Liturgy versus The Next Thing
Historical continuity, represented in liturgies and creeds,
has implications for the entire culture
By Colin Foote Burch
I grew up in churches with loosely structured worship services, full of acoustic
guitars, tambourines, and free-flowing times of speaking in tongues. They lacked
reference to the historical continuity of the Christian faith – no creeds, no ancient
prayers, and rarely anything like Holy Communion. Today I embrace liturgical
worship because it holds a creedal and sacramental grounding in the faith of those
who went before me. I love the liturgical forms within
The Book of Common
. During the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy, I am within an
historical, theological and aesthetic ritual that connects past, present, future and
the eternal, and that commingles the seen and the unseen. The ritual educates, too,
because the weekly repetition of prayers, the Nicene Creed, and the Eucharistic
Liturgy reinforces the Christian basics and sets phrases in my mind that I can recall
during the week, offering a meditative vein for my thoughts. Although I have been
in journalism for a decade, thus giving me the confidence (or audacity) to write
about what interests me, I have only experienced liturgical worship for about four
years now. Having discovered the richness of liturgy, I think those who enter, or
return to, the Christian faith through non-liturgical churches should give liturgical
services a try, and that they should enrich that experience with reading in the
history of Christian worship.

That is a summary of why I started, and why I am writing this
essay – I believe historical continuity, in just about any area of life, is essential to
one’s ability to understand self, place, and time. Each person, regardless of
heritage, is a cultural artifact, not entirely his or her own, but an expression of
bloodline, folkways, traditions, and ideas. In an era of unprecedented choices,
technology, and mobility, a lack of historical grounding allows the possibility of
further alienation from community and disassociation from one’s essential self.
This is true in faiths, cultures, ideas, and families, so I started
with a desire to incorporate history and ideas into an editorial package that, as the
name indicates, is keen on liturgy and creed as a living reflection of ancient faith.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I should describe what I mean by
liturgy, in
practical and historical senses, because people use the term in different ways.

I’m using
liturgy in the sense that refers to the order of words, or ritual, of
services that incorporate Scriptural readings, ancient prayers, creeds, and Holy
Communion within an established form. These are services we find primarily
(although not exclusively) in the Anglican/Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Eastern
Orthodox, and Lutheran churches. I’m saying
liturgies, plural, to include the
liturgical rituals within these branches of Christianity, which differ but share
commonalities. At the very least, detailed rituals in worship services set liturgical
churches apart from most Protestant churches, and from the current expressions
of evangelicals and fundamentalists in worship and practice.

Liturgical worship is a bridge between Judaism and Christianity. Many readers will
already know that the Greek word for liturgy –
leitourgia – originally described
any kind of publicly performed work. How the word came to be used colloquially,
however, holds significance for both faiths. By the time the Greek translation of
the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, was more or less completed (around 132
leitourgia had become closely associated with public religious services in
the Temple, according to the
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. In
everyday life, the word
leitourgia had moved from being a general term to a more
specific term. The early Christians later used a form of service, loosely based on
the Temple services, to worship God and celebrate Holy Communion. Apparently,
liturgical forms were used very early in the Christian faith. The Liturgy of Saint
James is traditionally ascribed to the same James who was brother of Jesus Christ
and first bishop of Jerusalem.

Some have said that liturgy, in the strictest sense, is anything a church does as
public worship. Lutheran scholar Frank Senn, in his book
Christian Liturgy:
Catholic and Evangelical
, wrote, “Even Quakers, who admit no texts or
sacraments into their meetings, nevertheless observe certain patterns of behavior
in their meetings. What they do in their meetings is their
leitourgia, their ‘public
work.’ Their liturgy is a ritual that comprises gathering, communal silence, sharing
insights, and developing a sense of the meeting.”

Senn was, of course, correct in the strictest sense, and for the purposes of his
study. However, I think he made the clarification because the word
liturgy most
commonly, colloquially, refers to a specific type of church service, just as
leitourgia gained a more narrow definition within common usage. The Oxford
Dictionary of the Christian Church
noted two common usages for liturgy: to
describe the Eucharistic portion of worship, and to describe the written form, or
ritual, of services in which the Holy Communion is the central act of public
worship. Those senses of the word have been used in popular books, scholarship,
and ministry training, and at the very least, they draw distinctions between churches
with weekly celebrations of the Eucharist and those in which Holy Communion is
occasional or rare. For example, Anglican scholar Reginald Fuller wrote about
“liturgical preaching” as a bridge between the Liturgy of the Word (the Scriptural
readings before the sermon) and the Eucharistic Liturgy (which soon follows the
sermon). In that sense, Fuller is using a more contextualized, if no more accurate,
meaning for
liturgy than Senn.

With the dominance, and characteristics, of present-day evangelicalism in the
United States, it is probably worth answering this question: What is the
relationship between liturgy and worship? On this point, Senn gives another
excellent clarification. “Liturgy is what Christians have performed in their public
assemblies. Worship is both more and less than liturgy. It is more in that it
includes the devotional practices of individuals and households as well as public
praise and common prayer; it is less in that liturgy is not only prayer but ritual.”


I like the way liturgy connects worshippers to the ancient dawn of Christianity, and
even partially reflects earlier Jewish services, essentially the Jewish root of
Christian faith. Things that are old, repetitive, and ritualized are not usually in
fashion, to be sure, and not-in-fashion often smacks of irrelevance in
contemporary minds. Parts of Christianity have been operating on that premise for
decades now, and that attitude has become ingrained in much of evangelical and
charismatic worship and ministry. For example, the Christian contemporary band
called downhere (the lowercase being part of the name) opens the song “Dying to
Know You” with an assumption that tradition equates with formulaic deadness:

Old streets don’t lead back where they used to
We blaze new trails to ancient places
I still love You just like I used to
But this love won't fit spreadsheets

I certainly agree that living faith cannot (by definition) be formulaic, and that it
should be part of a moment-by-moment response to God, despite the confusion
left in the wake of leaders who have claimed special revelations from God. Having
grown up in the charismatic movement -- which, for all its failings, defines itself
as an experiential and existential religion -- I doubt I can ever see faith operating
solely within the mental and the ritualistic. Our hearts matter in faith and
discipleship. That being said, liturgies are simple, aesthetic, and necessary
presentations of the basics of the Christian faith, and they lead back to the ancient
Gospel message. A zeal for doctrinal precision might be the kind of thing that
belongs on downhere’s metaphorical spreadsheet, but liturgical services do not
belong there, describing as they do the unchanging, timeless, classical Christian
faith. Jaroslav Pelikan, the imminent historian of Christianity at Yale University
who died recently, hinted at the distinction between timelessness and staleness in
The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, a distinction that is helpful whether one
considers ritual or doctrinal precision to be stale. “Tradition is the living faith of
the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” Pelikan wrote.

Others have warned that the living faith of the dead has passed out of today's
ministry. “Too many within church leadership today seem to have forgotten that the
building of a foundational Christian identity is based upon that which the church
has received, preserved, and carefully transmitted to each generation of believers.
In other words, the memory of how the historic faith of the church was established
and subsequently modeled as the pattern for informing the faith in each new age
has become irrelevant for the ministry,” wrote Daniel H. Williams in
the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious

To be sure, liturgy and the accompanying creeds are only part of what was handed
down to Christians. Catechisms, doctrinal formulations, books, and encyclicals are
part of Christian tradition and history. All of the tradition and history ought to be
seen as a potential source of great, continuing value. Stephen R. Holmes wrote that
“because of the doctrine of creation, historical locatedness is something good. The
tradition we inherit is part of our location in history, and so in doing theology it is
necessary to relate to the tradition” (from
Listening to the Past: The Place of
Tradition in Theology

And Loren Mead, in
The Once and Future Church, got to the heart of the matter,
explaining why stability and consistency matters. “When the new way is considered
the only way, there is no continuity, fads become the new Gospel and in Paul’s
words, the church is ‘blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine,’” Mead wrote.


If those points establish the value of tradition, they might not express the value of
weekly repetition in the liturgy. So why repeat the basics week after week?

When I began attending a liturgical church on a weekly basis, I unknowingly began
memorizing parts of the liturgy. Passages would reemerge in my mind during the
week, between church services, reorienting my mind and helping a prayerful
attitude. I found the liturgy to be a tutor for my heart and mind.

Creedal repetition is also valuable because it is too easy, in some Christian
subcultures, to move from sermon to small group to sermon with little
contemplation of what has been said. Such a pattern is like repeatedly trying to
drink from a fire hose. The consistency found in liturgies offers a meditative value,
in the biblical sense of meditation as focused thinking, akin to sipping slowly and
savoring. Liturgical passages saturate my mind through repetition, shoring up the
Gospel on a regular basis.

Furthermore, if a person unfamiliar with the Christian faith walks into a liturgical
church, he or she will hear the Nicene Creed, along with other reinforcements of
Trinitarian faith (“blessed be God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit”) and the
Eucharistic liturgy, which repeats the central Gospel story of Christ’s passion.
Newbies might want to learn some details about what it all means for their lives,
but they won’t be confused about the central beliefs of the Christian faith. They
won't be misled into thinking the Christian faith is about a seven-step recipe,
tortured out of the Bible, for a perfect marriage or financial freedom or moral
children who will never embarrass their parents.

Further still, liturgically oriented services make connections between the things
we see and the things we cannot see, placing us at the center of the ultimate source
of meaning for every human being. The liturgies are woven through with
sacramental and Incarnational imagery rich in sustaining grace. Liturgical churches
tend to place Holy Communion, the sacrament of bread and wine, at the center of
the service. As Thomas Howard writes in
Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S.
Eliot’s Four Quartets
: “…a sacramentalist is one who believes that the points at
which eternity touches time are physical points: Creation; Noah’s Ark; Moses’
tabernacle; the Incarnation, entailing as it does a uterine wall, a gestation, a
parturition, a circumcision, water turned to wine, a scourge, thorns, splinters, nails,
a corpse, a body up from its tomb, a taking of that body into the eternal Trinity, and
a Church made up of us mortals. This outlook is characteristic of Roman
Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Orthodoxy: Protestantism tends toward the
disembodied, focusing rather on the great abstractions of divine sovereignty,
grace, atonement, justification, and worship that shun as much as possible the
physical and that focus on the cerebral. Hence the centrality of the sermon in
Protestant worship.”

Many would equivocate about the extent to which Protestantism tends toward
disembodiment, and about the value of abstract understanding in learning theology
and doctrine. Fair enough. Howard’s point is still essential in maintaining the value
of the created world, and in recognizing that the Christian faith is about the
intersection of the seen and unseen, or the physical and the spiritual, all of which
are part of God’s created reality. This is the crux of the Incarnation. As other
writers have said, when God took on human flesh, it suggested something of the
value of the created, material world. Skin, bones, and the physical world around us
are not the same as “the flesh” which Scripture describes as the dwelling place of
human sinfulness. God created the physical world and called it good. The physical
world remains in bondage to decay; Christ came to take it back, even if that claim
is held against the future. “Creation longs for liberty from its bondage to decay,”
Saint Paul wrote.

The created, physical world still matters. In our age of the Internet and
communications technology, in which information is increasingly disembodied (as
this essay is, residing as it does online), it might be worthwhile to recall that
classical Christian doctrine was hashed out, in part, against the anti-material
mentality of dualistic Manichean and Gnostic thought (not to overlook the
complex role Plato’s philosophy played in the thought of some orthodox

I also think it is important to note that the leaders of the Protestant Reformation
wanted to keep Christian tradition. “Forms of discipline, liturgy and church
government used in Reformation churches were also consciously following
patristic models [or, models established by early Church Fathers]. Our evidence
shows that Reformers considered the patristic tradition as second only to biblical
authority, and used it as a critical source in vindication of their views. The
Tradition of the church was not the same as the traditions which they opposed; in
fact the former helped to expose the nature of the latter,” Williams wrote in
Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism.


With these things in mind, I think it is safe to suggest that there is no dead ritual,
only dead understandings, only attitudes unwilling to engage with that which has
been handed down. That unwillingness can be based on the frivolous expectations
of our time, which include new sensations and products – whether the latest
gadgets or the next ministry techniques. My hope is that can
play a role in exhorting the captives of our mass culture, myself included, to
cultivate an appreciation of tradition, creed, ritual, and place, especially (but not
exclusively) within Judeo-Christian heritages. If we can cultivate this appreciation,
we will avoid the implicit contemporary arrogance toward the old ways, what C.S.
Lewis’ friend Owen Barfield called “chronological snobbery.”







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