For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)
Our ten-year-old son Jon had invited a school friend to Sunday morning worship at St. Paul’s in Darien. His friend came from a family that considered themselves atheists and had never encouraged their son to attend any form of Christian worship. As a result, he was quite fascinated by our Sunday morning liturgy and asked lots of questions, including, “What are those upside-down brass hats that they are passing around?” Jon thought it rather funny but explained that they were offering plates to receive contributions from those worshipping. That led to many more fascinating questions.
Liturgy is a curious mixture of theology and tradition. When we were first introduced to the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), we discovered that they took the offertory very seriously – large offering baskets would be placed on tables at the front of the sanctuary and each person present would then make their way forward – dancing in a gentle sort of shuffle motion accompanied by the praise band. Old and young alike would join in the procession, and their offerings would be deposited with quite a flourish. There would sometimes be several offerings held during each service, and we learned to plan ahead! One consequence of this practice was that the larger the congregation, the longer the service.
Nigerian Anglicans never seemed to be in a hurry when it came to worship. They mixed together solemn Anglican chant – often sung in procession – with Victorian hymnody, contemporary praise songs, lively indigenous choruses, and powerful preaching. They also enjoyed impressive liturgical vestments and didn’t just limit them to the officiating clergy. Ushers, acolytes, and the Mothers Union all wore them with great style.
During one of our visits to the Church of Nigeria, we were invited to a choir festival where various local Anglican Church choirs came together for an evening of celebration – along with a friendly competition to identify the “best choir.” It was a wonderful experience filled with the exuberant singing of traditional hymns and anthems, and at the end of the evening, the local bishop led the closing prayers and final blessing. He was so overwhelmed that he concluded with a vigorous declaration: “I thank God I’m an Anglican!” Everyone stood and applauded in agreement!
During our visit to Dallas in the 1970s, we attended First Baptist Church, where the Pastor – Dr. W. A. Criswell (1909–2002) – regularly denounced what he called “liturgical churches”! And yet I noticed that the worship at First Baptist Church had a very formal liturgy. There was always an opening hymn, a pastoral greeting, another hymn, the offering – during which the choir or a soloist sang an anthem – a prayer, and then the sermon that was always followed by the hymn “Just as I Am.” After two verses, the choir would hum while the pastor made an altar call, then another verse, and then a final prayer. The service was televised, and it always lasted precisely 58 minutes! It was much more liturgical than most Anglican churches!
The term “liturgy” comes from Greek and means “public work.” Our Anglican liturgy still reflects the genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), whose carefully compiled and beautifully written prayer book was first published on January 15, 1549. Sadly, Cranmer never received any accolades for his extraordinary efforts. Upon the death of King Edward VI (1537–1553), Queen Mary I (1516–1558) acceded to the throne and did her best to reverse the English Reformation. Cranmer was one of her first targets. After several recantations, he was eventually martyred – burned at the stake in the middle of Oxford – on March 21, 1556.
The English Civil War of the 17th century drove the Church of England and her liturgy underground. Nevertheless, with the Restoration of the monarchy, the Book of Common Prayer was authorized by Parliament and Church of England in 1662 and became Anglicanism’s sine qua non. Due, in part, to the early missionary zeal of the Church of England, the BCP has now spread throughout the world and continues to shape the life and worship of the churches of the Anglican Communion and beyond.
Liturgy serves many different purposes. At its most basic it provides an order for common worship. Even those churches that consider themselves “non-liturgical” have a regular pattern for when they gather for worship. Our Anglican liturgy is grounded in Scripture and many of its elements remind us of our Jewish roots. Its regular use also imparts a common language of faith that is designed to not only instruct and inspire but also establish communities that can bear witness to the non-believing world of the redemptive love of God. Liturgy is never meant to be a “straight-jacket” stifling of the creativity and imagination of the local community, but rather to provide a framework to allow us to draw closer to God and to one another.
One of the common complaints about liturgy is that it is repetitive … but that is precisely the point. Liturgy is intended to help shape our character and establish godly habits within each one of us. Repetition is how we form habits – both bad and good. One of Cranmer’s original goals was to provide resources for daily worship and thus shape the day-to-day pattern of life and behavior for communities and individual believers.
We had a taste of this shaping during our first visit to the Church of Nigeria in 2004. We were in Ideato in the southeast part of Nigeria, staying with Archbishop Bennett Okoro in his guest-house. After dinner we were invited to the family’s evening prayers in the Archbishop’s chapel – several of their eight children were present. We sang “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide” and prayed all of the familiar Anglican evening prayers, including the collect, “Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord.” And even though we were well over 5600 miles from home, in a very unfamiliar country, we knew that we were at home.
I do recognize that Anglican liturgy can be an obstacle for the first-time visitor or the newcomer – such as Jon’s school friend. In my next Ad Clerum, I will describe one way in which I have tackled the problem … stay tuned until next week!
Your brother in Christ,