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A Priestly People

Some Basics of Liturgical Theology, Part II


In the first part of this essay, we considered the reasons for liturgical ritual, a style of worship held dear by Episcopalians but rejected by many of our friends in other churches whose services are less formal. Many considerations, both practical and theological, vindicate our worship, as I believe and sought last time to show. Now 1 wish to explore the communal dimension of our worship; I hope that readers may perhaps for the first time understand just why Episcopal worship has always seemed so right to them and that they may be better able to share our worship with outsiders who might also find it fulfilling if their objections to it might be laid to rest.


Common Prayer

Much of our liturgy can be explained from the basic principle that we as a gathered community of worship are a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9), that is, a group with a collective task, that of offering sacrifice, the sacrifice of praise and eucharist (= thanksgiving).

When times for prayer come up in the order of service, why do we not all just say our own individual prayers, whether silently (as some churches do) or aloud (as others do)? Why instead do we all say (actually, read) the same prayers? For one reason, we are simply following the precedent set by Jesus in the Lord's Prayer. Especially in Luke's account (Luke 11:2) it is unmistakably clear that this prayer is intended not as a mere example but as a liturgical text: "When you pray, say.. . ." So it is to be repeated. Not only that; a group is to repeat it, since the pronouns are all plural: "Give us our daily bread," ­etc.

Second, the point of coming together in a church service is to pray as a group--collectively. If we are only going to pray individual prayers simultaneously, we might as well save ourselves the trip from home.

But aren't repeated prayers the very thing Jesus condemned in Matthew 6: 7 as "vain repetition"? Only if we repeat them vainly, with our mind not on what we are saying, an equal danger in individual prayer, I think.

The collective nature of liturgical prayer is also the explanation for the fact that our priests do not have the liberty to compose their own “pastoral prayer” as pastors in many denominations do. The priest is not supposed to be praying before us as an audience; he or she is leading us in our community prayer. This is why what the priest prays is called the "collect”: since it is written down where we can all read it, this prayer is intended to "collect" all our prayers as we pray it together.

Repeated collective prayers are exactly parallel in intention to the creeds. Presumably we all have our own subsidiary ideas and individual interpretations of Christian faith, but we all join in recitation of the Nicene Creed in order to affirm the shared faith of the community. In praying repeated prayers, we are making common supplication. The rest of the week is for individual concerns before God.


Our solidarity as one community explains not only why all the members of one congregation pray the same prayers; it also accounts for the fact that Episcopal churches use the same Prayerbook and follow the same cycle of scripture readings and collects. Our congregation is part of the Church Universal, and by praying the same words we seek to offer up a common sacrifice of prayer and praise with the whole Church. Of course, with all the denominational divisions in the Christian Body, such unity in worship is never quite attained, but the liturgical near-unity of the worldwide Anglican Communion is a significant sign of witness to that ecumenical oneness we seek.

It should be candidly recognized that the introduction of four different eucharistic prayers in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer might be viewed as a compromise of this principle. In reply, however, it might be suggested that unity in prayer does not require absolute uniformity. At any rate, it is easy to see the strength of both sides of this debate.

I have just raised the difficult issue of liturgical innovation. The principle of common prayer dictates that innovation must be conservative. Change is inevitable if the liturgy is to remain relevant and even intelligible, but the process should seek to conserve as much of the traditional form as possible. Why? Sheer inertia? No, rather it is because we seek to maintain the Church's common prayer throughout time as well as throughout space. We want to offer up prayer in common with past and future brothers and sisters as well as with those far and near us today.

It should be noted that many apparent “innovations" are actually attempts to prune away relatively recent accretions later perceived as illegitimate. The “new” Prayerbook has actually restored various prayers and rubrics previously and ill-advisedly omitted. Similarly with the eucharist; a study of church history certainly indicates that a semi-monthly, monthly, or quarterly celebration of the eucharist is a radical and recent innovation. Moving to a weekly eucharist is a very conservative act.

Speaking of the eucharist, we even do that collectively. We file up to take communion as a redeemed people. It would be a grave error, however, in the name of this understanding to condemn the individual, highly personal devotions of most communicants as they wait to receive the elements. And indeed there is no inconsistency at all. We might use the analogy of actors each studying his or her own lines at home before the play. Each must do individual preparation to hold up his or her end of the group endeavor. Each member of the “holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5) must see to his or her own holiness.


Our Priestly Duty

The task of a priesthood is worship. In other capacities, in other situations, we are to do other things, perform other Christian duties. But in the sanctuary on Sunday morning, the business of the community is worship and nothing else. This notion is rather unpopular, even among some in our own church. Therefore it requires explanation.

First, education is not central in our service. This is precisely why we have Church School before (or in some churches after) the worship service. Education is indispensably important in its own right for many reasons, including that of enhancing worship (the goal of this article!). But the preaching desk or pulpit is not central in our church architecture, while the altar is. The Eucharistic sacrifice is central.

Second, even edification is not central in our service. If it were, the implication would be that the service is performed for our sake. This is the key: the service is for God, not for us. It is a worship service. Many churches hardly worship at all; their meetings, however profitable, are human-centered. We do not want our church to be like that. We do not want to forget Jesus'  “second great commandment” to love one's neighbor as oneself, but neither do we want to forget that it is the second commandment. Why do some insist that the worship service be human-centered as if the whole remainder of the week were not available for service to humanity?

All right, one might protest, why then have a sermon at all? Would it not be more consistent to eliminate it entirely? There is a sermon, usually aimed at urging the congregation to more faithful Christian living because we want to learn the lesson taught so forcefully by Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah: if we are not living righteously throughout the week, our worship in the sanctuary is an abomination to God (see, for instance, Isaiah 1:10-17). So we take time in church to urge repentance and righteousness outside of church, so as to keep our worship in church acceptable to God. Otherwise the necessary task of edifying preaching would indeed be performed outside the church service.

Worship is no substitute for faithful Christian living and serving. The lack of these latter vitiates worship. They are indispensable. But they must not substitute for worship, either. Worship is never a means to an end, whether helping others or ourselves. These happy benefits will certainly accompany true worship, but worship is not a technique to make them come. I hesitate equally to say that our own spiritual growth or our service to others are means of worshipping God, lest I seem to make human beings into mere means to an end. There is time enough to obey both of the great commandments, but church worship services are concerned with the first of them.


For Further Reading:

Evelyn Underhill, Worship.

G. W.O. Addleshaw, The High Church Tradition.


 By Robert M. Price


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