Trinity College grounds

What makes liturgy so special?

Trinity’s Farnham Maynard Lecturer in Ministry Education and Director of the Ministry Education Centre, the Revd Dr Fergus King, looks at the occasion of gathering for liturgy, and why it’s important to remember what it means.

Church alter with bible and candle

One of the givens of Christian life is that people gather for liturgy, not just on Sundays, but on other occasions. The frequency with which this occurs suggests a familiarity or ease with the practice of worship.

However, this apparent familiarity raises several questions, the first of which, given the love of the tradition of worship, is why so many people do not share, or even see, what we think is so special.  Liturgy is often typecast as boring, dull, redundant, old-fashioned or, the bugaboo of today in particular, irrelevant. The list can go on, and make us wonder what is wrong with ourselves, when what we cherish seems alien to so many.

Peer pressure can be a dreadfully potent force.

One of the factors that may have contributed to both criticism of liturgy both inside and outside the church is the tragic reductionism to which it has been exposed. In the interests of avoiding theological confrontations over what happens in the Eucharist (Real Presence, spiritual presence, or just remembering), features like ‘community’, then presented as some act of tepid, fuzzy bonding that showed how everyone gets along, dominated the discussion.

Such presentations reduced liturgy to banality, even if liturgical Basil Fawlties have managed to avoid mentioning the war. At worst, the importance of the eucharist was barely distinguishable from that of the coffee served afterwards.  Well, if you set your sights low…

In his last novel, The Cunning Man, the Canadian man of letters, Robertson Davies, offered an alternative view, describing the Sung Mass at an imagined Anglo-Catholic parish in Toronto. He suggests that liturgy is more than just community, but a source of beauty:

…this is beauty of a very special kind. Beauty and reverence and it is like cool water in a thirsty land. So it is for the beauty we go…

But we can go further than Davies, whose aesthetics, improvement as they are on the reductionist readings, still do not engage with fullness of the Eucharist.  The Heavenly Meal, hosted by Christ, and presented in this realm to his people. Nothing less than the meeting place of heaven and earth.

Remembering this language of eternity also frees from the constraints of having to be relevant to the here and now: the language of heaven and earth has always has been, and always will be, relevant to the human condition. All of this takes place on the altar - and we need to constantly remember and be reminded of this.

But, and here is the $64,000 dollar question, how do you, dear reader, react to these startling claims?  Even for the most devout, sometimes this language looks grandiose. So, we need to start by rethinking the ways in which we describe our liturgy and worship. Let’s reclaim the old language. Let’s talk of heaven and earth, because the language of our modern secular world will not cut it.

Another insight from Robertson Davies; this one from What’s Bred in the Bone:

Well, science is the theology of our time, and like the old theology it’s a muddle of conflicting assertions. What gripes my gut is that it has such a miserable vocabulary and such a pallid lack of images to offer to us - the humble laity - for our edification and our faith. The old priest in his black robe gave us things that seemed to have concrete existence; you prayed to the Mother of God and somebody had given you an image that looked just right for the Mother of God. The new priest in his whitish lab coat gives you nothing at all except a constantly changing vocabulary which he - usually because he doesn’t know any Greek - can’t pronounce, and you are expected to trust him implicitly because he knows what you are too dumb to comprehend. It’s the most overweening, pompous priesthood mankind has ever endured in all its recorded history and its lack of symbol and metaphor and zeal for abstraction drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination. But you, Maria, speak the old language that strikes upon the heart.

I, for one, would rather my heart was struck than be bamboozled by science, which often regrettably includes the new theology.

Unfortunately, and, to use some old language, I speak from within the belly of the Beast, theology and liturgical studies today too often indulge in the miserable and ever-changing vocabulary.

So, if we want to learn about liturgy, my first controversial proposal would be that we return to the language of old, be unabashed in using it, and let its richness and imagery seep through our pores. The language of today cannot, does not, will not, convey the truths of eternity. Let us speak of heaven, of earth, of sacrifice. When we use words like community, let us set aside the anaemic definitions, of human bonding (to riff on Somerset Maugham) and head back to the world of Paul, where community (koinônia) indicated nothing less than a full devotion and allegiance to Christ, to which we assent by eating His body and drinking His blood. We eat with Christ: we are in his thrall - and this is a good thing.

Those of us insiders who want to learn of liturgy need to remind ourselves of the fullness of these claims, and constantly and intentionally bask in awe and wonder at the full promises which the words and images promise. When we worship in a liturgical tradition, it means that we take pains to learn the intricate symbolism of those rites: of the meaning of colours, of vestments, of gestures. When we do not know what is going on, we take the time to find out.

For those already inside the church, the order of liturgy itself affords an ideal opportunity for learning. Experience suggests that parish studies focused on liturgy will not attract many takers - anymore than most educational activities do. The time when most people will be around to hear about liturgy is during the liturgy. The sermon or homily, might, on occasion, be used to provide such instruction on symbolism, gesture, or even the different performed elements in a rite: why does the priest, for example, elevate the host and chalice, and why at those particular points?  Priests who use the old ‘secrets’, often muttered under one’s breath, might do well to explain, (a) that this happens, and (b), how the prayer explains the gesture. Consider the prayer used when wine and water are mixed at the offertory, as is the majority practice in older rites:

By the mixing of this water and wine,
may we come to share
in his divinity
who humbled himself to share
in our humanity.

Doesn’t that explain a lot - and ask us to focus on the gift of Christ in the Incarnation, in accord with all that Scripture and the Creeds teach? Does it not enact that theological truth in a liturgical gesture? Does it not remind us of Athanasius: ‘He became man, that we might become divine’…

We do not just see and hear, but now we enact the stuff of faith… And only the most bone-headed heretic could find that statement of Our Lord’s Incarnation and offer of salvation offensive, irrespective of their preferred eucharistic theology. After all, the 39 Articles, without defining a single eucharistic theology,  remind us on the necessity of receiving the sacrament for salvation. Doesn’t knowing what is going on, even in those two simple sentences, give the liturgy a bit more oomph?

Of course, for such gestures and explanations to be effective, participants will need to be encouraged to stop following the prayer book or screen and look at the action which unfolds in the sanctuary. So, active looking and active learning, which enhance participation in liturgy is more helpful than a focus on the book in hand. It is a bit like a safari: no one would, I hope, go to the Serengeti and spend all their time looking at their guidebook of animals while the real fauna is chasing each other beside them.

What about those making the journey from being outsiders to insiders?

Here, our methods will likely differ from those of the past. While Paul could baptise folk very quickly after they first heard the gospel (Acts 16:33), the church evolved a long period of learning, the catechumenate, in which converts might spend as long as three years preparing to be admitted to baptism and the eucharist. This presumably included instruction in matters of faith and worship.

It is unlikely that we will manage to convince many of the need to engage with such a lengthy programme. Today, for many, any instruction is most likely limited to what is taught in preparation for Confirmation, and many discipleship courses like Alpha have little interest in liturgy. So, there needs to be a definite attempt to include teaching about liturgy within our education and outreach programs. If we do not teach that it is important, folk will not see that. The reductionists will triumph again – ‘More tea, Vicar?’.

But we should not wait for people to join those programs. Many come to church, to the liturgy first, and risk being lost if they are not quickly assisted to find their liturgical bearings. Our worship resources do not always help. If I am using the Second Order in the APBA, I will often introduce it by saying, ‘We begin on page 119’. It must be admitted that p. 119 is not usually the obvious beginning of anything.

So, if we see a new face struggling valiantly with the generous abundance of prayer book, hymn book, reading sheet and parish newsletter, which an Anglican church can provide to bewilder the neophyte, the occasional prompt or showing of which is currently in used can be done unobtrusively. But do remember, you don’t need to sit on their lap, metaphorically or literally. That can be as off-putting as being left well alone.

And clergy? Please give out the page numbers, and even, sometimes, suggest that the books be set aside, that gaze be fixed on the meeting place of heaven and earth (the altar, for anyone who has lost the thread…), and let the heavenly drama speak for itself.

By the Revd Dr Fergus King




Category: Theological School

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