(Part 2 of a blog series on worship)
Sometimes I hear people say, “I don’t like liturgy.” I used to think it was kind of boring, actually, because when I was growing up, there was very little variation in what we did from Sunday to Sunday. However, one Sunday, when I was a young adult, I came to worship after having had a life-changing retreat experience, where the meaning and function of the church and worship came alive for me. It happened that we had a baptism that day, and when we read the liturgy together, the words leapt into my consciousness with lively joy! They took on real meaning, and reminded me exactly of who I was as a baptized disciple.
Maybe the problem hadn’t been the liturgy itself. Maybe it had been me!
Don’t misunderstand–there is such a thing as poorly constructed liturgy, or liturgy that uses language that is too archaic and inaccessible. There is such a thing as mindless rehearsal of memorized words that take on no life. That is not the kind of liturgy anybody wants to find themselves enduring for an hour on Sunday morning!
The Liturgy of the Church is a generally agreed upon structure and content for the acts of worship that occur in a worship service. General agreement emerges over time, as the structure and content have been tested by experience, and have been adopted by a broad group of faith communities. We have a liturgy for the sacraments: baptism and communion; a prescribed liturgy for funerals and weddings; and a basic order of worship. All of these are printed in the United Methodist Hymnal.
The use of liturgy in worship supports the communal nature of worship. While each worshipper experiences worship personally, worship is not a private event. Liturgy enables the community to rehearse together their shared understanding of God, Christ, the Spirit, the life of discipleship and the work of the church.
The liturgy, while developed over time, is rooted in ancient traditions of the church—linking us to the ways our ancestors in the faith spoke about God, Christ and Spirit. The language of liturgy changes slowly, but it does change in response to experience. The official Communion Liturgy of the UMC has been updated several times. You can still see previous liturgies printed in our hymnal as alternates, and for historical purposes.
In the spirit of Ecumenism that arose during the mid-20th Century, our liturgies were updated to bring them into closer conformity to the practices of other Christian communities. When we pray the prayer for Holy Communion, it is in a form, and with similar content to prayers for Communion that are prayed in Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Lutheran congregations, among others. So we are, in a sense, united with the larger Body of Christ when we share in Communion using a shared liturgical prayer.
Every pastor knows that people have preferences and strong feelings about worship! But personal preference can never be our guide for worship, since we worship together. Preference-driven worship, to use Paul’s analogy, could result in worshipping to enhance the activity of the small toe, while the eye went blind, or the ear went deaf. We worship for the whole body—and that is another gift of liturgy. It delivers us from the tyranny of preference—that of the pastor or of the people—and invites us into a space larger than ourselves, where we are likely to encounter a God who is larger and holier than we.
Part 3 – Substance- the Revised Common Lectionary and the Tradition
Part 4 – Order, part 1: the Liturgical Year
Part 5 – Order, part 2: the Basic Pattern
Part 6 – What we bring to worship: Experience and Reason