Monday, May 10, 2010

Liturgy and Worship: A Distinction With a Difference

I have from time to time offered the opinion that when Episcopalians and other Anglicans—and Christians in general, for that matter—are finished wrangling over sex, we will resume fighting over the mode and manner of our public worship, a conflict in which, taking a historical view, we have considerably more experience. But there will be a new twist this time. Instead of the Brain-Dead Anglo-Catholics in one corner, and the Snake-Belly Low Evangelicals in the other, it will be organs, hymnals, and choir cottas in one transept glaring across the nave at guitars, microphones, and Power Point projectors in the other.

I’m not in any way suggesting that the sexuality war is over. Sadly, there’s a lot of unexploded ordnance remaining on both sides of the divide there. But we are, I’m sensing, in a bit of a lull—the eye of the storm, perhaps, but a lull nonetheless. There will no doubt be “developments” in the wake of next Saturday’s consecration in Los Angeles, and the operational tempo may pick up. But, for whatever it may be worth, I’ve noticed, over the last few weeks, some ardent conversations being had in Anglican cyberspace on the subject of public worship—from the language and texts we use to speak of God, to the songs we sing when we gather, to the physical mechanics by which we access those texts and those songs. The subject never lies very far beneath the surface.

I’ve got a whole bunch of ideas knocking around my head en route to becoming wise and insightful and erudite observations. But they’re mostly still gelling, not yet ready for prime time. So in this post I’m going to confine myself to a small bit of rhetorical prep work—you know, the tedious process of sanding and putting down masking tape before indulging in the rush that comes from cracking the seal on a can of paint.

The canons of the Episcopal Church state that it is the duty of every member of the church to participate, “unless for good cause prevented,” in public worship on the Lord’s Day. “Worship” is a broad category. It is a genre of human activity that is not even uniquely Christian; Jews and Muslims, at least, have a notion of God and a notion of worship that is sufficiently parallel to what Christians mean by “God” and “worship” that a disinterested observer could be forgiven for concluding that assemblies of Christians and assemblies of Jews and assemblies of Muslims are essentially doing the same thing, just in different ways. I have very little training in either anthropology or sociology, but I feel pretty safe in suggesting that human beings demonstrably have an innate urge to worship. Many have achieved great success in resisting this urge, but the urge is nonetheless there.

The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer (1979), which carry the weight of canon law, go even a bit further than the canon cited above (“On the Due Observance of Sundays”). They specify that the Holy Eucharist in particular is “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day.” Now, while it may be possible to speak of the Eucharist in abstract terms if our goal is to address the fine points of sacramental theology, sooner of later any consideration of the Eucharist must come to terms with the particular forms by which a particular community in a particular place actually accomplishes the act. In others words, we eventually have to talk about liturgy. There are myriad liturgical forms for the celebration of the Eucharist. Some are highly complex and some are disarmingly simple. Some are ancient and some are recent. Some prescribe every detail and some lay down only the broad strokes and allow a great deal of improvisation. Some are formal and some are casual. One may argue, as some have done eloquently and elegantly, that there is a basic inherent “shape” to the Eucharistic action, but even within the confines of such a shape, the possible variations are virtually endless.

In casual conversation, most Christians who have an interest in the subject will find themselves using “worship” and “liturgy” almost interchangeably. But a great many people are apt to do the same with alligators and crocodiles, toads and frogs, ostriches and emus, llamas and alpacas. At one level, such distinctions appear meaningless. If you’re a baby wildebeest hydrating on a riverbank, it doesn’t much matter what species of predatory reptile inhabit those waters; you’d just better be careful. But if you’re a sweater manufacturer shopping for yarn, you definitely want your merchandise to come from an alpaca and not a llama.

I would suggest that, before we can engage in any fruitful conversation on any aspect of either liturgy or worship, or both, we need to acknowledge the distinction between the two.

Worship, as I have posited, is an inherent—some might say necessary—human activity. It can be corporate and it can be private. Not all worship is liturgy. Worship can be very authentic and very powerful—and very emotional—without being liturgy. In the ‘90s I attended a couple of Promise Keepers events. On such occasions, it is the job of a team of musicians to lead a stadium full of men in worship through singing together. I remember being impressed with how masterfully they went about their task, using carefully chosen and carefully sequenced songs to raise the level of adrenalin (and, in that venue, probably testosterone as well!) and then orchestrate a soft landing of quiet reverence before the emcee introduced the next speaker. There was definitely Christian worship going on, facilitated by skilled leadership. But it was not liturgy. Not even in the same neighborhood.

Here’s another very well-done illustration of what I’m talking about:

Interestingly, this is a nineteenth century “standard” workhorse of a gospel song—one which was firmly embedded in the repertoire of my Baptist youth—with both the text and tune preserved intact while being recontextualized with the instrumentation and vocal style of a currently popular musical idiom and some fresh harmonies just discordant enough to be ethereal, used to great effect. This is, I would say, authentic Christian worship, and, again, nothing even close to Christian liturgy.

Liturgy, at its etymological heart, is a job, a task, a service. When the liturgy at hand is that of the Eucharist, it is the job of the gathered community to re-member itself, to put itself back together. And the “self” that it re-members simply by coming together is, of course, the Body of Christ. By proclaiming the Word of God, and by taking, blessing, breaking and giving “the gifts of God for the people of God,” the eucharistic community rediscovers afresh each time its identity as the Body of Christ. It participates—has koinonia, “holy communion”—in Christ.

In order to accomplish this work, the liturgy of the Eucharist bears a particular form and shape that has multitudinous expressions, but an essential character that has been passed on for two millennia. Those who are stewards of the Church’s liturgy (clergy and musicians, mostly) perform their work most faithfully when they allow the liturgy’s own inherent form and shape, its rhythm, pace and momentum, to take the lead in making decisions regarding choreography, use of space, posture, gesture, and, of course, music.

It is tempting, powerfully tempting, for these very stewards to view the form and shape of the liturgy as a sort of flatbed truck on which they can load the freight of various agendas. These agendas can be musical, or pastoral, or catechetical, or aesthetic, or political. They are almost invariably good and proper things, activities and ministries that the Church is rightfully engaged in. But at the moment they are allowed to trump the liturgy itself, to eclipse its proper character and shape, its momentum and flow, they become trespassers, interlopers, invaders.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I would contend that even worship itself can become one of these trespassing agendas. I realize that may seem ludicrous on its face, and I am not in any way suggesting that worship is unimportant, or even of secondary importance. But when the Church gathers on the Lord’s Day, its “work” is not merely to worship in some generic sense, it is to perform the liturgy of the Eucharist, and in so doing, to worship the triune God. Our particular task on Sundays is to offer a certain kind of worship, worship that is disciplined by the liturgy.

Any perceived conflict between worship and liturgy is, of course, an illusion. The liturgy is certainly a vehicle of worship, and a splendid one at that. But its purpose is not merely to serve as a means to the end of worship. It is itself a proper end (though ultimately, of course, a contingent one), compatible with the end of worship, but not identical with it. At some point I will speak again of pipe organs and plainchant and praise bands and Power Point. But in considering those things, it will be essential to recall that while liturgy and worship may be siblings, they are not identical twins.


Fr. J said...

I think I understand what you mean, but I'm not sure how you go about doing what you suggest. I'm all for letting the inherent shape and work of the liturgy lead the way, but how do you avoid adding baggage? After all, even if you're not a social activist, you have to make choices, like the ones you mention, about music and movement and so forth. In my current setting, I've been trying to search for ways of enhancing the sense of sacredness that should be at the center of the way we enter into the liturgy. But the very act of trying to point people towards the beauty and natural patterns of the liturgy is an act of front-loading onto the liturgy. And in way too many parishes, people simply walk through the liturgy like they're the living dead. It's one of the reasons why we lose so many people. So what's the answer?

Daniel Martins said...

Fr J, you raise good questions. I hope to write more about them soon. It's a matter of heremneutical disposition, I would say. As stewards of the liturgy, are we (clergy and musicians) always asking the question, What [text, song, interpretive word, movement, gesture, posture] best illuminates both the general shape of the liturgy and its particular character on any given Sunday (in light of the season and/or lectionary)? If we're asking the right question, the path to a good decision often becomes much clearer.

Walt Knowles said...

I'm not sure I can go with the difference that you are proposing. Worship, Gottesdienst, and Liturgy, are "service" words. Look at the etymology of those English, German, and Greek words. They really all are the same thing: the Middle English Woerth-ship is giving value or offering, leitourgia, is work for the people in surrogate of the gods, Gottes-dienst is service of or toward God. When it gets right down to it, I would argue that the task of granting value (to God) requires a structure in which to give such value. While I'd argue that "liturgy" can encompass the structure of high mass and the evangelistic services of our youth, I also want to argue that worship without liturgy is just as supportable as spirituality without religion (a friend of mine recently blogged on that topic!)

Anonymous said...

Did you mean: hermeneutical?