Liturgy, Priesthood and Genuine Worship

The debate over worship and liturgy has been both long running and many faceted. Its spectrum ranges from the ultra-free self-expression of certain types of contemporary worship through to the high liturgies of traditional Roman Catholicism and its Episcopalian counterparts. A debate that is very much alive and well in Reformed churches.

Those that are more directly shaped by an awareness of their roots in the Reformation are likely to have a defined liturgical form – frequently reflected in established books of order or liturgy. Whereas those whose history and self-understanding owe more to the influence of the Puritans (and their costly stand against a legislated liturgy) often lean towards a simpler, less structured approach in worship.

In one sense the debate is semantic as all expressions of worship from the lowest of the low to the ultra-high are by definition ‘liturgical’ since they have some discernable shape or order. So the question really concerns the content of worship, the contours it follows and the most appropriate way to express this in any given context. And the issue of ‘appropriate expression’ is a question that needs to be addressed, regardless of which ‘wing’ of the debate to which we may happen to belong.

At with any debate over belief and practice in the church, this one is muddied by perception and misperception at both ends of the spectrum, not to mention at all points in between. So, those who eschew the use of set forms and liturgies in favour of more extempore expressions of worship, argue that the rigid form of set liturgies rob worship of meaningful personal engagement on the part of the worshipper. Conversely, those who are suspicious of extempore worship would counter by saying that it runs the risk of being too much ‘of the moment’, often lacking depth and cohesion. And, ironically, despite the objection to ancient forms, almost every ‘extempore’ worship leader ends up with their own idiosyncratic liturgical patterns and vocabulary.

Both sets of concerns have validity and manifest themselves to differing degrees in almost every worship setting. However, the response to both is not to argue for one at the expense of the other, but rather to recognise the commonality between them and realise that, whichever approach may be preferred, the authenticating key to worship, as Jesus states, is that it must be both in spirit and in truth.

Another facet of the engagement question has to do with how best to actively involve the congregation. So, the rationale behind, for example, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, was to facilitate actual congregational participation by means of set prayers that were offered corporately as well as various sung and spoken expressions of praise, like the Venite, Te Deum and Nunc Dimittis. Added to this were a range of congregational responses to the different elements of the service. There is very real merit in such logic behind the way worship is crafted. The art of congregants being mentally (and spiritually) disengaged while the pastor is leading nonconformist worship is well known and, if we are honest, every one of us has our own techniques of doing so. But does this mean that more formal liturgists are free from this danger? Hardly. One well-known Episcopalian quite openly confesses to counting bricks on the church wall as a child while the officiating vicar intoned his way through the service.

Again the answer is not to favour one at the expense of the other, but to realise there is more to encouraging genuine engagement in worship than the extent to which the congregation has scripted parts.

A perhaps more serious charge levelled by set liturgists against their more extempore brothers is that their approach elevates the pastor leading worship to a quasi-priestly status. Despite the obvious irony behind this charge, it is not hard to see the element of truth it contains. If worshippers are lulled into a sense of complete passivity in the act of worship, then they can at least subliminally act as though the one leading the service offers worship vicariously on their behalf.

In many ways, trying to pick our way through the potential pitfalls in worship that lie, not just at the extreme ends of the worship spectrum, but in its every expression, we begin to realise where the real complicating factor lies in it all: in our own hearts as worshippers. The way to address this, on the one hand, is to appreciate the value in historically different expressions of worship. And on the other, to realise, regardless of our particular preferred form, that it is not the form itself that is critical, but the whole person engagement with which we offer our sacrifice of praise.

Nonconformists who are dyed-in-the-wool non-liturgists would do well to leaf through a few of the great liturgies produced by the Reformers and their successors. So too would those who know only their particular book of forms do well to explore some of the great prayers and devotions written down and recorded by their nonconformist brothers and sisters over the centuries. And in both cases to step outside the comfort zone of what they are used to in order to experience expressions of worship that may be quite different from what our particular norm may be, but are used by those who are one with us in faith and doctrine.

In all of this, we must never lose sight of the fact that worship as presented and exemplified in scripture is never without form and direction. It has an inherent logic and rationale that was literally built in to the architecture and furnishings of Old Testament temple worship as the God-given replica and preview of the reality into which Christ would lead his church.

It was always a conscious response to the divine call to worship, opened up with a shout of praise and included confession of sin with corresponding assurance of pardon. It involved psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. At its core, God’s voice was heard through his word, read and proclaimed. So too were the sacraments as tangible expressions of God’s covenant love and faithfulness. And the final word was a word from God himself – one of parting benediction.

Mark Johnston