Thursday, February 11, 2021


There is no subject in the world (always excepting sport) on which I have less to say than liturgiology. And the almost nothing which I have to say may as well be disposed of in this letter.

I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same. To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain—many give up churchgoing altogether—merely endure...

A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.” (CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 1964)

I spent eight years in a liturgical church, and have been at liturgical service since then. I like them. I still consider it a great lack that we do not have the Confession at the beginning of any of our services, not even in preparation for the Lord's Supper, not even for Lent. That order of worship is not arbitrary. I do recall over many years people complaining about "having the same thing every week."  While that is not strictly true, there is a good deal of truth in it. These complaints came from either young people who had grown up with the service and now found it tiresome or from other denominations who thought they did not have a liturgy and had disdain for what they felt was rote repetition with no life. The Jesus people and the various Charismatic renewals were very big on having things that they found fresh and spontaneous.   I noticed that those quickly gravitated to patterns of their own - patterns that simply happened, not thought out.  There would be a certain number of minutes of singing, which was sometimes called "worship time," followed by some prayer with stock phrases, then a correct amount of further singing - one could sense how much - then a lesson, or prayer requests with explanations. 

It seems we will have liturgy regardless, the only question being whether it is intentionally designed with an eye to what has been considered essential to worship. Some black churches retain processions, which I think is a good thing.

I recall the itch that some felt to keep tinkering with the service. The new liturgy was always going to fix everything, to capture the modern, er, whatever better than what we had, which seemed so 1920s or 1940s, or 1960s to us now.  Everything that is not eternal is eternally out of date, as Lewis also said.  I understand the desire myself, and have created liturgies of my own for special occasions, with the pastor speaking, then the congregation, then the men alternating with women or the left side of the congregation with the right, or the children's voices and the adults, all to create a sort of music of its own. It does seem a wonderful idea. It echoes what we are told in the Revelation to John will occur in the world to come, with the Twenty-Four Elders singing their song, those who have been through the tribulation singing another, all with a sort of choreography of throwing down crowns and moving about. It should work.  It never worked anywhere near as well as I hoped and I abandoned the effort. 

But tinkering brings our minds out of the worship.  We might hope that it brings the mind out to look at everything in fresh perspective, to see the old forms in a new way and have a deeper understanding of God, but I think "What on earth is he up to now?" is the more common response from those in the pews.


Christopher B said...

These complaints came from either young people who had grown up with the service and now found it tiresome or from other denominations who thought they did not have a liturgy and had disdain for what they felt was rote repetition with no life.

I would include in this list people who only drop in to church from time to time, like Christmas and Easter. People who attend regularly get to know what is standard liturgy and when things have been changed. The drop-ins either only see the high celebration liturgies, or mostly the everyday ones, and either come away disappointed that church isn't like Christmas every Sunday, or thinking that nothing ever changes.

In terms of repetition, nobody seems to mind that Christmas occurs on the Twenty-fifth of December every year, do they?

Mike Guenther said...

Does your congregation use the Revised Common Lectionary? I seem to recall that that's what our church used. But I haven't been to church in a year of Sundays so things might have changed.

james said...

Certainly the Pentacostal churches I've been in had an unwritten order of service, and it was easy to see from body language when the end of one section was coming up.

One of the little issues: how much do the congregants participate, and in what parts? Singing seems like a simple "Sure!" but when Eve has bad asthma and Adam's voice can sour powdered milk, music has to be simple.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Mike Guenther - we use no lectionary in the ECC. Scripture lessons are chosen to go with the sermon series.

During Covid we have been as unadorned as can be imagined. A one-minute video introduction, two songs, one traditional one contemporary (we usually have a traditional and a contemporary service), news of the church with directions how to get more information or more involved, the Lord's Prayer, a forty minute sermon (we are used to about 20-25 min) and a benediction.

I am really feeling that lack of richness right now.

Mike Guenther said...

I'm a back slid Lutheran so maybe that explains it. Although in my recollection, our scripture lessons also followed the topic of the sermon.

As you walked into the church, you were handed the program for the week. It would have the lesson from the old testament, the hymn selection, the gospel lesson, another hymn, then the sermon, another hymn, then the benediction, if a regular Sunday. Also, the pastor would go over the prayer list. During the"church seasons", ie. Advent, Lent, ect., there would be a longer service because of Communion. (We used individual paper wafers and MD20-20 wine.)

It's nothing to brag about, but I haven't stepped inside a church since my Father's memorial service in 2010.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

We left the Lutheran church in 1986, not for political reasons, but because they just seemed to be losing their grip spiritually, incorporating every fad that came along. Since that time they have gone badly off the rails politically, so that lifetime members are afraid to say aloud things that would have been considered good doctrine not so long ago. I see those two phenomena as related, especially as I see it mirrored in the Episcopal churches. Which is the cart and which the horse I don't know.

If you were to go back, would it be to a liturgical service, less-liturgical, or whatever seemed good for other reasons? If the former, you pretty much only have the Catholic and Orthodox churches left at this point.

Grim said...

I think there's a general rule about the amount of novelty that is tolerable that goes beyond church. I've noticed that radio stations, for example, tend to play the same few hundred songs. If they're a "rock" station, they play the same tracks over and over all week, and you won't have to listen long before you hear Barracuda, the Bohemian Rhapsody, Radar Love, Hotel California, and (at least in the South) Sweet Home Alabama. If it's a country station, they'll play whatever the top 100 country songs are over and over, interspersed only occasionally by anything older that was hugely popular within living memory.

Novelty seems like it would be a major factor in entertainment -- as opposed to the sacred -- but I'm not sure that really holds up. Even teenagers will watch the same movie over and over and over, and children are even worse about that.

With the sacred, you'd expect that tendency to be even stronger. We're engaged in an activity that is supposed to focus our attention on the eternal; having an unchanging ritual that recurs in the same way at the same time in the same place is part of what does that. (As long as the service doesn't feel 'eternal' in the sense of 'never-ending,' please.)

stevo said...

I had the opportunity to worship in the Byzantine liturgy for a few years. (Melkite rite) Almost everything was the same every week, everything except the homily was sung. It was also very long. Certainly the richest liturgical experience I've ever experienced.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

A friend of ours was the Melkite priest locally. I believe he retired recently. He had been a police officer in the juvenile division prior to ordination.