CNN and liturgy

I couldn’t think of a snappier title.  The two topics listed are not related, they just show up on the same blog, Michael Spencer’s Internet Monk.

First, a fictional (and hilarious) send-up of mainstream media coverage of Easter this past weekend.  It’s conversation between two CNN producers, “Frank” and “Joe,” about what their angle on Easter should be this year.

Second, as part of a regular feature called “The Liturgical Gangstas,” IM poses a question to a panel of representatives of churches on the more liturgical end of things.

Here’s this week’s question:

One of the hardest things for evangelicals to understand is liturgy. It is equated with dead, ritualized, rote, repetitive religious observance. It’s assumed to be irrelevant and terminally boring. Many evangelicals glory in being “anti-liturgical.”

Make a brief argument or outline for the value of liturgy, not just in your tradition, but for all Christians. Especially, what would be your response to the typical evangelical complaints that liturgy is a prescription for a lethargic personal experience of faith.

One of the responses — by Wyman Richardson, a Southern Baptist minister, really caught my eye.  In part, he said:

I think I’d want to start with the inevitability of liturgy. Here is something I’ve learned after a lifetime spent in churches that pride themselves in being free of liturgy and dead ceremony (terms used interchangeably in some places): the premise is absurd. There is no liturgy-free worship, and the moniker “non-liturgical” makes about as much sense as “government intelligence.”

The same churches that will ostensibly operate beneath the feigned guise of “free” worship or “Spirit-led” worship will inevitably, predictably, and without fail fall into a liturgy that is so set it makes the Greek Orthodox look like wild-eyed Pentecostals on speed. I’ve heard Baptist deacons anathematize written prayers only to turn around and say the same prayer over the offering plates that they were regurgitating back when Herbert Hoover was in office (i.e., “Father we just…”, “bring into the storehouse…”, “our tithes and your offerings…”, “bless the gift and the giver…”, with about 10 more “just’s” and “umm’s” thrown in). I’ve seen the same Baptist people who mock the formulaic worship of the liturgical churches respond to small changes in the customary bulletin layout with a venom that makes Genghis Khan seem like Stuart Smalley. I’ve known pastors in churches which chide the physicality and symbolism of liturgical churches almost get martyred in the center aisle for suggesting that the flag be moved from the sanctuary, or for putting their Bibles on the communion table, or for projecting a song instead of singing from the hymn book. The same Baptist who will condemn the Catholics for their relics will threaten to murder you in your sleep if you move the black-and-white picture of Miss Bussie from the display cabinet in the foyer. I’ve met more Tetzels in Baptist land than outside it.

The only difference between the “non-liturgical” churches and the “liturgical” churches is that the former’s liturgy is (1) present but denied, (2) inherited instead of intentional, (3) culturally defined instead of ecclesiologically mandated, and (4) largely pragmatic instead of theological.

Now, this inevitability creates an irony but not a dilemma, and that’s where I’ve been trying to lead the church I pastor in appropriate and careful ways. Should not these inevitable structures, ceremonies, and services be intentionally infused with the wisdom of the church triumphant and ancient instead of subterfuged by the implicit assumptions of whatever culture we happen to reside in? Should we not see the siren song of neophilia (”love of the new”) as less desireable than the ancient liturgical practices? Will we not have more genuine “freedom” in worship operating in the context of a living, embraced, meaningful, God-exalting, deliberate liturgy of substance than we currently do in the context of our own assumed freedom which inevitably ends up being simple enslavement to the cultural mores of that odd little patch of earth we happen to live on?

So liturgy is inevitable and it ought to be embraced. To be sure, the old warnings against “dead ceremony” are legitimate and should be heeded. I do indeed relish the Baptist emphasis on the movement of the Spirit in worship and the place for passionate preaching and extemporaneous prayer and testimony. I mean that sincerely. But it would seem that one could not only embrace the best of both realities, but that the liturgical forms of the church can actually aid us in seeking God’s power and movement in our midst.  [Emphases mine, CRC]

Sound like anybody you know?


7 responses to “CNN and liturgy

  1. Beautiful. (sniff). Thank you.

  2. Sorry for the following rambling thoughts but having several years experience with both “non-liturgical” worship and “liturgical” worship I may have a little input:

    I guess it depends on what one means by “liturgy”, and a great deal on where one learns it. By that I mean I don’t see the great value of having precomposed prayers for the sake of having precomposed prayers. Yeah it would be nice to know what somebody is going to say before he says it, especially if he is praying on behalf of a congregation. If the “non-liturgical” church in reality has an unrecognized formulaic worship, why the push to make it formal?

    On the other hand, if “liturgy” is a divinely ordained pathway of opening the gates of heaven so that heaven and earth meet in mysterious union with the Son, a way open to my participation, then I’m not going to be able to create it on my own. No, its something that has to be handed on, because it is not of human creation, and is not open to imitation.

    For instance, start introducing “liturgical” elements in the standard church of Christ worship service. Where would you start? You would probably start at the least objectionable spot. Perhaps have everyone recite a chosen Bible verse or maybe have the preacher say the same prayer each time before preaching. Over time you might have something you think looks like “liturgy”. Of course, compromises had to be made, not everyone will go for the “catholic” stuff otherwise many of this free association of people will freely associate down the road as a new congregation. Still you think you’re group is satisfactorily “liturgical”. Then and only then go and read the Liturgy of St. James, and see how completely impoverished your labor has been. And here we’re still only talking about the outward form and not the internal essense of the Church’s liturgy. Its simply not possible in the context of churches of Christ to “be intentionally infused with the wisdom of the church triumphant and ancient ” as the Baptist pastor stated. Its not possible because churches of Christ have intentionally rejected such wisdom as apostasy. Churches of Christ would have to reject their very reason for being in order to properly “liturgify”.

    I say all that not as a discouragement but in hope to spur one to really get down to what they desire with “worship”.

  3. Not that I’m picking on Tol Burk but I found this on his blog that goes along with this post:

    “One of the young men at Caparra, when asked to lead the prayer for the bread, back out because (he told me later) “he didn’t know the prayer you had to say”–he had decided there these prayers were according to a formula and had to be said exactly or they were not valid. ”

    Beyond the fact that this young man perceived that the prayers were formulaic (probably because they are formulaic), he was put in a position without any training as to what to do.

  4. Ouch. Ken, as someone trying to introduce liturgical ideas into a church of Christ worship service, I must say your comments sting a bit. Then again, I have come to similar conclusions myself, in that I have quickly realized that we have almost none of the doctrinal underpinnings to support (for instance) praying to the full Trinity by name, not to mention our “understanding” of the Eucharist. And we have so precious few songs that even approach the simple phrase, “Lord, have mercy.” It can certainly be discouraging, but I’m not ready to give up on my roots just yet. I think the average CoC parishioner has long forgotten the arguments that occurred when we “rejected such wisdom as apostasy.” Our ahistorical bent may actually have lasted long enough to defeat itself, in which case we may be ready to make the connections to the ancient church we previously severed.

  5. Sorry to be a party pooper. I think Chris has documented some success with the South Newnan congo a few years ago. I wonder how the changes stuck after he left?

  6. It was a mixed bag. Some stuck, some didn’t. Had my wife and I stayed, I feel confident that the changes that were made would have been more lasting, though.

    But that gets back to the point you’re making, Ken. It wasn’t really a systemic change that we were making at SN. It might have grown to become a systemic change, but it wasn’t at the time I left. Thus it was easier for those who lead in worship to slide back into the comfortable and mediocre way of doing things that they had previously relied on.

  7. One thing I want to point out is Fr. Ernesto’s comments on the Internet Monk’s post about the NT usage of leitourgeo.

    My own personal connection is with Acts 13:2 and Joel 1:9,13; 2:14

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