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What is Liturgy?


Too often I get the impression that when people think of, hear, or use the word ‘liturgy’, what springs to mind are: lavish processions, a robed choir, incense, reciting texts together from a book (or a screen). So you end up with people saying, “Our church is not very liturgical.” Or, “We don’t use liturgy a lot in our worship.” Etc.

But what if we realise that ‘liturgy’ is the word for ‘worshipping together’. Where two or more pray – that’s liturgy.

When one person prays aloud, and another person, or a group of persons say “Amen” to that prayer, making it their own – that’s liturgy.

When we, together, sing a song or hymn, someone else has put together the words we make our own, someone else has chosen that we sing that song. That’s liturgy.

When you pick up your Bible, even by yourself, and read, meditate, and pray with it, someone else has written down those words, someone else has bound that text into the Bible. That’s liturgy.

Liturgy is the work of God’s people, and the work for the people.

When ‘liturgy’ is ripped from the ordinary worship that people take for granted, then it’s obviously going to be difficult to make liturgy worshipful again!

I sometimes come across a photo taken in a tiny, rural church building and the vicar has proudly battled the congregation and has finally got his way with a small group of faithful followers prepared to dress up as a robed choir, in cassock and surplice, so that he and they can mimic cathedral worship. The impression may be that cathedral worship is pure, correct, ideal liturgy, and we must cookie-cutter and clone that wherever we are, without any regard for our specific context.

That, to me, is the very opposite of liturgy.

Liturgy is about real worship that the actual community does in its own specific, actual context.

To have a fully-vested bishop in chasuble, mitre, and holding a crozier, leading a home communion service in a living room, with the bishop seated on a sofa with a deacon in a dalmatic on the left, and a few others in the room – this image may be what some people may image as good liturgy. To me it is not.

Liturgy is just as much a couple of us praying morning prayer together, quite informally, as it is the lavish canonisation rite in St Peter’s, Rome.

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8 thoughts on “What is Liturgy?”

  1. If people are confused about the meaning of “liturgy” nowaadays, I think they are almost more likely to be confused by the meaning of “worship”. I think a lot of people’s understanding of “worship” is a form of musical entertainment.

    1. For a lot people Steve that is all it is. What might be a brilliant idea in all parishes ( of all denominations )is NOT to have contracted ‘directors of music’ and NOT have liturgy committees. Let the Holy Spirit into the pews – she doesn’t want to sit on a committee.

  2. It is a shame that ‘liturgy’ has onomatopoeic resonances with the word ‘turgid’. I can hardly read the word without feeling a certain grimness of heart. I blame the endless choir practices I attended as a child, the distant mumbling sermons and dour-faced widows affixed to their own isolated pew for forty years.

    When I was a novice nun, though, “The Liturgy” was our word for Holy Communion, and so the word was redeemed for me as a reference to the most important and joyful part of the communal day.

  3. Thanks Bosco.

    So simple, but you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    When we drift into either extreme of pretending we don’t use liturgy (and embracing chaos or, as Steve says, mere entertainment to prove it) or making liturgy something of an idol (as in some of the rather comical examples you describe above) we miss the opportunity to encounter God and one another in profound and life-changing ways.

    I love the small, “ordinary” ways you describe the authentic practice of liturgy in this post. I suspect I will be quoting your examples in my own training and writing.

    Thanks again.

  4. I wish we could get back to the ‘small’ and the ‘ordinary’. What ever happened to the early morning quiet said Mass – no fuss, no frills, and, thank God, no sermon – just a plain unadorned celebration of Holy Communion?

  5. I loved your image of the bishop and deacon in a living room! :)))

    I still remember what former prisoners, who were also priests, told me about how they used to celebrate the sacraments in prison. Everything was from simple to simpliest.

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