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“Bowing and scraping”? A response to a few objections to liturgical worship

August 10, 2015

A few years ago, my wife and I took the plunge and were confirmed in (became members of) an Anglican* church in Dallas. I remember well the general attitude I encountered throughout my previous church life and in Bible college (and which I held myself) about liturgical worship. It wasn’t good. Liturgy was formalistic and rote and cold. So why this change for us? My interest began to develop in the late ’90s, while my wife’s only began when we visited our current church four years ago. We aren’t dyed-in-the-wool Anglicans; I’ve never identified myself by my church type or denomination.  I’m a conservative Christian who still likes the designation “evangelical” when understood in theological terms (rather than social ones).

What I’d like to do hear is to offer fairly briefly responses to the objections I heard often and assumed to be true myself. If a person is going to reject something (or choose not to participate), it shouldn’t be for the wrong reasons. Especially now with our culture showing less and less appreciation for anything Christian (except for prayers in times of emergency), we don’t need to have unnecessary barriers between Christians. This is much less a problem for the Millennial generation than for mine (Baby Boomers) and previous, and not always for good reasons. Understand that I’m not here talking about theological matters in which relativistic or skeptical thinking can be a problem. I’m talking about worship practices.

So there is no intent here to persuade others to come with us. I just know that the liturgical world is foreign to a lot of my friends, as it was to me, and the differences aren’t seen by all as mere differences but are seen rather in a negative or at least questionable light. Our friends from previous churches are too polite to ask us directly what in the heck we’re doing, and they have enough confidence in us (I hope!) to believe we wouldn’t make a foolish move–at least, not intentionally! But I know concerns are there. It can be detected in the surprised “Really?” that comes when I tell someone of our move. A more extreme attitude surfaced in a conversation I had with a professor at a local seminary. He told me he visited a big (conservative) Episcopal church in Dallas once (for what reason, I don’t know), and there he saw a mutual acquaintance “doing all that bowing and scraping.” I was so taken back that I was momentarily speechless. When I could get my mouth working, it seemed the better move to say nothing given the circumstances. Chances are, anything I would have said wouldn’t have made a difference in his thinking.

I grew up in a Presbyterian church (first Southern Presbytery and then PCA) that had strong social ties with some local Baptists. Members sometimes referred to themselves as “Bapterians.” Subsequently I have attended several Bible, community, and Baptist churches. Since the Christian world I was in was very big, I felt no loss at not having any first-hand acquaintance with liturgical churches. In the same way that, say, cradle Baptists might not know how much is going on in other churches because the Baptist world is so big, I, too, grew up in a big Christian world that offered much: not only a slew of churches that believed much the same but also mission agencies, publication houses, radio stations, etc. We weren’t connected by denomination but rather by doctrine and interests. Given that I assumed, because of the attitude I had imbibed, that liturgical churches were mainline and possibly just barely within the circle of authentic Christianity, there was no reason to investigate. As a consequence, I had no familiarity with liturgical worship. The Anglican world was as foreign to me as the Greek Orthodox Church, and I didn’t sense anything missing.

My interest in the liturgical world was piqued when, after returning to Virginia from seminary in 1988, I thought I should find out what went on in all those other churches around my own (and there were a lot of them). Among those I visited were a Lutheran church (Missouri Synod) and an Episcopal church. I found them interesting if not awkward with all the shuffling between Book of Common Prayer, hymn book, Bible, and church bulletin. After we moved to Texas in 1997, I visited a conservative Episcopal church in the neighborhood on occasion and even attended their catechism for awhile. Several years after we moved from that neighborhood I frequently visited another Episcopal church in the area. In both of those churches I taught a few times.

What I found in these churches was rather startling. I had picked up the attitude quite strongly from Christians in my previous circles that liturgical churches were cold and formalistic and stifled the Spirit, and that the attendees were probably hovering on the outskirts of genuine Christian orthodoxy. I think that if I had asked some knowledgeable teachers and preachers directly if that’s how things really were in liturgical churches, they would have acknowledged genuine Christian belief by some or by many, but likely might have quickly offered an objection or two to the formality if nothing else. What I found, however, were committed Christians who were serious about their faith (not all were, of course, but neither are all who attend Bible and Baptist** churches). They were most definitely conservative (and evangelical in a certain sense). J. I. Packer spoke at the second of the two several times. This was during the time when there was great upheaval in the ECUSA because of its liberal moral stances. I attended a great gathering of Episcopalians-turned-Anglicans in Dallas held in response to the ordination of a gay bishop. These were definitely not liberal Christians with a cold religiosity! And during this season of observing Episcopal worship and practice, I was reading about Anglicanism and related topics, such as the nature and value of liturgy and the connectedness of the church through history.

Before responding to objections, I want to give a few positive reasons for my move to an Anglican church. One was the worldwide character of the Anglican Communion. I spent most of my adult life in nondenominational churches where I imbibed (although not taught in a formal way) the attitude that there is something distasteful about denominations. Why should people who aren’t part of our church tell us how to do things? To have any oversight by a church government somewhere else, especially way over in England, made no sense. For a long time I agreed, although I must acknowledge that I only heard the nondenominational voices. However, I came to like the idea of formal connectedness with believers in other churches in America and overseas that is in addition to my relatedness to all Christians by virtue of our union in Christ. Also, I saw the value of formal accountability to others outside one’s own local church. Pastors and other church leaders need to be accountable, too, and not just to each other.

Another reason was the consciousness of a historical connectedness with Christians back through the centuries to the time of the apostles, a consciousness I rarely encountered apart from my church history class in Bible college. Only on rare occasion was any mention made in sermons or Sunday School classes of anything in church history or the history of Christian thought since apostolic times except for the Reformation. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin occasionally made appearances, but besides them all that mattered was the New Testament church and the evangelical and fundamentalist churches of the late nineteenth century up until our own day.

Thus, my first and second reasons had to do with the horizontal connection with other believers around the world in the present tine and with the vertical connection with believers back through time.

The third reason for my interest was the richness of the liturgy. I had been taught in subtle and not so subtle ways that liturgy was rote, meaningless recitation. What I found, though, was that each Sunday basic doctrines are reviewed aloud by the church often in wonderful prose. Attendees are much more involved in worship because of the recitation of portions of the liturgy. Yes, I sometimes get lost in my thoughts and recite without thinking, but that’s my fault, not the fault of the liturgy. When I tune in, I’m reminded of some great truths that I need to hear frequently. I even like communion better than what I’d experienced before. I’m not a sacramentalist (the Anglican tent is a big one; there’s room for all!), but I like going to the rail for communion. It feels more like a communal act than sitting in the pews. (And no, a priest doesn’t have to stand between me and God in personally delivering the elements, although it’s the practice for the priest or pastor to deliver the bread. Lay people participate in the distribution, too, by giving us the wine.)

And now to the objections.

1. The formalism of liturgical worship is a major stumbling block to a lot of Christians. There are two sub-issues here (at least). For one thing, it’s thought that the complex form somehow inhibits the Spirit from doing things during a worship service, that the spiritual is somehow stifled by a fully pre-planned service. For another thing, it’s not fresh and new; how can it not very quickly become rote?

In response to the first sub-objection, the Spirit isn’t inhibited by prior planning and structure. And just what people think the Spirit might want to do but wouldn’t be able to because of it, I don’t know. An obvious response is that one shouldn’t have any structure at all if structure is a problem. Of course, that would be silly, I would be told, but I’m not sure how one would mark the line between enough and too much. The point of the liturgy isn’t to drive out a fresh ministry of the Spirit but to provide a kind of vehicle for it.

Liturgies are generally the same among Anglican churches, but there is flexibility (a brief overview of the structure of the service can be found here and a number of other places online). The service consists of praise and adoration, confession of sins, the reading of Scripture (OT, NT, Psalms, and Gospels), prayers, the reciting of a major creed, a sermon, communion (the liturgy of the communion is absolutely marvelous!), the celebration of birthdays and anniversaries (an unexpectedly folksy aspect given the formality), and a charge at the end to send us out. And singing. Lots of singing in our church. There is a lot here to provide avenues for the Spirit to work in our lives.

Regarding the second sub-issue, that such formalism grows stale, one thing that helps prevent that is the changes of “seasons” in the church calendar throughout the year which prompts changes in the liturgy (you can read about that here). Of course, even within that structure, the form can become stale and rote. But so can the form of a non-liturgical church: stand up to sing; sit down for announcements; stand up for the reading of Scripture; sit down to hear the special music; stand up to greet others; sit down to listen to the sermon . . . You get the picture. That isn’t intended to make fun. If you are part of such a church, you know what I mean. A form with few parts can be as rote and stale as one with many parts.

It is because of the form or structure in liturgical churches that we are able to get through so much in a worship service. And if you don’t want to kneel or cross yourself or read the text or go to the rail for communion? I don’t know about other Anglican pastors, but regarding participation our pastor’s motto is this: “all may, none must, some will.” The form is a vehicle, not the substance. It is important (to us) for what it enables us to accomplish and experience in worship, but it isn’t the heart of it. And it isn’t stiff feeling either, at least in our church. “Relaxed formality,” we call it. There are no pinched noses or stilted language or robotic motions. (I’m not trying to sell you on Anglicanism or my church, but please feel free to visit All Saints Dallas sometime!)

2. What about all the pre-set things that the pastor reads and the congregation reads back? This is related to the matter of roteness discussed above, but has more to do with reading prescribed things as a group. And prayers?! Why on earth would we read other people’s prayers?

I think I detect, underlying these objections, a belief that originality is important for saying what is really important. It has to be extemporaneous. Of course, in my previous churches people sometimes wrote down their prayers before uttering them before the congregation, which negates the requirement of extemporaneity. But it really does have to be original with the person praying, doesn’t it, to genuinely come from the heart?

In a word, no. Tu quoque arguments (the kind of argument that says, “Oh yeah? Well, you do the same thing yourself!”) are logical fallacies, but they can serve the purpose of stopping a person short and making them think. So regarding reading other people’s words and even reading prayers, is that very different from singing songs together in church that someone else wrote? I’m serious! Don’t we sing songs directed to God in praise or in supplication that others wrote? How is that different? And don’t Christians talk about praying the Psalms? I think there is an inconsistency here. Maybe the big problem is that no space will be made for “free-form” praying. There isn’t much in my church. However, the pastor will pray extemporaneously on occasion as he senses the need. And we also have what’s called the “prayers of the people” which includes both written prayers and extemporaneous responses from us, such as when the pastor calls us to pray for people we know who need the Lord and for people who need healing and restoration. People say those names out loud. And then there are the prayer teams at one side of the sanctuary during communion that we can approach individually for prayer.

What I’ve said may not convince anyone to begin the practice, but I hope my point will be gotten that there is nothing inherently wrong in reading prayers written by others if one reads them from the heart. And I’ll say this as kindly as I can: some of the extemporaneous prayers Christians utter in church are seriously lacking the depth one can find in prayers formulated ahead of time. For example, every week we read this prayer of confession together early in the service to help prepare our hearts for worship:

Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I are truly sorry and I humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me; that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Sometimes I’m distracted and I just read the words. But I can honestly say that when I focus and attend to what I’m saying, there is nothing more to the point that I can come up by myself that is better than this prayer of confession. It is the most meaningful one to me in the whole service. Can you imagine what a believer can do and be if that last line is answered with a resounding “yes”?

What we read together was developed over a long period of time, and it is not only beautiful to the ear but it is rich with meaning. When I fully attend to what is being said and what I am saying, I do not feel stifled at all but am uplifted in my mind, spirit, and emotions. If you haven’t read or heard the liturgy, say, around the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, find it online and read through it. In our church, it often begins with this:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. For by water and the Holy Spirit you have made us a new people in Jesus Christ our Lord, to show forth your glory in all the world. . . .

We sing this together:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

And then we continue with,

Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world. . . .

And on it continues. Yes, this can become rote and stale and meaningless to some people, but it won’t do so necessarily, not any more so than what is done in a Baptist or Bible church.

And if I don’t mean it, I don’t have to say it. We have no liturgy police in our church. The liturgy is a vehicle to guide us in worship. It’s bad if it becomes rote and stale, but no more so than when a non-liturgical worship service becomes rote and stale.

And if I may add just one more thing having to do with all of us doing the same thing together in church, something that goes against the grain of individualistic Americans. This applies to all Christians in whatever form of worship service they find themselves. When we come together, we are involved in corporate worship. We are worshipping together. When you sing at church, do you all sing whatever you want at the same time? Or do you sing the same song with the same words at the same time? Liturgical worship extends that principle throughout the whole service. This doesn’t mean that our individuality is lost. When I read aloud, if I am meaning what I’m saying, it is me as an individual joining in worship with others.

3. And then there are those actions, what the seminary professor called “bowing and scraping” that he saw in an Episcopal church. I didn’t ask which actions he saw, but it must have including genuflecting, the lowering of one knee to the floor as a sign of honor. My question for him (which I didn’t ask him because I didn’t want to fight) is this: Do you ever bow your head in prayer? Do you kneel in prayer? If so, is it right to do that in private but not in public? You don’t cross yourself or genuflect, but I bet you bow your head and occasionally nod and utter an “Amen.” Do you really think there is something wrong with bowing toward the cross?

At our church, in general we stand to sing, sit to listen, and kneel to pray. We bow when the cross goes by, and we cross ourselves at certain parts of the liturgy, such as when the Trinity is mentioned. Are such actions necessarily mechanical? We see people crossing themselves on TV, an empty superstitious gesture made by people who give no indication of really being Christians. But good things that are meaningful can become cheapened and rendered meaningless. These actions can become mechanical but they don’t necessarily become so. And no one has to do them.
So there you have it, a stab at a defense of some things truly meaningful to and taken very seriously by some Christians but which are odd to others. I don’t always fully join in on everything in a given worship service, but that’s nothing to worry about. I haven’t broken any rules. There is nothing, or should be nothing, imperative about any of this. But believers who do not participate in such things should be cautious about making fun of them or speaking derogatorily of people who do. This kind of worship has a very long heritage. That in itself is enough to incline Christians who are overly influenced by the modernist impulse to shrug off of the past to pooh-pooh the whole thing. Tradition that isn’t the final authority, form that enhances worship and doesn’t strangle it, and liturgy that accurately rehearses the great things God has done for us, are good things. There are other reasons you may never be inclined to align yourself with Anglicanism or any other church that practices liturgical worship, but I hope my comments will caution readers to avoid making them easy targets for mocking or derision.

Here are two books, by the way, that were influential in my thinking about the Anglican world:

Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down
D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism

The first is a study of worship that shows the place of liturgy in worship. Dawn points out that we all employ liturgy in our worship. Liturgy means “the work of the people.” Every church service I’ve attended involved at least a very basic liturgy, some actions by people in the pews (or folding chairs) in response to something said or instructed in the pulpit. There is much to learn from this book about worship even if the reader doesn’t choose to join what we typically think of as liturgical churches. The second book has to do with the vertical connection through time we have with the church past that I mentioned earlier.

*The use of the name “Anglican” is a clue that the church is on the conservative side of the body of churches that had their start centuries ago in England. The American branch of the Church of England is the Episcopal Church USA. Given the extent of the liberalization of the Episcopal Church, especially with regard to matters of sexual ethics, many churches have separated from the ECUSA and call themselves Anglican instead of Episcopalian. A major triggering event for this division was the ordination of a gay bishop in 2007. Hence, my involvement before then was with Episcopal Churches. Since then it has been with Anglican ones.

**I’m sorry to be picking on Bible and Baptist churches so much, but they were the non-liturgical churches that formed my church background for many years. I mean no offense.

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From → The church, Worship

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