Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Worship, Liturgy, and Expectations

When I was growing up in the Protestant tradition, I believe the unspoken assumption about worship was that, in the main, we acted upon it. That is to say, the worship service was viewed as a blank period of time, occupying about an hour or so, during which certain things generally happened, but over which the clergy exercised almost exclusive control. The goal was to create a new experience each week, one which delivered a “message” and had a certain “relevance.” We acted on the worship in order for it to be “effective.”

When I encountered liturgy, I found something very different – the reverse, in fact: God, through the historic and largely unvarying Liturgy, acts upon us. The difference is really like that between night and day. In liturgy, the forms are not there first and foremost to be “relevant” or to “delivery effective messages,” but are the appointed portals through which we encounter the Kingdom of God. The eternal message of redemption in Christ is experienced anew each time, and the clergy have but little “control” over the experience.

Over the years I have seen a progressive decay of liturgy in the Episcopal Church; it is gradually being replaced, it seems to me, with the Protestant notion of “worship” I knew years ago. We continually “update” and “enrich” the various formulae and prayers, but in so doing their limited shelf-life is revealed, and we are back to understanding that it is somehow up to us to make worship be “effective.”

The search for novelty is never-ending, and it encourages an ever more aggressive approach to the question of measuring and assessing the “response” and the “product.” This accounts, I believe, for some of the nervousness and agitation in the Episcopal Church these days: we are, in a sense always “looking over our shoulder” with regard to the liturgy (much like the Mega-churches must do in their market-driven church environment) rather than looking forward into the mystery of God the Holy Trinity, and our share in that mystery.

I am thankful that, at least in some places, liturgy rather than generic “worship” continues to be offered, but I honestly wonder at times what room there will be for those of us for whom the difference matters a great deal.

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