BY JOEL LIAN
In the second of our two-part series on worship, we look at patterns of behaviour in regard to liturgy.
Every church follows a certain liturgy that 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. As encapsulated in the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi, how you worship shapes 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?
As Christians, it is our duty and our joy to worship God. Everything else that we do flows from and revolves around this fact. So as we gather in church week after week, pay attention to how the words and actions of our worship proclaim God’s story and celebrate His worth. 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. Come expecting to be drawn again into God’s story, and in so doing, be formed a little bit more into the likeness of the One we worship.
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