Recently, I’ve been away from my home church, and the options for Protestant churches to attend have been rather limited—in fact, there are only two readily available. The atmospheres of the two churches couldn’t be more different (one featured the hymns of Charles Wesley, the other a born-again Filipino pop star), but they share one characteristic: neither had a liturgy. For a cradle Anglican, like myself, this was rather unsettling. Worship that uses a liturgy is not necessary for salvation; it is not a central tenet of faith; but for me and for many Christians across the world and through the ages, liturgy has been profoundly helpful. My recent experiences drove me to consider why, exactly, that is.
Perhaps first I should explain what I mean by “liturgy”. Generally speaking, the liturgy is the set of prayers that governs the order of worship. These prayers are said every Sunday, and (at least in the Anglican tradition, which is what I am most familiar with) include Scripture readings, the Nicene Creed, communal prayers for the church and the world, the confession of sin, and the communion service. Encompassing these prayers is the cycle of the church year; the collect (the short prayer said at the beginning of the service) is different each Sunday, but the same from year to year.
What I realized while attending the non-liturgical churches was that embedded in the liturgy is a substantial retelling of the Christian narrative. There is the Nicene Creed, of course, which lays out the core, necessary doctrines of the Church. There is something powerful about the congregation standing together and saying with one voice what they believe. But it is the Eucharistic Prayer, in particular, that holds before the eyes of the congregation the great drama of history that is at the core of Christianity. For those of you not familiar with Anglican services, this prayer is said by the priest just before the breaking of the bread. It is a fairly long prayer, and as a young child (or a not-so-young child) it is fairly easy to stop paying attention to—every Sunday there are the same words, the same actions, with no congregational responses to make you pay attention. However, if you can break out of the thoughtlessness of routine and really hear what is being said, you realize that here, in miniature, is the history of the world from Creation to the last days. We are reminded that God created the world through love, and that when we fell into sin He sent His son Christ Jesus to redeem us. We are told that Christ before He died instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist. The congregation together proclaims that He has died, and is risen, and will come again. We ask to be given strength to serve God in preparation for that day.
Without the liturgy, it is hard to lay out the whole sweep of history at once. The churches that I attended, at least, replaced liturgy with music. While I agreed with every word that was spoken in the hymns, they seemed to lack depth—it is the nature of hymns to focus on one aspect of the Christian experience to the exclusion of the others. This is not a bad thing, necessarily, but without an overarching narrative it is far too easy to focus on Christ’s crucifixion and forget the Resurrection, or to focus on the world to come and forget our tasks in this world—or vice versa. The liturgy can provide a framework in which to place songs or sermons focusing on narrower topics, and a reminder that Christianity—that is, the history of the world—is broad and multi-faceted.
That was my experience, at least. However, I firmly believe that there is no one “right” way to worship God. We may disagree about what exactly goes on during Communion, or what kind of music (or dancing? painting? acting?) is most suitable for church, but prayer is prayer, and worship is worship, and using our time and energy and talents to give glory to God glorifies God, no matter the details. Liturgical worship has been particularly helpful to me, and I believe that it can provide important reminders to all Christians, but it isn’t the only way to worship. What is it about your particular tradition that helps you grow in the love and truth of God? What can we learn from each other?