Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Why Liturgy?

I recently returned from the 32nd Mississippi Conference on Church Music & Liturgy. Spending almost six days immersed in music, singing in a choir, and learning about liturgy made it a fantastic continuing education experience.

On the faculty this year was the Rev. Dr. Paul Westermeyer. He’s an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and he is professor of Church Music at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Among his books is Te Deum: The Church and Music (Augsburg Fortress, 1998).

It’s unusual to find someone who has the training and experience to be both a pastor and a church musician. But Dr. Westermeyer very gracefully and intelligently bridges these vocations in ways that address the needs and concerns of both clergy and organists/choirmasters/choristers.

In the course of his presentations, Dr. Westermeyer said one thing that really struck me (I’m paraphrasing his words from memory):

“The reason we have set forms for prayer in the Church is to protect us from each other.”

There was quite a bit of laughter in response to this statement, and for precisely that reason, I think that most of the conferees understood what he was driving at.

What are some of the dangers of worship without liturgy? What exactly do we need protection from?

I’m moving beyond (but hopefully not contradicting) Dr. Westermeyer in offering some brief reflections of my own on three interrelated dangers of worship without liturgy.

One danger of worship without liturgy is the tyranny of taste. If I’m presiding over worship and there are no set forms for what we do and say and in what order, then it’s awfully tempting for me to just do what I like. I say prayers I want to say about things I want to pray about. I read and preach on my favorite passages of scripture (neatly avoiding all of those passages that are difficult or that I’m not sure I really understand). And I allow only the music I personally like, whether the congregation knows it or not. This is tyrannical because it makes the presider’s personal likes and dislikes the ultimate arbiter of truth, beauty, and goodness.

Another danger that is related to the tyranny of taste is the cult of personality. Instead of the focus being on God, worship becomes all about the minister or the presider. If I put on a good show, if I’m entertaining and say things that people want to hear, then maybe they will love and adore me. And I’ll not only feel good about myself, but perhaps even come to believe that my role as the presider at worship is indispensable for everybody else’s relationship with God (when, in actuality, I’m consciously or unconsciously cultivating dependency on a certain kind of relationship with me rather than with God). Note, also, that this elevates the status of the presider/preacher/priest at the expense of the laity, thus slipping in through the backdoor a clericalism that undermines the equality and ministries of all the baptized.

And finally, worship without liturgy runs the risk of reducing worship to a consumer commodity – the idolatrous pursuit of entertainment and “religious experiences” as substitutes for praising and giving thanks to God. Eugene Peterson offers some illuminating comments on this in his book The Jesus Way (William B. Eerdmans, 2007). Expounding on Elijah’s prophetic denunciation of the worship of Baal as a form of harlotry, Peterson is worth quoting at length:

While the prophetic accusation of “harlotry” has a literal reference to the sacred prostitution of the Baal cult, it is also a metaphor that extends its meaning into the entire theology of worship, worship that seeks fulfillment through self-expression, worship that accepts the needs and desires and passion of the worshipers as its baseline. “Harlotry” is worship that says, “I will give you satisfaction. You want religious feelings? I will give them to you. You want your needs fulfilled? I’ll do it in the form most arousing to you.” A divine will that sets itself in opposition to the sin-tastes and self-preoccupations of humanity is incomprehensible to Baalism and so is impatiently discarded. Baalism reduces worship to the spiritual stature of the worshiper. Its canons are that it should be interesting, relevant, exciting – that I “get something out of it.” [p. 110]

A frequently used phrase in North American culture that is symptomatic of Baalistic tendencies in worship is “let’s have a worship experience.” It is the Baalistic perversion of “let us worship God.” It is the difference between cultivating something that makes sense to an individual, and acting in response to what makes sense to God. In a “worship experience,” a person sees something that excites him or her and goes about putting spiritual wrappings around it. A person experiences something in the realm of dependency, anxiety, love, loss, or joy and a connection is made with the ultimate. Worship becomes a movement from what I see or experience or hear, to prayer or celebration or discussion in a religious setting. Individual feelings trump the word of God. [p. 111]

Peterson’s warnings are particularly important as churches – all churches, both liturgical and non-liturgical – seek to draw people into the way of Jesus in an increasingly post-Christian, Baalistic culture. If we’re not careful, we can so accommodate ourselves to this culture in how we evangelize and conduct worship that we end up eradicating the distinctive and counter-cultural message of the Gospel.

In conclusion, I hasten to add that just because a church’s worship is liturgical, it does not necessarily follow that it is free from the dangers outlined above. For example, I’ve been to an Episcopal church where the ego of the celebrating priest was so big that he would consistently talk about himself from the pulpit rather than preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve also been to an Episcopal church where the priest was so adored by the congregation that people would literally stay away from worship if they found out that she would not be preaching on a particular Sunday.

And, of course, there’s always the danger that using set forms for prayer can hinder rather than facilitate worship if it becomes a mere matter of rote recitation from memory rather than an intentional engagement of the whole person in relation to God.

So the point is not that liturgical churches always get it right or that non-liturgical churches don’t really worship God. Hardly.

The point, rather, is that liturgy provides (imperfect, to be sure) checks and balances against the three dangers of the tyranny of taste, the cult of personality, and the reduction of worship to a consumer commodity. And for that reason, liturgy offers a means of keeping ourselves – our egos, our agendas, our likes and dislikes – in check so that there’s sufficient time and space for us to corporately keep company with God ... and be transformed.


Jendi said...

Very good observations. I had the same reaction this week after attending a nondenominational charismatic church where the pastor spent a lot of time denouncing "religion" and "tradition" and making fortune-teller-like prophesies about members of the congregation, from whom I heard the statement "when you hear Pastor X speaking, it's God speaking". Yikes.

On the other hand, the teen friend who brought me to this service was raised in our Episcopal parish and could not connect the services there to anything that was important in her life. It just didn't speak to her at all. And I see the same blankness among older and more educated members of the congregation because we have not been taught the doctrines and prayer habits that make those old words come alive. How do you make people want to go deeper, without resorting to praise choruses and charismatic theatrics?

Anonymous said...

Prayer isn't predominately us talking with us, it's us "talking" with God, a much less constrained proposition.
The essence of the connection of prayer to daily life might be letting God make the connection. In prayer we may, so to speak, do no more than make a fair effort to keep open the line. That's necessary and sufficient faith.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your comments. I particularly like what you say about prayer as making "a fair effort to keep open the line" between us and God. At its best, good liturgy keeps the line open. The rest is up to God.

Your second paragraph raises very important issues, many of which are related to Christian formation. It's an important question as to why Episcopal worship doesn't "speak" to some people - including some cradle Episcopalians who are now advancing in years.

Some of it may be a phase. I occasionally see that with some of the youth in the Episcopal Church. Perhaps most or all of their friends from school go to the Baptist or "non-denominational" mega-church, and now they want to go there, too.

There's an understandable and very human need to feel like one belongs going on here. They want to fit in. They don't want to be the odd one out. That's especially powerful here in the religion-saturated South. Here in the Bible Belt, we Episcopalians are a deeply misunderstood and sometimes mistrusted minority. That can be a tough place for some adolescents for whom struggling with identity issues is already difficult enough.

On the other hand, there are times when it's really as simple as acknowledging that the local Episcopal Church has failed to do its job of nurturing and providing a place for young and old alike.

Having said all of that, I think that Eugene Peterson's insights need to be kept in mind. In light of what he's saying, I think that our liturgical worship is deeply counter-cultural because it shifts the focus away from magnifying the individual (my wants, my needs, my likes and dislikes) to common prayer. Common prayer forces me to see myself as one small part of a much larger whole, and that takes the 'Sovereign Self' down quite a few notches!

That's the irony of what you're describing in your first paragraph. On the one hand, such churches often make a big deal about faith in Jesus Christ alone. But on the other hand, the cult of personality that surrounds some of the pastors makes it all about them instead of Jesus.

Not everyone will want to go deeper. But one thing that can't hurt is to do teaching and study utilizing the most ubiquitous, and yet typically ignored, resource for Christian formation in the Episcopal Church: THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. Whether its in youth confirmation class or an adult Sunday school - or occasionally from the pulpit - we need to know what's in our Prayer Book, why it's there, why it's important, where to find it, and how to use it.