCK, 2006


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