01 August 2007

Why I Kinda Like Liturgy

Why I Kinda Like Liturgy - Strange title?

First of all, I want to explain that I'm writing this post from the context of British Methodism. If you happen to be an expert in the history of Christian liturgy or a Vestment Vixen, this post is definitely not for you. This post is my explanation into a denomination where I perceive that congregations generally don't have have much regard for formal, written liturgy and often look down upon it.

Secondly, I use the word 'kinda' because I want to explain what I think is good about formal, written liturgy. Often, I think, Christians assume that if one likes liturgy, one will also hate a service with extempore prayers and/or charismatic worship. I do not hate informal or extempore worship; For me, personally, these two forms of worship serve different purposes; I suspect that they may also reach different types of people and that some people are best reached by formal, written liturgy and others are best reached by extempore worship.

So here is why I 'kinda like' formal, written liturgy.

1) Most worship has 'liturgy' or ritual in it anyway. When I attended a church with informal worship, we always began with three praise songs, two which built us up into praise of God and one which quietened us down a bit to come before God in a prayer of approach. Believe it or not, that's actually liturgy. As are the words 'Oh Lord, we just want to come before you today and bless your holy name.' That's liturgy too. This is probably how the first ancient liturgies got written. People found patterns of worship and words that worked and these were repeated until they eventually got written down.

2) Formal, written liturgy has good theology and is well-written. This is important to me. I don't think I've had any 'bad theological experiences' in Methodism, but I've had them in other informal contexts. What can you do when someone says something in prayer or leading worship that is simply incorrect doctrinally? Not a lot, really. Also, in my experience, the theology expressed in informal worship almost invariably centres around 'having a personal relationship with Jesus' or possibly with 'healing' if it's a healing service. Both are well and good, but somewhat limited. Formal liturgy references all three persons of the Trinity and their work, Christian discipleship and stewardship as well as having a personal relationship with Jesus.

3) Formal, written liturgy links us with Christian tradition. I suspect that for many this might be an argument to abandon formal liturgy altogether! But I don't actually think that Church Tradition has gotten everything wrong all the time. When we use formal, written liturgy, we are not only linking ourselves with other Christian brothers and sisters who are saying those prayers right now, but we also link ourselves with our Christian brothers and sisters who went before us into glory.

4) Formal, written liturgy helps us to pray when we don't have the words to pray ourselves, especially those of us who have not been given the gift of speaking in tongues. People often testify to being held in the practice of prayer during times of emotional distress by saying the Daily Office. Also, one benefit of saying the daily office is that you get into the habit of praying whether you 'feel like' it or not.

I think that the number one criticism I hear of formal, written liturgy is that it is rote and insincere and done by people who don't 'really believe'. As someone who values liturgy and who believes and feels that she is 'really and sincerely worshipping' when she uses it, that can often be hard to hear. That said, I know I've certainly seen and heard liturgies where it appeared that neither the worship leader nor the congregation were getting much out of it. But I think that flags up a danger with respect to written liturgy. I don't think it's correct to say that all practice of formal liturgy must necessarily be insincere.

One of the things I love about Methodism is our 'wide church' approach. We are theologically wide and liturgically wide. I hope that Methodists can respect each other no matter what form of worship they prefer.

N.b. This post is not a criticism of any individual or any group in Methodism. I hope it's not perceived that way. It's been born of some discussion about 'worship styles' both on the internet and In Real Life.

8 comments:

Sandalstraps said...

Formal, written liturgy also has a certain discipline to it - you can (and must) do it, even when you don't feel like it. To me, as someone who does not often feel like worshipping, the discipline of the liturgy is very helpful. It helps me master my fickle emotions, and realize that while there is an emotional content to my relationship with God, that relationship is no more founded on emotion than is my marriage.

When I think of the discipline of formal liturgy, I remember the words of this prayer from a book of Celtic Prayers:

Sometimes when I pray, I utter the words,
But I do not feel or think them.
Sometimes when I pray, I utter the words,
Thinking about what I say, but not feeling.
Sometimes when I pray, I utter the words,
And I both think and feel what I say.

An act of will cannot make me feel,
Nor stop my mind from wandering.
An act of will can only make me utter.
So I shall utter the words,
And let the spirit do the rest,
Guiding my mind and heart as [it] wills.


(I substituted "it" for "he.")

The sentiment of this prayer, held next to the insistance that we must always worship with "feeling," reminds me of the great distance between infatuation and love. I do not always feel my love for my wife, but I do always act on it, and that acting shows the depth of my devotion to her. It is no slave to fickle emotion.

PamBG said...

The sentiment of this prayer, held next to the insistance that we must always worship with "feeling," reminds me of the great distance between infatuation and love.

I wonder if we sometimes confuse 'feeling' with 'sincerity'.

I really like the Celtic Prayer. Thanks for that.

Will said...

I love the liturgy, too. The United Methodist Church could be a good bit more "formal" than the British variety of Methodism (I find Methodists define themselves by what they are not: in America, it's "We're not Baptists"; here it's "We're not Anglican". I think that has a lot to do with how Methodist view "formal" worship). I always cringe when someone tells me they came to a Methodist Church because Methodists pray from their hearts when Anglicans pray from a book. It has never been pastorally sensitive to open a conversation in this, so I usually leave it.

I grew up in an evangelical tradition that believed that liturgical worship was nothing more than the "vain repetitions" that scripture speaks against. I heard a radio preacher (I think it was Greg Laurie) once say it's not prayer unless you made up the words, and this included the Lord's Prayer. That pretty much sums up the circles I grew up in. Over the years, my understanding has shifted to the way sandalstraps has mentioned (I love the prayer, too. Thanks for posting). Most others will follow a set pattern anyway – Father, we just want to thank you, Father, for just being who you are, Father.

In line with what you said Pam, I find it amusing that people somehow can't "go through the motions" in "contemporary" or "charismatic" worship. One can just as easily just do it to be doing it. It doesn't take a set of written prayers to do that.

crystal said...

Vestment Vixen :-)

I like the structure of formal liturgy. It can be beautiful too. But for me, I guess the feelings are most important. I think that may be sort of immature?

PamBG said...

I grew up in an evangelical tradition that believed that liturgical worship was nothing more than the "vain repetitions" that scripture speaks against.

I grew up ultra-conservative Lutheran; we took the bible as verbally-inspired, inerrant and infallible. The Lutheran church I grew up in (back in the 60s and 70s) was firmly liturgical and they also treated the liturgy as practically verbally-inspired, inerrant and infallible. They thought 'vain repetition' was saying long prayers and repeating the same petition over and over. I was taught to say quite short prayers (either extempore or set prayers) and then leave it at that lest I be 'vainly repeating' and not trusting God to hear my requests.

I find it interesting how different traditions can invoke the same bible verses to mean entirely different things.

In line with what you said Pam, I find it amusing that people somehow can't "go through the motions" in "contemporary" or "charismatic" worship.

I think sandalstraps has given a legitimate reason for 'going through the motions'.

One risk of charismatice worship, I think, is that people can feel alienated from church when they are struggling with either faith or everyday life. Sometimes you can't muster the emotion or even the attention, but you can still 'be' at worship. When I say it's a risk, it's not an argument against charismatic congregations but something I think such congregations should keep in mind. Just as the risk of liturgical worship can be that it becomes too dry.

PamBG said...

Vestment Vixen :-)

Seemed more polite that 'tat queen' and I like the alliteration. :-)

I like the structure of formal liturgy. It can be beautiful too.

That's probably a point that I missed out. For me, written liturgy at its best is a bit like acting out poetry rather than struggling to find one's own inadequate words. I can't imagine extemporaneously making up the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving on the spot, for instance.

But for me, I guess the feelings are most important. I think that may be sort of immature?

I think I'm just saying that we all have times in our lives when we struggle and have a 'dark night of the soul'. To equate that darkness with insincerity and lack of faith is to cut off a part of our Christian discipleship. What would Ignatius think of not admitting our darkness to God and trying to pretend that everything was fine?

crystal said...

Interesting about the "dark night" and dryness - just speaking of Ignatian spirituality, it's hard to discern "the spirits" if there are no emotional movements. But everyone seems to have dark nights of the soul - I read (I think) that Mother Teresa spent most of her life after her one religious experience feeling cut off from God, but she kept on keeping on.

PamBG said...

crystal, I think I've read something similar about Mother Teresa too.