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liturgy and law 2

Jesus facepalm“What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?
You can negotiate with a terrorist.

I so often find the words “God”, “prayer”, “creation”, “gospel”… misused. Abused. Confused. Wonderful concepts are taken captive and even appear to be turned to mean the opposite of what was intended. God our loving creator becomes the almighty tyrant. The gospel gets turned into bad news…

One option is – abandon using those words; find new ones to communicate what we intend. I respect that. I, however, currently tend to continue using the words…

Another word that is misused, abused, confused, is “liturgy”…

People use “liturgy” pejoratively. When I talk about liturgy I can find myself being called a pedant, a pedantic liturgist,… a Pharisee… Many people think that the essence of liturgy, and the fixation of liturgists, is the finicky obsession with tiny, petty, mostly-irrelevant rules.

For them: liturgy = legalism.

This is the second post in a series “liturgy and law”. The first is here.

To me, the liturgy=legalism view is like thinking that a great novelist or a scholar of literature is obsessed with whether to put the full stop before or after quotation marks…

In fact, the great novelist wants to produce a gripping, transforming, fascinating novel. The scholar tries to understand what makes good literature…

A good liturgist tries to help people with transforming worship; tries to understand what makes good worship… Or at least should. Or, at least – that’s what I try to do…

I have been trying to produce a model that liturgy rules describe best practice rather than merely prescribe…

When you are enjoying, being impacted by, a great novel, a magnificent piece of music, a wonderful film – the focus is not on the grammar, punctuation, spelling, technique,… But if the grammar is bad, so that you have to read a sentence again and again to get the idea, then the rules suddenly do become important. Novelists, film directors, musicians need to have familiarity and agility with their rules so that they achieve their purpose.

A good novel is not primarily about getting grammar rules correct.
A good worship service is not primarily about woodenly following liturgy rules.

We can ask ourselves – how did Jesus’ great news become so morphed that it appears so often as bad news?! Similarly, how did liturgy (worship and spirituality) become so morphed in many people’s, many Christians’, minds that it appears so often as a derogatory term? A synonym for legalism, pedantry, Pharisaism?!

Liturgical rules are the means. Not the end. Not the goal.

Sadly, I think we all know, that for most people who are stuck with the liturgy=legalism lens, that’s how they view any liturgical discussion. And liturgical discussions, whatever form they take, reinforce their liturgy=legalism lens. If they ever, momentarily, see liturgy differently – they readily revert to liturgy=legalism as their own default position.

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15 Responses to liturgy and law 2

  1. Amen. You may be preaching to the ( tiny but devoted )choir on this though Bosco.

    ‘the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.’

    Church has chosen down the ages for Jesus to be bad news for women, for children, the poor, the sick, disabled, the dying, the enslaved in every way…whilst promoting the riches and status of the favoured few.

    ‘A good novel is not primarily about getting grammar rules correct.’

    words are very important though. My ‘Facebook friend’ is not necessarily a friend at all. My ‘church family’ is unlikely to take care of me if I need help. I am surrounded by people who claim the Bible-book to be ‘the inerrant word of God’ who haven’t even read it.

    If Christianity is really a spirituality would so much of it oppose the teachings of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount?

    Liturgy was meant as a structure, a framework. It’s no one individual fault it got overtaken by the world: greed, lust, power.

    Back to basics maybe?

    More Mark 4:

    ‘with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you’.

    If only, frankly. The world seems very much a place right now to me where unfairness, greed and intolerance reign.

  2. I think people often confuse “legalistic” and “formal”. Liturgy is about form (structure), as you say. Legalism is a petty conformity to rules. It is about making the rules have more importance than the substance. In some churches liturgy is legalistic, where the form becomes the most visible thing and the meaning/substance is lost. In other churches the desire for informality can often remove any structure at all and it is a rabble or a confused mess.

    Education is key, so that people understand the form and the role that form plays, and are not overwhelmed by it.

    Thank you for educating us, Bosco.

  3. “There are many ways to break the rules of any genre: almost all of them are uninteresting and aesthetically unappealing. Geniuses need to know more, and to have this knowledge in a form that can control the generation of new ideas.” — P. N. Johnson-Laird, “Jazz Improvisation: A Theory at the Computational Level” (1991)

  4. Liturgy is the reason I’m an episcopalian — personally, I need a lot of structure around a worship service in order to get my mind in a peaceful and open state. Where I think we (Anglicans) should be careful is whenever liturgy makes the holy spirit LESS accessible. (Watch a newcomer juggle the bulletin, the hymnal, the prayer book and observe the confused look on her face).

    Liturgy is a deeply meaningful way to connect with the important history of how people communicate with God and one another. If, at every step, we ask the question “How does this liturgical element bring the individual (or the group) closer to God” I think we’ll be on the right path.

  5. I think that one of the things that folks who attend churches that use no written liturgy suspect about those of us who do is patently true; it can become vain repetition. I experienced it last Sunday on the part of the interim rector at the church that I visited. She just rattled off her part of the liturgy by rote in a boring monotone as if entirely bored with the whole thing. Which is contagious and left me feeling bored with the whole thing. Lucky that the right side of the church is a series of floor to ceiling glass windows that look out onto an invitingly lovely enclosed garden that was planted with little colored flags marking where new plants are to be placed this week in a parish sprucing up project. I was imagining what was to be placed where!

  6. It has been my experience that the words “Liturgy” and “Tradition” often get very confused and simultaneously misinterpreted.

    As a Catholic, I grew up with both, and grew up to love both Liturgy and Tradition, including where they overlap. They add to the beauty that is the church. Even my husband, a Lutheran, loves the formal style of worship.

    However, as a Christian in the Southern United States, not everyone feels the same way. Many, including members of my own family, are indeed downright hostile to Tradition/Liturgy. They see Liturgy as Tradition and Tradition is equated with that “evil papacy”……for them formal worship is nothing more than empty memorized words spoken in rote, not out of fullness of heart…therefore not honest. Any form of worship not approached with spontaneity is seen with suspicion. Imagine my frustration when I am told by my own sister in law this, when I find great comfort in not having to ab-lib my prayers at church all the time. It might also link back to the old Catholic-Protestant debate of Tradition and Bible or Bible Alone/Sola Scriptura, and I find THAT makes a lot of protestants uneasy.

    Funny thing is, more contemporary services still follow a liturgy, as in a format…..and don’t regularly break from it. My own church just chooses a more formal format.

    • Thanks, Kathryn. Does your sister in law disagree with shaking hands, giving a hug, a kiss, saying “I love you” or “good morning” or “good bye”, regarding them as empty memorized words spoken in rote therefore not honest? Easter Season Blessings.

      • She doesn’t! That’s the humor of it. I can’t remember what pastor I’ve read who describes our little everyday liturgies…or rituals…that we participate daily.

        After this said conversation with my sister in law, I reminded her that she closes all of her prayers with the same statement: “…In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” She didn’t like that I called her on it.

    • A guy at Perkins School of Theology, while I was there in the mid 80s, did a research paper on the “spontaneity” of non-liturgical churches’ prayers. They may not write the prayers down and publish them in a book, but their prayers are rarely spontaneous. The prayers in these churches are just recombinations of the same rehashed phrases passed from generation to generation.

      • Haha, Bro! They are indeed the same rehashed prayers. I am well aware of this phenomenon from personal experience too.

        I spent a few years discerning whether or not to join a different denomination before returning to my roots, and in that time went to many churches which fell into that description. Some even refused to say the Lord’s Prayer….saying that that particular prayer gave us a format to use, but we shouldn’t use the exact words so to keep our intentions honest, or some such ridiculousness as that. I eventually got frustrated with the hypocrisy of denying having a liturgy when liturgy was obviously there, and went to my home church.

        • Just as an aside on your good points, Kathryn, yes, Matthew gives us the Lord’s Prayer as an example (template?), and Luke tells us to say these words. Christ is Risen!

        • I have also visited a lot of non-liturgical churches in the US while living there before and I was also very aware that some of their rehashed & recycled phrases where lifted almost word for word from the Book of Common Prayer and these folks have no idea that’s where they come from!

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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