De re liturgiae

Every church has a liturgy—whether it’s called that, or an “order of service”, or nothing at all, and whether it’s distributed to the congregation, displayed on a screen, or known only by the leaders. But I have found that I feel most at home in churches that have a liturgy, call it that, hand it to me as I come in, and, most importantly, have given it more than a little thought.

One of the revolutionary changes made by the Reformation—in Protestant and Catholic churches alike—was the inclusion, participatory inclusion, of the congregation in the church’s worship of her Lord. But worship, communal and congregational worship, does not or at least should not consist only of singing praises (more on that in a bit), praying silently, sharing in the sacraments (more on that too, below), fellowshipping together, and hearing the Word. I do not mean that there is necessarily anything wrong with the worship of any particular evangelical church, let alone my own. But the patterns seem more than a bit … deficient.

Part of what I’m reacting to is a haphazard—and, I’m sorry to say, deliberately haphazard—organization. We begin with a congregational song; fine—but is it a song that could be just as well sung in the middle or at the close of the service, or is it a true Introit or (as my church in Grand Rapids put it) “gathering hymn”? And then, as we move through the service, are the words that we say and the songs that we sing chosen deliberately for good and defensible reasons, or because the leader had a whim? And do we the congregation say anything non-spontaneous?

In some circles, in some contexts, we talk a lot about the invisible and universal church; Lewis had Screwtape call it “terrible as an army with banners”, if I recall his phrasing correctly—“the church at all times and in all places.” Part of what makes our claim to be members to such an organism credible is—or would be—worshiping the same Lord regularly in a substantially similar way to theirs, using perhaps different languages, different music, and slightly different phrasing but substantially the same forms and substance. But the modern evangelical church seems to have—by negligence in some quarters, design in others—thrown out anything that smacks of “tradition”, while letting traditions (some good, some bad) of our own creep in. Tossing out extra-Biblical traditions to get back to Biblical Christianity is admirable at least in theory; ignoring a rich heritage of hymns, prayers, and other forms in favor of “innovations” that have been invented afresh and deliberately left by the wayside countless times before is not. The great hymns of the faith (by which I do not mean just the popular choruses of the middle of the last century!) have been tested and generally approved as accurate, wholesome, and edifying—more than many insipid choruses of today can say. And everything but music seems to have been forgotten altogether.

Further, praise ought not to be the sole purpose of music, just as it is not yet the sole component of worship. If we sing praise song after praise song with unconfessed sin among us, there’s something wrong with this picture. If we sing praise song after praise song but never appeal to him to deliver us from our troubles as he has promised, there’s probably something wrong here. We are given the Psalter as a model for worship—and it does not consist only of those verses that we stunted children feel comfortable with. This is not to say that we should never emphasize one aspect over another, but our worship should be as multi-faceted as the inspired models we have bee given. Tangentially, I find it particularly jarring to hear weekly complaints from a pulpit over removal of songs about one theme from “the church” at large, when it’s a rare day that we sing any hymn written more than a century ago.

The other item that lends credibility to our claim to be part of the “holy catholic church” is that we share in the same sacraments. “One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food, And to one hope she presses, with every grace endued,” as the hymn puts it. And here our problem is not one of practice—for, fortunately, we are assured that they are as efficacious and valid if administered by a misguided, misinformed, or even unregenerate or heretical minister as if by the apostles themselves, because it is God working in, by, and through them that makes them, well, sacramental, not the signs themselves. (See also my earlier posts on the subject of the sacraments.) But I find myself at home, rather than suddenly a stranger in a strange land, when in a church that uses more or less the same words of institution and invitation as the church has always used, explaining that baptism is the sign of entrance into Christ’s covenant and church, that the bread is Christ’s body, and so on. And it’s particularly jarring to hear the Institution read from the pages of Scripture until we get to the verse that apparently just couldn’t mean what it actually says.

I have more to say about these matters, but have begun to lose my train of thought and so will pick it up again some other time. Until then, what do you think?

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