By Rev. Rebecca
The Anglican (Episcopal) Church is accurately described as a "liturgical church" and our worship is entirely liturgical. Below is an explanation as to why we use and love liturgy.
1. Liturgy is Active and Participatory
Liturgy literally means, “the work of the people.” Worship in the early church was liturgical-it was not a passive experience but a participatory action and event in which the assembled people of God actively worshipped together. Liturgy requires the active participation of the whole assembly through corporate forms of prayer, song, response, and action. (See the section which explains specific participatory acts in the last section for details.)
2. Liturgy is Biblical
When we look to the many models we have of worship in Scripture, we find some common themes. First, we see that God’s people took seriously the holiness of God in their worship. Often in our western expressions of worship, we have lost a sense of God’s holiness in our well-meaning attempts to make God more approachable. This is where we need to make a distinction: God is indeed approachable through Jesus Christ because Jesus has mediated salvation and forgiveness to us. (“Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.” Eph.3:12). However, God is still God and deserves to be approached with awe, reverence, and deep respect for God’s Holiness and Other-ness in the context of worship. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Hebrews 12:28-29 reminds us, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”
Old Testament worship, as well as early Church worship, was liturgical. It included liturgical elements such as ritual and decorative, beautiful surroundings. In God’s commands to build the Temple, it was to be decorated ornately with golden cherubs, lamp stands, carvings, dishes for incense, fine linens of blue and purple, crimson yarns, looping blue curtains, sacred vestments, bells, anointing oils, perfumes, etc. (See Ex. 25-30). These passages shed light on how God deigns to be worshipped by God’s people; we can apply the spirit of such worship in our worship environments today.
This tradition of taking seriously the holiness of God continues in the New Testament. Notice that Jesus was raised in the context of the fullness of Jewish worship. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus participated fully in the liturgical celebrations and rites of the Temple and local Synagogues. Jesus never spoke against the form of worship itself, but he did speak out against the legalism and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day. Jesus upheld the idea that God’s house is to be a place of reverential prayer and worship; the only account we have of Jesus being greatly angered is when he encounters the money changers in the Temple. The people were not taking seriously the sanctity of God’s house and had turned it into a market place and “den of robbers.” This is a serious sin.
One of Paul’s major concerns regarding worship was that it be “done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Paul wanted everyone to participate fully in worship, his only concern was that order and decency be upheld, “for God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).
The book of Revelation also offers us a vivid picture of worship as it takes place in heaven. In it we find the elders falling down on their faces before God, we see an ocean of people and creatures paying homage to God day and night without ceasing. We hear the refrain of angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev.4:8) before God who is seated on the throne. All focus and praise is on God and God alone. If we truly believe and understand that we are in the presence of the Lord of Lords, our worship ought to reflect that!
Of course, taking seriously God’s holiness does not negate the joy of worship. If anything, it should increase our sense of joy! Worship should be joyful because it is celebratory. We are in the presence of the Holy Victorious King and have the privilege of worshipping and glorifying God!
Liturgy in the church today is directly related to Jewish worship. Liturgy has the intent of taking seriously the holiness of God through its ordered structure and ancient refrains. That is one of the reasons why the early Church incorporated liturgical forms of worship. There is a time and place for everything, but worship is one of those times when we approach God in a spirit and form of true, deep reverence, acknowledging the Divine Holy presence among us.
But doesn’t liturgy and ritual eventually become empty and meaningless?
Possibly, but all forms of worship run this risk. This is more of an indicator of the state of one’s heart than the form of worship. In fact, most churches do have some kind of “ritual” in their worship even if they don’t call it that, i.e., it follows the same form week after week: sing songs, give announcements, pray, hear a sermon, and conclude with a song. Anything we do and any form of worship can become empty and meaningless when it is not done in the right spirit; it will become merely acting out a part rather than participating with our hearts, minds, and spirits. But if our worship is truly Spirit-filled and our hearts are open to God, then our worship will glorify God. The key to authentic worship is having a heart and attitude of praise and reverence that seeks to earnestly glorify God. Liturgy seeks to facilitate true worship.
There is no absolute “right” or “wrong” form of worship, in fact, it may be that certain forms are more assessable to some people than others. But worship that seeks to glorify God (and not merely to make the individual most comfortable or stimulated) will strive to create a worship environment that is utterly pleasing to God, whatever form that may take. We take our cues from the Bible in the worship mandated by God in the Hebrew Scriptures and the clear picture we have of heavenly worship in the book of Revelation.
A pitfall in much modern worship is that the focus easily falls on the self/individual instead of on God. Not only is the corporate character of worship lost, but the goal and purpose of worship is lost. Many contemporary praise and worship songs focus more on one’s feelings, hopes, desires, etc. than on God. While these concepts are important and necessary, they do not meet the goal of worship, which is ultimately to glorify God. Often the driving question behind modern worship is “What is most conducive for the people?” rather than “What is most glorifying to God”?
Another pitfall in modern worship is that it has the tendency to become pastor-centric and teaching-centric. The focus of the worship service becomes one person and their sermon. The service literally rises or falls on the individual and their sermon. But this is not the model of worship Scripture gives us. Rather, worship is joyful service we give to God because we owe God our abundant praise: it is entirely God-centered and God-focused. Teaching and learning have their own essential place in the life of the Christian, but worship is not the same as teaching. We need to return to authentic forms of worship to help us re-learn how to worship today.
3. Liturgy Connects Us to Christians Throughout the Ages
Liturgy incorporates the form and content of the worship of the early, ancient church. It includes the Psalms, creeds, hymns, and verses used by the earliest Christians. The use of these components reminds us that we do not worship God in a historical vacuum, but are connected to God’s people throughout time.
In the liturgy we recite the Kyrie “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy” which has its origins in the Hebrew Hosannah, was used later by the ancient Greek Christians, and was standardized by the fourth century. The “Gloria in excelsis” was derived from the angelic hymn at our Saviour’s birth and is an ancient Messianic song of the Jews. All of the major components of the liturgy, including the Eucharistic prayer, find their origins in Jewish, Biblical, or very early Christian worship.
4. Liturgy is Holistic Worship
Liturgy invites participants to worship God holistically, with body, mind, and spirit. Often in our western society worship is reduced to the intellect. But God invites us to worship more fully. Our intellects may be engaged by a sermon or teaching, but our bodies usually are not and participants should not be mere spectators. In a liturgical worship environment, one’s body and senses are fully engaged. Your body participates along with your mind and spirit through physical acts of kneeling, crossing oneself, rising, and coming forward to the altar. The senses are engaged through visual means in art, candles, and symbol, through the smell and smoke of incense, through the hearing and singing of music and bells, through taste and touch in Communion and the Sacraments. All of these invite us to lift up our hearts, minds, and bodies to God in praise, adoration, and worship.
A part of worshipping God holistically with our bodies includes our obedience to the mandate “offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to the Lord” (Romans 12:1). When we worship God holistically, we are reminded of this command.
5. Liturgy is Incarnational
Our faith is an incarnational faith. (Incarnation is the embodiment of the spiritual in a material form.) Christianity is focused on a person: Jesus Christ who is God Incarnate. Unlike spiritualism or Gnosticism that deny the material as a good part of God’s creation, Christianity affirms the inherent goodness of all creation, including the physical and material (Genesis 1:31 “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”). Christians also recognize that God comes to us, communicates with us, and works in our lives in incarnational ways. The Bible is full of examples of the incarnational ways God has of relating to God’s people. Some examples include God’s presence among the Israelites through a Cloud and the Tabernacle, God’s use of Aaron’s rod and Moses’ staff to perform miracles, God’s way of speaking through people and the prophets, God communicating to us through the book of the Bible, and through Jesus Christ himself, the ultimate incarnation. Other ways God speaks to us incarnationally include: creation, art, music, the Sacraments, the Church, books, and other people. Christians affirm and understand that God uses such physical, material, and tangible means to communicate with us and touch us directly.
Liturgical communities take this incarnational theology and utilize it fully. God does not insist that we become perfectly spiritual in order to commune with God. No, God stoops down to us and takes on our earthly essence and life in order to speak to us and touch us. We are called to be open to God’s touch and message and can expect to see it in the beauty of creation, the rhythm of worship, in water, bread, wine, in a beautiful picture or icon, in the radiance of a candle flame, in an image shining through a stained glass window, in elegant architecture, or in the gesture or touch of another person. We believe that liturgy itself mediates God’s presence and message to us in powerful ways; we wait expectantly on God who graciously comes to us in these ordinary, earthy ways, just as God came to us as a tiny infant in a straw-filled manger.