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.