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Introducing “liturgy”

Liturgy as language (part 5)

There are those who look at thriving, fruitful, vibrant worshipping communities, see they are not “using liturgy” and suggest comments like, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, or “introducing liturgy will destroy this – you will be on a hiding to nothing.”

I disagree.

First let’s clarify. Liturgy, by definition, is doing worship together. Each of those words is important.

  • doing – liturgy is an activity. People too quickly associate liturgy with set words, books, etc. Liturgy is action – often accompanied by interpretive words, yes, but liturgy is action – “the work of the people”.
  • worship – is an active verb. It is not passive. Liturgy is not a spectator sport. We are a gathered congregation, an active assembly – not spectators or an audience. It is not watching an orchestra – it is being the orchestra.
  • together – liturgy is a community event. It is not individualism. Not even congregationalism. Most liturgical texts are plural, “we confess… we believe… Our Father…”

People sometimes use the term non-liturgical worship. Generally that is an oxymoron. Like saying a non-marriage wedding. Liturgy is doing worship together. Non-liturgical worship might be worshipping alone – but even when we worship alone that is done as part of the church, the body of Christ, with Jesus – even alone we can still pray “Our Father…”

So we have this thriving, fruitful, vibrant worshipping community. I believe it can only be enriched by incorporating the insights from the series Liturgy as language:

Introductory post; Kiwi Anglican history 1, Kiwi Anglican history 2, Liturgy as language (part 4)

Where do we start?

In fact working with a thriving, fruitful, vibrant worshipping community may even be a better place to start than trying to get an unsuccessful, dry, colourless, dour, individualised community, that is going through the motions of liturgical texts, to move forward to some vibrancy.

Where might be some places to start? Well if there is some dialogue between leader and assembly, for example as the service starts, that might be energetically channelled through some biblical greeting and response. The deep sense of prayer might be enriched by the leader, early in the service, suggesting a general point for prayer and the whole community praying for a good period in deepening silence, and then the leader collecting this gathering silent prayer by proclaiming a collect to which the now-fully-gathered community responds heartily with the biblical “Amen.” The readings can be drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary – with people growing in a sense of belonging to the world-wide Christian community and made aware of the many many resources that come with this enriching their lives not just at the service but throughout the week. Some communities will be stretched as they risk just listening to a reading, God’s Word, “neat” – without every text being filtered through the leader’s interpretation. If communion is celebrated the community might be enriched by using the biblical tradition of blessing by thanksgiving and using the great Jewish-Christian prayer structure going back to Jesus’ prayer at his last meal and beyond. There are many many excellent Eucharistic Prayers and outlines that cannot but enrich a thriving community’s life.

These are but some suggestions. Readers may have other insights, even from their own experience of deepening and enriching the worship life in a community.

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10 thoughts on “Introducing “liturgy””

  1. Great post!

    Myself and a handful of other local miscreants have been brainstorming a lot lately on how to create an edgy, creative, inspiring liturgical worship service from scratch. I have some questions, though, about language. You tout the strength of adhering to some form of liturgy in a service and, while I applaud this, I have to wonder about the relevance of many liturgical texts in a modern and youthful worship environment.

    One of the issues I’ve always had with liturgical services has nothing to do with the liturgical *nature* of the services. Instead, my issue has to do with the text used during these services. If I’m participating in a prayer or a dialog as part of a community of believers, how much can I really participate if the words don’t feel like *my* words? Often I find the language used in opening dialogs and prayers so archaic that I can’t throw my heart behind them. I find myself wondering “what does that even mean?” In fact, last week I literally asked my wife that question during the service. She shrugged, but kept saying the words that were on the screen. Why do we do this? Why do we keep saying things that have little to no meaning to us? Personally I just find it as a distraction from worship. Is it possible to maintain the beauty of the liturgy while creating new meaningful prayers and dialog in the language of the modern church?

    1. Thank you for your contribution. My primary ministry is with post-modern young people. I wonder if, in part, your question is that of a modern adult on behalf of post-modern young people. Contemporary worship choruses are regularly full of obscure imagery and incomprehensible language yet few appear to raise the same sort of issue there. Is it just because those “liturgical texts” are sung? Let us remember that saying liturgical texts is a relative novelty in liturgy. Traditionally one did not sing at liturgy – the liturgy was sung. In my experience with post-modern young people using a variety of texts from ancient to very contemporary, and providing teaching into the meaning of some obscure texts, historical background to others, and allowing people to grow into texts rather than out of them has always been enriching.

  2. “I wonder if, in part, your question is that of a modern adult on behalf of post-modern young people.”

    Perhaps in part. I’m still on the fence as to whether I’m “adult” or “young people”. Likewise, even “modern” vs. “post-modern” is hard for me to pin down. At age 30, I’d probably classify myself as a post-modern(ish) young adult. 🙂

    I agree that some contemporary worship choruses are full of obscure imagery (although I might argue your use of the word “regularly” there). One difference I’ve noticed though is that as “new” contemporary songs are presented to a church for the first time, lead worshipers often introduce the song verbally, providing insight into the lyrics or meaning of the song. Also,I should mention that I don’t think singing has anything to do with it. I have the same issue with many hymns when I find myself staring at the words and trying to figure out what exactly I’m supposed to be saying. I guess it’s possible that I’m just a simpleton with too limited a vocabulary to fully understand the language of some of these texts and hymns. However, I believe my issue is not that I *can’t* understand them. It’s that trying to understand them is distracting during worship. It’s easier for me to throw my heart and soul behind a chorus like “with everything, with everything, we will shout for Your glory…” (thank you Hillsong) than it is for me to get behind a song that uses phrasing like “fortress”, “bulwark”, “mortal ills”, “doth seek to work us woe”, etc. (not to pick on good ol’ Martin Luther!).

    I definitely like your idea of using a variety of texts. We’ve discussed this same approach for the new service primarily as a means to connect a younger generation back to the historic and ancient church. I also love your idea of providing teaching into the meaning of texts… without some teaching to back up the archaic language or obscure imagery, we’re just saying words that have no meaning.

    1. That there are moments within worship when we are not intellectualising everything is IMO a plus. The need to have everything understood and every word monovalently comprehended is a modern rather than a post-modern tendency.

      As to the Hillsong text you give to illustrate your point of a transparent text:
      Whom is the text addressing? The Father? The Son? At whose “feet” are we laying down our crowns? Does the Father have feet? What does it mean to lay down crowns at someone’s feet – certainly nothing we ever see on the daily news.
      Can darkness tremble? Why do we use the metaphor of darkness for evil?
      Have we changed address – whom are we addressing “That every eye will see Jesus our God” God? Jesus? Each other?
      What is meant by “God of all days”?
      What is meant by “The wonder and grace In the light of your name”?
      By “name” do we mean just “Jesus” as a name? Are we addressing Jesus now? Or the Father? Do we mean the Father’s name? Or is name more a metaphor for “nature” – in which case whose nature are we singing about?
      Certainly we would not use language like “With everything we will shout forth your praise” in normal speech.
      “Our hearts they cry Be glorified Be lifted high above all names”
      “For you our king” certainly needs unpacking in a country without a royal family
      and even in UK – the image of royalty may not be the one that is being alluded to here.

      I think I’ve made my point. If this text was presented to you as a text to be said, you may actually react differently to it.

  3. Just a quick thought (since I’m on my phone) about the “not my own words” thing. I think that’s kind of the point. Liturgy is a corporate event – it is about the common faith of the believers gathered. It might be a benefit for our generation to find some identity within the Church rather than insisting my own individuality take priority.

    1. I completely agree, Ray. Hence, I also react to the concept stated of creating liturgy “from scratch.” Part of the treasure is that we are within a tradition going back to Jesus and through him back for a good another thousand years. We stand with the generations passing on this rich heritage. The community is not just the single congregation we are in now, not even Christians alive now, but the communion of saints – alive now here, and those who have gone before us.

  4. Ray! You found me! 😛

    Why is there such resistance to the idea of updating the language of what we say in the church? I commented on the words “bulwark” and “doth” earlier. Why? Because they’re uncommon today. When Luther wrote his hymn, *he* didn’t even use those words. He used German words that were common among the people of his day. When Frederick Hedge translated the hymn to English for the first time in the 1800s, he selected English words that were common among the people of *his* day. And so, “doth”, “bulwark”, and a host of other now archaic words found their way into the mix. Nearly 200 years later, we’re still singing this text using words that we would never say otherwise. Why is there such resistance to use language common to the people of *our* day in the church? Luther did it. Hedge did it. Why can’t we?

    I’m not sure I understand the dissection of the song lyrics. Couldn’t we do the same thing to many (any?) texts within the Bible itself? Isn’t that what people do all the time in attempts to rip apart our faith?

    It’s not necessarily the imagery that I find archaic in most historic church texts, it’s the language itself. While songs like With Everything may have imagery that requires discernment to understand, the language – the words themselves – are common to people of *our* day (not 16th century Germany or 19th century New England). At least with a song like this, it sounds like us. It sounds like words we use today. I agree that we might not, in the course of normal conversation, say something like “with everything we will shout forth your praise”, but at least that phrase uses words that are common and understood by this generation (although I guess you could argue against the word “forth” as being uncommon).

    I see your point about music vs. spoken text though. Songwriters craft lyrics in order to fit the supporting music. Phrasing required by music is often not what we would say conversationally.

    I understand your point in that the imagery can be cumbersome and misunderstood in songs regardless of when they were written. My issue has little to do with the imagery though. It’s the language that bothers me. When I encounter words in liturgical texts or songs that have all but disappeared from modern language, I am immediately disconnected from what I’m saying or singing. I get cut off from the imagery before I can even get there. The words themselves trip me up. They seem so foreign and out of place to me that I end up just saying or singing them because they’re there. The meaning is suddenly lost, yet I’m still speaking or singing. This *needs* to change somehow.

  5. And Ray… for me it’s not about my individuality being a priority, it’s about me being free to express my worship to God in a way that I can understand. You wouldn’t travel to a foreign country and witness to natives without learning their language. Is it possible that the church is attempting to minister to us without learning ours?

    Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m the only one that feels like many churches are losing touch with my generation. Yeah… maybe…

    1. You misunderstand my point if you think that highlighting that the meaning of the Hillsong text is far from transparent IMO is akin to “attempts to rip apart our faith?” All I am trying to highlight is that the song you used to illustrate your point may very well not have many “doths” and “bulwarks” – nonetheless the meaning of the text is far from clear. It is not even clear to me who is being addressed.

      In any case in this post I was far from advocating “doths” and “bulwarks” – it was more about how might we enrich our worship, how might we draw from the rich treasury of our heritage, how might we help some communities re-connect to a tradition that has been going for more than 3,000 years.

      As to your recent comment, might I add some points.
      You distinguish “us” from “church” – we are the church.
      In a service you appear now to see worship as akin to witnessing; and the “church” as ministering to “us”.
      When you speak of being “free to express my worship to God” are you not speaking of your individual worship rather than communal worship? Someone decides that the community will sing your Hillsong piece whether you like it or not, whether you are in that mood or not, whether you understand it or not. You are not free to express your worship to God when you worship communally.
      It is, in fact, the church which is the foreign country. The Gospel is counter-cultural. And as we join the church we need to learn this foreign country’s “language”. I have regularly written of the mistake of “lowering the threshold” between our culture and that within the church.
      Certainly witness to others with sacrificial love in a language they understand. May this draw them to follow Christ in the Church. But let us not confuse witnessing and worship. Hence, again, my issue with many contemporary worship songs – who are they addressed to?

  6. “You are not free to express your worship to God when you worship communally.”

    I’m mobile at the moment so all I can say is “wow” to this at the moment. I’ll come back to it when I get a chance!

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