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.
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.
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
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.