Last weekend wasn’t my ‘shining hour’ liturgy-wise. I presided at four Divine Services using three Settings. I could almost hear the advocates of only ever using the one liturgical setting smirking. It wasn’t that I did anything liturgically wrong, chanted a heresy or the like, but I was conscious that I occasionally stumbled over a word and I had to check the wording or place-ment of a liturgical component and my sense of fluency together with my ‘theatre sense’ of doing things so that people engage with you but really ‘see through’ you to the reality that is happening – heaven and earth intersecting (as it is sometimes described) – did get a blip or two. Of course the big truth (and relief!) is that I’m not important and the Lord of the Church was still present and active and serving and blessing those who came around him in worship. (If there was a compensation, I thought that the fourth version of the sermon was pretty good! 😉 … Sorry to the earlier three congrega-tions! 😉 )
But it did get me thinking again about what is im-portant in worship. I am a ritualist and I think patterns and regularity of behaviour – words said, physical actions, the use of space, light, clothes – all contribute to structuring the encounter with God and binding the people together. It is important that there is consistency in words – think the Creeds or the Lord’s Prayer or liturgical responses – and ‘consistency’ means a rather a long time – a gen-eration or two or more – but the consistency should not ‘set like concrete’. Language changes and that means that the words used might also change over time. We no longer read the New Testament in Greek or pray in Latin. How a Church Body changes its liturgies is another issue but the changes should be agreed by all and not just be made ‘locally’ which contrib-utes to fragmentation.
But what is more critical to me is that the liturgies follow the pattern or order of worship that we believe God has established. There is a sequence for the Divine Service which might be summarised as Gathering – Word – Meal – Sending. Some people have seen the historic liturgy as a combination of the rites and functions of synagogue and temple. However people understand Christian worship’s liturgical structure, what remains important is the view that we didn’t create it but we received it. Moses was given instructions about the tabernacle – the pattern of it – from God – rather than designing it and the rites and rituals from his creative imagination (see the word ‘pattern’ in the Bible). Paul in responding to the ‘worship squab-bles’ in Corinth talks about things being done ‘decently and in order’ (1 Corinthians 14:40) and I wonder whether the ‘in order’ has links back to what they had received from Jesus. And this means, for me, that what is most important in coming to worship is knowing what we are doing throughout the liturgy – but, more importantly, what God is doing to us!
Sure, I’d like the conducting of whatever liturgy to be smooth. And I’m ok with new hymnals or songbooks and liturgical forms (which can take some learning) but what remains foundational is the pattern or order of what we are doing – and knowing why. This knowledge doesn’t make God present and get him to act but it certainly can help us understand – and teach our children or ‘translate’ to the visitor – what God is doing and what we are receiving. That, in turn, helps us keep ritual ‘true’ to what God intends and in words that mean what they say or in other words ‘alive’. GS