I am a Christian who worships within the Anglican church, a tradition which utilizes liturgy in our worship of God. My family is not from this tradition; I was raised in broadly evangelical churches, where any prayers came straight from the pastor’s heart to his lips, just as God intended! I had the firm conviction from attending a few Roman Catholic services with friends that such cookie-cutter worship resulted in deadly ritualism and idolatry. I would have laughed at you fifteen years ago if you told me that not only would I join a liturgical tradition, but would be a pastor in one. Yet here I am, and my views on the use of liturgy in worship have undergone a seismic shift due to an extensive exposure to liturgy and a helpful education on its benefits.
My aim is to provide a few articles regarding liturgical worship, both highlighting its strengths and providing some helpful cautions. Before you read any further, just know that I am not attempting to convert any of you to Anglicanism. I merely desire to help inform any anti-liturgical attitudes out there while providing some food for thought for those worshipping within liturgical communities.
Let me begin with a positive: the best liturgical traditions bring prayers into the life of the church which are immersed in the words of Scripture. In my experience, this is part of what people within these traditions refer to as the beauty of the liturgy, since at some level they recognize that the words are ones which have been given to the church by the Spirit through the Bible. This featuring of biblical language can be seen by looking through the prayer books in the Anglican tradition.
From the beginnings of the Protestant Church of England in the mid-1500s until the present day, Books of Common Prayer have been ever-present in the life of Anglican worship. Most prayers and elements of the liturgy are either pulled directly from Scripture (and some that are not are so steeped in biblical language that they sound as though they were!) or from the prayers of early Christian worshipping communities. The beauty in the liturgy, at its best, is that it places the words of the Bible onto the lips of believers both gathered and scattered, over time imprinting them upon their hearts and minds. Just consider the following suffrage (a series of intercessory prayers or petitions), taken from the Evening Prayer service of the 2019 ACNA Book of Common Prayer:
Officiant O Lord, show your mercy upon us;
People And grant us your salvation.
Officiant O Lord, guide those who govern us;
People And lead us in the way of justice and truth.
Officiant Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
People And let your people sing with joy.
Officiant O Lord, save your people;
People And bless your inheritance.
Officiant Give peace in our time, O Lord;
People And defend us by your mighty power.
Officiant Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
People Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
Officiant Create in us clean hearts, O God;
People And take not your Holy Spirit from us.
For those who regularly read the Psalms, these intercessions should sound quite familiar. Many are direct quotes from Israel’s songbook, and all are sourced from ideas found therein. For comparison, read through the Psalms below (all taken from the ESV). Then read the suffrage above again. It is undeniable how the Word of God flows through the worship liturgies when viewing examples like these:
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation. (Psalm 85:7)
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth. (Psalm 67:4)
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name. (Psalm 86:11)
Let your priests be clothed with righteousness,
and let your saints shout for joy. (Psalm 132:9)
Oh, save your people and bless your heritage!
Be their shepherd and carry them forever. (Psalm 28:9)
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace! (Psalm 29:11)
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
that he might make known his mighty power. (Psalm 106:8)
For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever. (Psalm 9:18)
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me. (Psalm 51:10-11)
Such liturgical prayers, based in the Scriptures, facilitate corporate prayer in the church at least as well as any extemporaneous prayer from the heart of the pastor. One is (hopefully) guided by the Holy Spirit in the moment, the other sourced by the Spirit ages ago. Both are capable of leading God’s people in prayer.
While it is easy to see how the liturgy is grounded in Scripture, and thus in the truth of God’s Word, this is not the only biblical requirement of worship. When Jesus was discussing with the woman at the well the proper location for God’s people to gather in worship, He brought forth a dual-requirement for worship. In John 4:23-24 He declared that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Jesus taught that the worship of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, is characterized by both truth and spirit. The engagement of the heart in worship is one of the necessary cautions for those within liturgical traditions. This will be the topic covered in the next article in this series. Until that time, my prayer is that in each of our churches, we would worship the Father in spirit and in truth.