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Theological Publications






Enacted Theology


I think it is safe to say that most people take for granted their church's style of worship, even if they find it satisfying and uplifting. That is, they may not understand why their community has come to worship as it does. Scholars know that certain definite theological choices have determined any church's liturgy, and if the choices have been wisely made, the worship will be effective without explanation. Still I feel it cannot help but benefit everyone to gain a greater understanding of why, in our case, the Episcopal Church worships in its particular way. For satisfied Episcopalians such explanation may only increase our delight in our liturgy, just as a new knowledge of painting technique only increases one's appreciation of a masterpiece one has always loved. But in these days when we feel the need to share with others the excellencies of our Church (i.e., when we do evangelism) it is vital to be able to help outsiders appreciate aspects of our formalistic worship which other Christians have often misunderstood and criticized.


Incarnational Worship

Why do we practice any ritual at all? Why not rather have "free worship" as in, say, Baptist, Quaker, or Pentecostal churches? The difference between such churches' worship and ours is not as great as it might at first seem. For in fact no church escapes a kind of ritual, at least routine. Even in Pentecostal congregations there is usually a set time in the service for prophecy and speaking in tongues (and it is not uncommon to hear the same prophetic utterances over and over again from week to week!). Baptist services are even more regular and routine. So if routine is unavoidable and not particularly undesirable, why not approach it creatively and artistically? And then we are talking about the religious drama of liturgy.

There are other reasons to practice liturgy. All religions have had their rituals and these have often been even more important than their doctrines. Rituals ensure continuity from one generation to the next, much as formalized creeds do, so that the faith can be passed down whole for its new heirs to appreciate and reinterpret for themselves. But one might object, as non­liturgical Christians sometimes do, that surely creeds are sufficient for this purpose. Why should not worship be entirely cerebral, not "distracted" by the artistry of liturgy and ritual? The Puritans, part of the Church of England, felt this way about it. (Anglican J. I. Packer advocates this view in his Knowing God.) Our answer to this is the doctrine of incarnation. We are not disembodied spirits, but are bodies with senses as well. God created us this way, and the Word, too, was unashamed to be made flesh (John 1: 1) . We must praise God with all that we are, and that includes the flesh. In C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, the veteran tempter slyly advises his apprentice Wormwood to exploit the human tendency to ignore the role of the flesh in worship: II. . ., they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget. . . that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.

If we cannot. really ignore the body in worship, why not marshal it as a part of worship? Here is the origin and rationale for practices like kneeling and crossing oneself, to say nothing of washing (baptism) or eating (eucharist), Our physical participation in liturgy is supposed to serve the same purpose as beautiful church architecture, stained glass, and incense: to facilitate our mindfulness of God by employing all the senses.


Worthy to be Praised

But, it still may be asked, why all the pomp and parading? Is all the medieval pageantry really called for? Yes, it is, simply because in worship we are entering the presence of God; the Ultimate Reality, who is august, majestic, and worthy of all praise. Please stop right here, go fetch your Bible and read Revelation, chapter 4, a passage that should inform our attitude to worship. We think nothing of ceremony and pomp in honor of presidents and kings, so why hesitate to show the deity similar honors?

An obvious objection to this argument is to point out the plain fact that we are always in God's presence and that it seems almost hypocritical to behave differently in church. The point is a valid one, but it proves too much: in theory we ought always to magnify God with worship, and perhaps we could if the pressing duties of daily existence gave us leisure to be totally "God-conscious," as Friedrich Schleiermacher put it. Since this is not practicable, ought we not take the trouble to render God the proper adoration at least for a fraction of the week? In church we are not so much entering into God's presence (which like the author of Psalm 139 we cannot escape if we would) as we are entering into a state of mindfulness of God's majestic presence. "0 come let us worship and fall down and kneel before the Lord our Maker. . . let the whole earth stand in awe of him."

All our ceremony implies that we are entering God's courts not only with praise but with awe, the fear of the Lord. And here again our less formalistic Christian friends object that in Christ we are reconciled to God, that Jesus' love should cast out all fear (I John 4: 18). Should we tread softly and tremblingly into the presence of the one whom Jesus taught us to call" Abba, Father"? Aren't we and God supposed to be on relaxed, friendly terms? Yes, truly we are, but we Episcopalians feel we must not take this familiarity for granted by forgetting the distance that has been overcome. Thus our liturgy symbolically reenacts the drama of salvation. At first we stress God's exalted transcendence with all our ceremony and processing. Then as the priest consecrates the bread and wine and we go forward to receive it, we stress the immanence of God in Christ, his overcoming of the distance. "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit" (Isaiah 57: 15) . The liturgy is enacted theology.

One illustration of how theology shapes liturgy is the often-debated question of a free-standing altar. It may be worth a moment to explain this. As I understand the issue, it is this: do we wish to symbolically portray the priest as leading the congregation to meet God? I n this case he or she and they all alike face the altar. Or do we wish to emphasize that once the elements are consecrated Christ is among us? I n that case the altar with the bread and wine is between the priest and the congregation, and both face it (and thus face each other) around a free-standing altar. The first arrangement stresses God's transcendence, the second God's immanence. This issue is particularly difficult to resolve to anyone's satisfaction since both symbolic arrangements are valid and legitimate. Both seek to reenact key moments of the dialectic of God afar off yet brought near in Christ.

We can picture our anti-formalist friend saying that we do indeed need to worship with actions as well as words, to heed Paul's command, "Glorify God in your body" (I Corinthians 6: 20) . But is not the best way to do this simply righteous behavior seven days a week? Is not that the "living sacrifice" God desires, our" reasonable service of worship" (Romans 12: 1 )? Again, we would have to agree but then say more. Moral living is our required service, but that is required of us as individuals. Church liturgy, by contrast, is our special worship as community. We will look at the communal dimension of Episcopalian worship next time.



 By Robert M. Price


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