BY JOEL LIAN
In the first of a two-part series on worship, we explore the concept of liturgy and its expressions.
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’)”.
Form and Function
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 drew more heavily from 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. Coined in the fifth century, the phrase means “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith” – 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”.
Regardless of the liturgy that is used, it is worth remembering the meaning of worship. “Worship,” writes N.T. Wright, “means, literally, acknowledging the worth of something or someone. It means recognising, and saying, that something or someone is worthy of praise. It means praising someone or something so far superior to oneself that all one can do is to recognise their worth and celebrate it.”
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.
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