For some charismatic Christians, the mere mention of “liturgy” could make them feel faint in the head and want to sit down with a glass of water. Liturgy. The anti-thesis of spirit-led worship and freedom. Liturgy. Dusty. Dry. Old fashioned. Dead.
Sister Monica Joan is a character from the popular TV show “Call the midwife”, so I guess these actual words should attributed to the script writer (I am guessing Heidi Thomas). All the same, these words do sound like they might have been uttered by a nun or priest.
Liturgy is of comfort to the disarrayed mind. We need not choose our thoughts; the words are aligned like a rope for us to cling to.
(Sister Monica Joan)
Liturgy at a corporate level
Back in the day, I used to attend Anglican churches. Some “high” (Smells & Bells, candles, the works) and some “low” (a vicar with 501s and Adidas trainers showing underneath his cassock). The common factor between both congregations were their use of the Book of Common Prayer. This meant it was really easy for me to join the service and worship at another church.
Although liturgy is something which is normally associated with older established denominations, even a new independent congregation can quickly form it’s own sort of liturgy. They will have their favourite songs, particular style of prayer and their meetings may flow in a very similar way each week. Nothing wrong with that at all. As an agreed structure, liturgy is a framework which supports the various elements of church service.
At the church I belong to, I have experienced many intimate moments of musical worship with just some simple well known songs. Stringing them together with some well known prayers does indeed form a rope of sorts. We work our way along it, worshipping as we go.
A problem arises when a liturgy is followed either too closely or too carelessly and without thought. Without order, the service collapses into an emotion led chaos but with too much order the service suffocates and dies. We become pious, thinking that since we have “done a lap” we are now closer to God and right with Him even though we may not have thought about Him once. We swap a liturgy for our relationship with the Father. It is at this point that the liturgy truly becomes dead and dry. The fault then lies within the congregation or priesthood, not the structure of the worship.
As a member of a music group, whilst during a service we might play well and the songs lead the congregation, there have been many many weeks of rehearsal. In theory we could record ourselves and just play the recording on the Sunday, but to do this would deny Holy Spirit any opportunity to influence the meeting. As we play through the songs in the way we rehearsed them, we are at the same time keeping a spiritual ‘ear’ open for God; do we skip the next song, insert an extra prayer, finish early or even repeat a song? We try to find a point of balance in the tension between solid preparation and spontaneity in the musical worship experience.
Liturgy at a personal level
When things are going well, prayer is easy. As Mother Theresa once said, “I listen to God. He listens to me.”. The conversation is easy. When things are not going well and God seems distant and far away, a liturgy or a set of familiar prayers indeed provide a rope that we can cling to.
Christians are encouraged to set aside a time for prayer daily. If this is a new thing, a liturgy is helpful in filling the awkward silence if God and yourself are seemingly twiddling your thumbs. You don’t need to scrabble for some prayer to fill the silence. Using simple well known prayers frees us from trying to “pray the right” way.
In spiritually dry times, the Lord’s prayer, for example, becomes a refuge for me. Jesus’s disciples asked Him, “Teach us to pray.”, and he taught them that prayer. If it’s good enough for them then it’s more than good enough for me.
Many years ago, I would use the Northumbrian Office as a framework for personal devotion. A collection of rustic, Celtic prayers and meditations. Although initially unwieldy, working through the prayers and having different parts somehow highlighted at different times actually strengthened my faith considerably.
The thing is, to recognise the way that liturgy can provide a framework for when we are personally worn out, or corporately searching for structure. There is then also a strength in being able to step away from a liturgy when it begins to be too restrictive. This is a step towards maturity, not heresy.