Just what is Liturgy?

'I've never really seen the point to historical liturgy.'
These words were spoken by a very good friend of mine a few days ago and they have repeated on my mind on and off since then as I have tried to understand and to be able to articulate why the phrasing didn't sit well with me. I hasten to point out that they were spoken in friendly tones as part of a discussion we were having about the different preferences for worship styles that we and another friend of ours have. It was simply an expression of his own feeling on the matter and not any sort of criticism of mine - I say that because this isn't very clear with the words quoted out of context.

My friend is Roman Catholic and describes his spirituality as charismatic. He has an appreciation for tradition but finds his home in freer, meditative styles of worship with modern music, and without what he might perceive as too much rigidity as far as rubrics and such like go. I think that is a fair assessment, although I ask his forgiveness and hope that he will correct me if it is not.

As readers and anybody who knows me will be aware, I am very much of the view that it is right and proper that our worship be in continuity with and a development of that of those before us, as an expression of the same faith held by those before us. The elements that we have inherited only have any meaning and purpose within the entire organic unit of which they are part, which is the liturgical whole that has come down to us. It occurs to me that this is why I was not happy with the reference to "historical" liturgy. To my understanding, this is not "historical liturgy", as though it were some sort of archaeological exercise, dredging up something that is outdated and from the past. They are living rites with a rich heritage and in use today. We use them because they are the rites of the Church, expressing the Faith of the Church and not because of any obsession with the past. Worshipping God according to our inherited rites can be said to be historical insofar as their ongoing use by us today is part of their unfolding history, of which the past and present are both part, but I'm fairly sure that it is the former sense that my friend meant by his choice of words.

When he was still Priest John Shaw, His Grace Bishop Jerome of Manhattan wrote the following. He was specifically addressing the charge of liturgical archaeology pertaining to the restoration of western liturgies to use in Orthodoxy but the point is transferable to any continued or restored use of traditional rites.
Those who go to church on Sunday morning are not called upon to be liturgicists or liturgical archaeologists, any more than the patient needs to be a medical scientist or go into the lab to be given medicine. The ‘finished product’ is nevertheless today’s worship; if they hear or join in texts that had been in an ancient manuscript, they need never suspect it, for all that is worth. These materials have been returned to use because they provide what was needed.
So why exactly are there these different approaches to the liturgical worship of God by his people? Why is it that there are those who find it so important to ensure that our worship today is a development of what Christians did centuries ago, digging up old services that often come from a different part of the world? Why is its relevance to today's culture not important to such people? Then why are there those who freely accept modern services constructed from elements borrowed from the past but put together out of the context in which they have their meaning, or even elements that are of the compiler's own devising? And why does each type of person find the approach of the other incomprehensible?

Well, I'm not really sure. However, my suspicion is that it is to do with fundamental difference in understanding of what liturgy actually is. So, what is liturgy? A common definition that is often thrown about is that liturgy is "the work of the people". One often finds this definition used by those who advocate what I perceive as a very clericalist approach to corporate worship. That is, the approach that wishes to encourage greater participation of the laity in worship, but mistakenly goes about it by assigning to them roles that properly belong to the clergy, thereby unwittingly devaluing the actual role of the laity by suggesting that the only way for them to participate more fully is to take on clergy roles. Not all who subscribe to the "work of the people" definition go so far as to advocate clericalism but many people do often use it in such a way that "as opposed to just the clergy" is implied: "Liturgy is the work of the people". Well, to slightly alter a line from Bishop Brennan in Father Ted (originally applied to nuns), difficult though it may be to believe sometimes, 'Priests are people too.'

To be fair, as a definition of liturgy, "the work of the people" is not incorrect as far as it goes. The problem is that it simply doesn't go very far. It is the equivalent of defining a verb as "a doing word" as I was taught in the earlier years of primary school before graduating in Grade 5 (Year 6, for those schooled in Britain) to "a word that shows action, condition, or state of being". It is terribly incomplete and is no basis on which to build an understanding of corporate Christian worship.

Liturgy is not simply a synonym for worship. I can worship privately here at home, singing, bowing, or simply sitting and praying, and that would not necessarily be liturgy. Liturgy is more than that. As applied to Christian worship, it is an extension of liturgy (leitourgia) in ancient Greek culture, which was some particular, public, civic duty, usually performed by those in a financial position to be able to do so, on behalf of or for the benefit of the demos - the state and its people. This duty could be to do with funding and organising public feasts, providing the music for the city-state's religious observances, or perhaps a contribution to the military defence of the state, or indeed any of a number of things. It was not merely "the work of the people" but it seems to me that the important points were that:
  1. it was a public service.
  2. it was performed for and on behalf of the whole people.
  3. it was considered a duty.
The understanding of the early Christians - those who sat at the feet of Christ and who learnt from his Apostles - was such that this sense of liturgy was what they thought of as best applying to their corporate worship, so that is the word they adopted. The public ministration that was performed by the clergy for and on behalf of the people, and with their participation to the degree that was proper, was considered to be primarily a duty of service to God.
I will be your God, and you shall be my people.
- The Covenant Formula
It was leitourgia, but now it was christianised. This was clearly inherited from the Jews of pre-Christian times as the word leitourgia is the one used in various parts of both Old and New Testaments to refer to the public service of the priests in the Temple (Joel 1:9; Joel 2:17; Luke 1:23; Hebrews 8:6) . Certainly, this is the understanding of corporate Christian worship that has continued through the centuries. The very fact that we call what we do at church a service is testimony to this, although the words and actions make it clear that this is something done not for what we can "get out of it", or to make us feel good, to entertain us, or to pander to our particular tastes. It is very simply a duty of service offered to God. It is telling that churches where this sense has been lost, where entertainment and engagement of the audience has taken precedence over duty to God, have begun to shy away from the word service, preferring something akin to meeting or inventing a trendy name, and often referring to liturgy in disparaging terms.

By contrast, see part of the anaphora of St John Chrysostom:
It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks to Thee, to worship Thee in every place of thy dominion, for Thou art God inexpressible, incomprehensible, invisible, unattainable, ever-existing, and eternally the same; Thou and Thine Only-begotten Son and thy Holy Spirit. Thou didst call us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away, Thou didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven, and hadst bestowed on us thy kingdom which is to come. For all these things we give thanks to Thee, to thine Only-begotten Son and to thy Holy Spirit, for all things whereof we know and whereof we know not, for the benefits both manifest and hidden, which have come upon us. We give thanks to Thee also for this liturgy (ed. sometimes rendered as "this service" or "this ministration") which Thou hast been pleased to accept from our hands, even though thousands of archangels and ten thousands of angels attend Thee; the cherubim and the seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring aloft, borne on their wings, singing the triumphal hymn, shouting, crying aloud, and saying, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.


Mindful, therefore, of this saving commandment and all those things which came to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, the second and glorious coming again, and offering unto Thee thine own of thine own, on behalf of all and for all
(ed. another mark of liturgy since pre-Christian times), we praise Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks to Thee, O Lord; and we pray to Thee, O our God.
We see a similar sentiment in the Gregorian Canon:
We therefore pray thee, O Lord, mercifully to accept this offering of our service and that of all thy family; to order our days in thy peace, to deliver us from eternal damnation, and to number us in the flock of thine elect. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Although it seems best summed up in the Roman Rite, in the Orate fratres and its response:
Pray, brethren, that my sacrfice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Father almighty.
May the Lord receive the sacrifice at thy hands, to the praise and glory of his holy name, to our benefit, and that of all his holy Church.
I am sure that I could find the same in other rites were I to look. Certainly, from memory, I know that Cranmer had the right idea with "It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty...".

The point of all this is that I no longer see church services as something I go to for the purpose of seeing what enjoyment I can get out of them. For me, it is a duty of service to God. It is often a joyful duty but, actually, sometimes it is not. However, even on those occasions when I really can't be bothered and I force myself, the transformative power of the liturgy usually has a positive effect on my mood by the end of the service - in fact, if it is the Divine Liturgy, it is usually by Psalm 102 that my heart is called to worship, but even then, I do not always feel it as an emotion. Having struggled with faith recently, I know first hand just how meaningless the good feelings can potentially be and that an excessive focus on the emotional "high" that we often feel during and after services can be quite superficial. Likewise, the absence of such positive feelings means nothing necessarily and should not be taken as a measure of spiritual development. So for me, liturgy is first and foremost a duty of service offered to God, and God, being a good God Who loves mankind, and seeing that we, by seeking to serve Him, have disposed ourselves to receive it, bestows upon us and those for whom we offer the service his grace and mercy - his divine energies - those extensions of Himself that conform us more to his likeness and through which we enter more fully into communion with Him. We see something of this sacrificial exchange in the Byzantine prayer for the blessing of incense:
Incense do we offer unto Thee, O Christ, as an aroma of spiritual fragrance. Receiving it upon thy heavenly altar, do Thou send down upon us in return the grace of thine All-Holy Spirit.
It is through participation in the corporate liturgy in a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart that our offering becomes pleasing to God (Psalm 50:15-20) and through which we enter properly into the eschatological mystery of worship and receive the spiritual benefits; and not through our emotional responses, evoked by emotive icons or statues, or ambient lighting, music that excites the passions, or a service constructed with our entertainment in mind.

Our churches are consecrated - set aside for all time - as a part of creation where heaven and earth are to meet, and where the worship of heaven may in a mystical way be participated in by those of us on earth, and where there may be a free vertical flow of sacrifice and grace, by which we give of ourselves to God and may be exposed to the divine energies that transform our being and further our theosis. The services of the Church make numerous references to this our concelebration with the worship of heaven and the union of the church with the heavenly court:
By Him the angels praise thy majesty, the dominions worship, the powers tremble; the heavens, and the heavenly virtues, and the blessed seraphim concelebrate in one exultation. We pray Thee: command that with them, in humble thanksgiving, our voices may have entrance, as we say: Holy, Holy, Holy...
- The Gregorian Canon
We who, in a mystery, represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity; let us now lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of all, invisibly upborne in triumph by the ranks of Angels.
- The Cherubic Hymn
O Master Lord our God, Who hast appointed in the heavens the ranks and hosts of angels and archangels unto the service of thy glory, with our entry do Thou cause the entry of the holy angels, serving and glorifying thy goodness with us...
- The Byzantine Prayer of the Entrance

...we most humbly beseech Thee, Almighty God, command these Things to be carried by the hands of thy holy angel to thine altar on high, in the presence of thy divine majesty, that so many of us as shall receive thy Son’s most sacred Body and Blood, by partaking at this altar, may be replenished with all heavenly blessing and grace...
- The Gregorian Canon
This is no mere figurative meaning but is a mystical reality in which we truly take part, and it is only through the performing of our bounden duty and service that we are able to take part in this and receive its spiritual benefits.
'There is nothing upon earth holier, higher, grander, more solemn, more life-giving than the Liturgy. The church, at this particular time, becomes an earthly heaven; those who officiate represent Christ Himself, the angels, the cherubim, seraphim and apostles.'
- St John of Kronstadt
What is important to me, all the more now that I realise this superficiality of emotion in the face of the great mystery that we enter into in worship, is the right glory of God - the literal meaning of Orthodoxy. So the service that we offer is to be done in faithfulness to the liturgical tradition of the New Covenant of Christ's Church that has been formed, moulded, and enriched by the Saints before us and the Saints of our time in the great offering of service to our God by his people. It is for us to pass this to those who come after us, and it behoves those of us with an active part to play in that offering, whether through singing or serving, or what have you, to understand what we are doing, why we do it, and why we do it the way that we do it, that we may do it well and from the heart. Seeking out where it originated and how it came to be part of our worship seems to me an essential part of that.
'Virtually all know the words of this psalm and they continue to sing it at every age, without knowing, however, the sense of what has been said. This is not a small charge, to sing something every day, putting forth words from the mouth, without searching out the meaning of the thoughts residing in the words.'
- St John Chrysostom
Were I to say that personal interest is not a driving force behind my fascination with the development of liturgy, I would be dishonest. However, I do think that it is important for the reasons stated above. In many ways, this touches on my post about small things and some of the comments in response to it. As Bishop Jerome rightly said, the average worshipper needn't know where every word, every action, comes from or how it came to be in its current form in order to be able to pray it, but that does not negate the importance of the continuity of our offering with our brothers and sisters in the household of Faith, both across the world and throughout time, for we are entering into the eternal. Therefore it makes very much sense that those responsible for the offering, for the duty of service, for the liturgy, understand it and act in keeping with its meaning as it has been handed down to us. This does not make it historical liturgy - a bygone thing of little significance in our day - any more than knowing the structural history of one's house in order to know how to care for it in the present is irrelevant today. Rather it blossoms from and, in turn, feeds a zeal, a yearning, for our fatherland, the heavenly court, the New Jerusalem, from which we are separated now for a time, but of which we catch a glimpse when we enter fully with our heart into the heavenly worship of God on earth, and in the life of which we hope to fully partake in the unwaning day of God's Kingdom.
Be eager to do everything in God's harmony, with the Bishop presiding in the place of God, and the Presbytery in the place of the council of the Apostles, and the Deacons, most sweet to me, entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ.

Each of you must be part of this chorus so that, being harmonious in unity, receiving God's pitch in unison, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father.
-St Ignatius the God-Bearer

5 responses:

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Goodness, what a lot to ponder in that post, Michael !

I am still trying to understand my own very visceral reactions to many aspects of modern liturgy. To my mind, very contemporary modern English language worship not only leaves me stone cold but desperately uneasy. To be worshipping God in the same way as if I was reading a science textbook or the blurb on a cereal packet makes me squirm. It feels as inappropriate as addressing the Queen as "alright, luv?" would.

Decent liturgical English (not necessarily Thee/Thou, though I am very partial to these, as a medievalistby training!)is sober, respectful and can still be as loving and intimate a portrayal of God's love for us whilst retaining a sense of awe at God's majesty.....

I agree that our own emotional feelings are no test whatsoever of spiritual worth or development; some days I attend Liturgy and come out so buoyed up it lasts for days, other times I attend and feel sad/bored/deflated/whatever.

I still don't know what the answer is :-)

webmasterNW52HR said...

A long and well thought out article Michael. So we can look forward to more - I like this blogspot.

Michael said...

I know what you mean about liturgical English, Elizabeth. I, too, am partial to Thees and Thous but could happily live without them provided that it did not mean that the language were banal or pedestrian. Again, it is about offering the best. Whatever the Plain English Campaign may wish for the case to be, the fact remains that human beings use different types of language in different situations. We encountered studies on register in my English Language A-level and were sent out to do observations ourselves. It is just a natural part of how we behave.

The father talking to his teenage son in the queue at the bank will suddenly adopt a different tone and perhaps a more standard form of English when he gets to the front of the queue and starts talking to the cashier. We have all heard our loved ones answer the telephone and wonder why they suddenly take on a whole new persona, only for them to have no idea what we're talking about when we bring it up later. It's just how we behave as human beings. So there is nothing artificial or forced about having a particular register that we adopt in worshipping God. I mean, in how many other situations is everything chanted anyway? Once we start doing that it's a bit silly to try to make it sound like everyday speech.

As for the question of feelings, it's a bit difficult for me as well, being a bit of an Aspie. For years I have had occasion to feel that I somehow unworthy of God's grace because of the emphasis that was put on feelings. This cannot be blamed on a separation from Orthodoxy either because it can easily be found among Orthodox people. We would go to holy places, or venerate relics, or perhaps have holy icons come to us. I would certainly experience a certain degree of awe when I thought of the specialness of the article or place, of the millions of people who had received grace through it, of the centuries that it had been a source of blessing to people, and such like, but when people would start talking about feeling the holiness, feeling the "sense of presence", and expressing other such sentiments, it was simply a foreign language most of the time. Occasionally, I get a glimpse of such things, but when so many people say the same thing and there I was, having fasted, having prayed, having made my confession, having tried to live at peace with those around me, and then I came before this holy thing and could not relate to these feelings that people were describing, I would feel as though there was something wrong with me spiritually, that I was somehow so far removed from the source of grace that I could not even experience the holiness when it was abounding in the place where I was and everybody around me could feel it.

I started a thread about this recently in Another Place and now realise that the patristic witness is that such warm, fuzzy feelings are of themselves no indication of our spiritual journey, and some of the fathers even warn us to resist them as a temptation of the evil one. I had already let go of seeking after these feelings at the advice of my parish priest but I now feel much relief in the knowledge that I am in good company with the fathers. That just isn't what worship, or public liturgy, for that matter, is all about.

webmasterNW52HR, welcome! Or rather, welcome back. Thank you for your kind words. I do have longer, thoughtful posts occasionally but tend not to have all that much to say most times. Rather than pontificate about what I know little, I tend to save the meatier posts for when I think I have something reasonably worthwhile to say. Whether my assessment is right is, of course, for those who are kind enough to reader and comment to decide.

For clarity's sake, are you happy for me to address you by name?

Anonymous said...

...most excellent post...my understanding has been opened up somewhat...thank you!

Michael said...

Thank you, Anonymous, and welcome. I'm pleased that you have got something from my little effort.

Do visit again. :-)

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