Sunday, February 15, 2009

On liturgy

Hughes Oliphant Old in Guides to the Reformed Tradition: Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), p. 162 (quoted in Jeffrey Meyers, The Lord's Service, p. 152):
There are good reasons for having an established liturgy.... In the first place liturgical forms are a good means of teaching the essentials of the Christian faith. When familiar liturgical forms and texts are used again and again, it gives us the opportunity to meditate on them and to penetrate their meaning more deeply. When there are well established procedures with which everyone is familiar, it makes it easier to concentrate on content rather than on outward from. Any athlete understands the importance of mastering form. Such simple things as breathing must be done correctly, but this is essential so that eventually they can be done spontaneously, without effort, without thinking about them. The concentration must be on other things. Forms are a means to an end, and if they are constantly changing they obscure the end rather than lead to it.
The athletic analogy is a good one. When I triple jumped in high school, I always started with my left foot at 84 feet, 4 inches from the board and took 7 strides before taking off. I rehearsed this over and over until I could do it with my eyes closed without even having to count or think. It wasn't because I wanted to zone out or relax during a jump--it was because I needed to focus my thoughts and efforts on jumping higher and farther, without being worried about shortening or lengthening my stride to hit the board just right.

A litergy includes (traditionally) several elements. In a Latin Mass you would commonly have kyrie, gloria, credo, sanctus, and agnus dei. In a Reformed church you are likely to have some variation on call to worship, response, hymn of praise, confession, declaration of pardon, creed, offerings, doxology, congregational prayer, exposition, and benediction. Even the most "informal" of churches has some kind of liturgy, even if they eschew the term. There are times of singing, of prayer, of thinking, of communicating. Whatever the liturgical form chosen, it does seem to me that its predictability would add to its usefulness. The congregants, rather than worrying about when they should stand or sit or what element of worship comes next, may focus their thoughts and energies on actually praying or listening or thinking.