Some Basics of
Liturgical Theology, Part II
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Addleshaw, The High Church Tradition.
Robert M. Price