Liturgies: their Value and their Limitations

The issue is not about the presence of liturgy, but rather, its faithfulness to the Scriptural paradigms for worship and its effectiveness in genuinely engaging the worshippers in attendance.

Many expressions of contemporary liturgy are found wanting. They are often shallow in content, repetitive in nature and more inclined to draw attention to the person or persons leading worship than to God as it true object. Regardless of its pursuit of spontaneity and authenticity, too often it loses depth and vitality because it has less to ‘fuel’ it than many older expressions of praise throughout church history.

 

Just recently I had the opportunity to worship in the church in which I grew up. It is Episcopalian and for the first time in a very long time I found myself following the order of the Book of Common Prayer. It was one of the more recent editions of the Prayer Book; but, nevertheless, the shape and contours of the 16th Century original were still very recognisable.

Throughout the service I found myself not only appreciating the richness of this centuries old form for worship, but also musing afresh on the value and limitations of a self-consciously liturgical approach to public praise. The fact that, like so many people over the past few months, I had acquired my own copy of Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present, edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey, meant this theme had already been much on my mind for several weeks.

That there is real value in liturgy is beyond question. Even those churches whose worship is self-consciously ‘spontaneous’ are actually liturgical without their realising it. Every act of worship is a leitourgia [Gk] – an offering up of praise to God. So the issue is not about the presence of liturgy; but rather, its faithfulness to the Scriptural paradigms for worship and its effectiveness in genuinely engaging the worshippers in attendance.

On this point many expressions of contemporary liturgy are immediately found wanting. They are often shallow in content, repetitive in nature and more inclined to draw attention to the person or persons leading worship than to God as it true object. Regardless of its pursuit of spontaneity and authenticity, too often it loses depth and vitality because it has less to ‘fuel’ it than many older expressions of praise throughout church history.

Flicking through the BCP again, during my recent return to an Anglican service, left me freshly impressed by the value of this almost 500-year old resource. Thomas Cranmer and those who aided him in its production, not only provided countless Christians with a rich and varied expression of praise that traversed key doctrines and pivotal moments in the story of redemption over the church year, but it was also built around a core of ‘staples’ for faith: central truths and vital staging posts that underpin the hope of the gospel.

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