Liturgy and Change

Other branches of the Anglican Communion have already gone through this turmoil: Do we replace the traditional Book of Common Prayer? And those who have know the arguments pro and con. The Anglican Church of Canada has already sought a compromise, and brought out the  big green Book of Alternative Services a couple of decades ago. But the little red book is still used in many churches, and it is normative for the church, even if many parishes just don’t use it.

The biggest issue is whether we give up the pseudo-Elizabethan language. Honestly, this is just the hot button; that is not the real issue. The mock-Elizabethan is not good Elizabethan. It reinforces a false piety in some people, that we need a special language to talk to and about God. Now, I use Plain speech sometimes, and like it, but it is only appropriate among Quakers and when I want to give someone a good stern talking-to. It sounds serious.

Didn’t we just hear about the disciples receiving the Spirit and running out in the streets speaking the Good News in many vernaculars? Sounds like the Holy Spirit is there with us when we talk to people in a language they know.

But language is not the real issue. The real issue is the theology of the “old book” versus the “new book.” The Book of Common Prayer is a theology of repentence; the Book of Alternative Services is a theology of salvation. The old is “Forgive us our sins” and the new is “Alleluia!”

To everything there is a season. Honestly, though, we aren’t done with repentence. I believe we need to confess and repent more than ever. Turning from repentence too soon is a way of hiding from our sin and complicity. The quick and easy corporate confession allows no room for personal and private reflection. (This is also true of the traditional prayer books – there isn’t much emphasis on holding our shortcomings before God.) Some modern Orthodox prayer books have long liturgies of self-examination and confession, and we in the Anglican Church really need these right now. We are too often the power people, the dominating culture, and power and dominance are always grounds for temptation to sin. Anglicans need to learn humility, corporately and individually.

The emphasis on “Alleluia” before repentence, confession and penance has lead, along with the culture of self-esteem, to the promotion of our individual skills and arrogances. I do not want to hear applause in a church! I see way too much promotion of performance – choral and solo singing, preaching, and liturgical presentation as a form of entertainment. The church is not in competition with cultural entertainment; it is an antidote to the passive, please-me selfishness of society.

A new prayer book will have to be balanced between confession and praise, I believe. It doesn’t matter if it ever includes mock-Elizabethan; that is just a red herring. What matters is how it presents our relationship to God. I think we need less liturgical form, rather than a whole new variety. Let’s shut up for a while and listen to the Holy Spirit.

For it matters more what we do outside the church throughout the week than what we do in church on Sunday morning. God knows us through our work, not our words.


4 thoughts on “Liturgy and Change

  1. Hi Magdalena,

    This is a great post! I have been very vocal lately that there is a difference between high church and a choir concert. (Luckily my priest agrees with me!) I love high church, but I want to be doing the chanting and the singing myself instead of having the choir perform it for me. I abhor being entertained in church, and I never applaud! I also really like what you said about the shifting theology.


    • Congregations can learn to chant and sing the old choral music; it gets them involved in the life of prayer. I dislike “professional” church choirs except in cathedrals – liturgy is the work of the people, not the choir! I also don’t want to see the choir; they should be in a loft or behind a screen (it’s called a klyros in Orthodox churches). As for processions – they belong only in cathedrals and colleges, never in a parish church. The choir should be seated in loft or stalls at the beginning of service, the clergy should come in from the vestry, and the service begin from altar or prayer desk. I am rather tired of all the parading up and down, vestments and robes, processional banners and crosses and candles, that we see in even small churches.

  2. It is a fine balance isn’t it? As a culture we have huge non-denominational churches that focus on making people feel good, entertaining them, and never saying anything to challenge the people to make changes in their life to start living their life for the Lord, it is simply about making people feel good, but good about what? Then there are fundamentalist churches who definitely challenge their people but sometimes lose the love and compassion of God in the message. Mainline denominations seem to do a bit better in offering a balanced approach, probably because they are accountable to the heirarchy of their particular denomination and the pastor cannot just “make it up” as he/she goes along.
    The Catholic Church will soon have an updated liturgy, several of the responses we have said in mass for years will be changed, and the language in the readings will change – it has taken years to accomplish this and I believe the changes will begin to take place in parishes next year. Part of the reason was to improve upon the translation from latin to english for the responses etc. I am sure it will be an adjustment for everyone as the changes roll out. Who likes change?
    I agree with your comments on language usage, throwing in a bunch of thee’s and thou’s does not make a person holy – a prayer said in the vernacular, said with reverence, adoration and thankfulness to our Lord is always appropriate.
    Your last paragraph really sums up the Christian life – what are we doing Monday thru Saturday??? Hopefully we are doing our best to live our life for the Lord.

    • I actually love the Latin mass! But not every Catholic is a language scholar, and we miss the subtleties of languages that aren’t our own. As for the mock-Elizabethan – I prefer it to some of the very dated liturgies of the 1980s, by far. Still, there were collects and prayers and even psalms where I had to “translate” for a congregation that had not studied Shakespeare. I don’t want to be elitist in worship, although I don’t want to take it down to the lowest common denominator and insult people’s intelligence, either.

      I learned through experience that the liveliest, most Spirit-filled churches were less concerned about form of worship; they lived out their faith through the week and what happened on Sunday morning was just the family meal where we all stayed in touch!

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