Traditional Worship is Relevant

baptism Because of its timeless nature, traditional worship is appealing across generations.

Rites and Ceremonies

‘Liturgy’ comes from two Greek words meaning literally ‘the work of the people.’ Liturgy is worship, the proper activity of the people of God. Liturgy is composed of rites and ceremonies.

Ritual and ceremonial strictly speaking are quite different. ‘Rite’ can mean: either a broad liturgical family consisting of distinct liturgies, forms, customs, and ceremonies (e.g., the Roman Rite, the Coptic Rite, or the Byzantine Rite); or a particular liturgical form, such as the rite of baptism, the rite of the blessing of a house, or the Eucharistic rite.  Ceremonies are the physical actions, gestures, or other ‘embroidery’ of a particular rite. So, for instance, making the sign of the cross and bowing are ceremonies. Strictly speaking, then, one attends a wedding rite, at which a number of ceremonies occur such as the giving and receiving of rings.

Ceremonial is sometimes criticized by Christians who do not understand that it is both humanly unavoidable and also a natural outgrowth of Christian doctrine. The central doctrine of the Faith is the Incarnation, our belief in the embodiment or enfleshment of God the Son by which he became God-with-us. It is natural, given this doctrine, that the Faith continues to express itself outwardly in physical rites and ceremonies. Christ himself implied such physical expres-sions in his ministry and teaching, as when he was baptized with water, when he used bread and wine at the Last Supper, when he healed using spittle and clay or by breathing on someone, and when in instructions to the disciples or in sermons and parables he spoke of the healing or preservative nature of oil and wine and salt.

Furthermore, ritual and ceremonial are inevitable. When someone comes into a home or office most people have a little ritual of greeting with its own ceremonies: they open the door or stand up, shake hands, usher the visitor in, show him a chair, offer coffee, sit down, arrange papers on a desk or lean back in a chair. The fact that such rituals and ceremonies are unconscious does not change what they are. Even religious bodies that formally repudiate ritual and ceremonial in fact inevitably smuggle them back in: their worship has its own patterns and customs, even if these are not recognized as rituals and ceremonies or written down anywhere. The difference with Anglicans is that we recognize our rituals and ceremonies for what they are, we draw them from Scripture and tradition, and we use them consciously to express and teach the orthodox faith.

The use of largely fixed, written rites is very ancient. It is true that in the most ancient Church the Eucharistic canon was often said extem-poraneously by the bishop, though always with certain elements and formulas included. However, the danger of this method appeared quickly as heretical bishops imported false doctrine into their prayers. A fixed liturgy became a way of protecting the congregation from both heresy and also from the perhaps more common problems of bad taste and bad sense in their clergy. Of course Jewish worship, from which the early Church drew much of its earliest liturgy, involved many fixed forms and ceremonies, both in the sacrificial cult of the Jerusalem temple and in the worship of the synagogues.

The whole point of a fixed liturgy is that it frees the worshipping mind from the need to exercise critical judgement during worship.  That is, since one already knows what the fixed prayer says, there is no need to distract oneself in the middle of prayer in order to analyze the meaning of the words.  But if one does not know the prayer, then a part of the mind has to analyze it in order to discover whether its meaning.  And if one does not know the prayer, then it is difficult to say `Amen' to it until the intellect has determined whether it is theologically sound and expresses the thoughts of the heart.  And, as C.S. Lewis correctly observed, few things are so destructive to devout prayer as the necessity of exercising such simultaneous critical judgement. 

Traditional Language

The whole idea of liturgical worship is traditional rather than contemporary.  The idea of people sitting, listening, singing, and praying mostly in quiet for an hour is radically not contemporary and unlike anything else people do these days.  Even in liturgically-oriented Churches that use ‘modern’ language rites, the clergy dress up in funny clothes and expect people to listen to them as people listen to no one else (except perhaps university professors in class) in our day and age.  Then too the Churches are, or at least should be, talking to their listeners about things that are also radically not contemporary:  death, judgement, heaven, hell, God, immortal souls, sins, righteousness, faith, hope, charity, virtue, vice, grace, and eternity.  These things are important and abidingly relevant, because human nature and human needs never change at their roots.  But these things also are not ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’.  As many pointed out during the Prayer Book debates of the 1970s and 1980s, our culture at present is not capable of generating a modern liturgical language that will do for the purposes of worship. 

Why?  Well, for one thing our culture at the moment is deeply fragmented.  The prose of Shakespeare, for example, conveys astonishing layers of meaning that can keep the greatest mind working for a life-time.  But Shakespeare’s prose also was easily ‘understanded of the people’, the everyday folk who attended his plays.  We have no such general culture or language now.   Today a group of teenagers talking among themselves, computer geeks, the people who go to see Shakespeare, and policemen all can makes themselves understood to each other, but their preferred language can be nearly unintelligible to others.  It’s partly a matter of education, but more a matter of fragmented interests and specializations.  There is no possible liturgical language that will mirror the preferred, contemporary language of all of those, and a thousand other, groups.

Furthermore, the language available to us for sacred things is traditional and comes from a period when English popular culture and English religion were closely intertwined.  It has been pointed out that one modern Bible translation usually renders ‘righteousness’ as ‘justice’ and, occasionally, as ‘integrity’.  But ‘righteousness’ is a word suited to the reality intended by the Hebrew and Greek words that it renders.  ‘Justice’ and ‘integrity’ are quite different and are not so close. 

Likewise, there is no possible modern translation for ‘Lord’, which is a word absolutely central to the Christian faith.  What are the ‘modern’ alternatives?  ‘CEO’?  ‘President’?  These obviously will not do.  Our choice is to stick with an old word that refers to a reality utterly divorced from ‘modern’ experience and yet utterly necessary for Christians, or to substitute a word that will falsify entirely the reality.  Abolish the old word for a contemporary substitute and you will do violence to the faith and, in the end, as George Orwell taught us, you will render the idea of the 'Lord' literally unthinkable. 

In any case traditional language for sacred things not only cannot be replaced at the present time, but also doesn’t need to be replaced.  It is still intelligible, except insofar as the hearers are cut off from the very concepts and culture of the sacred itself.  The Prayer Book is far more easily understood than, say, Shakespeare.  But if ‘righteousness’ or ‘divine majesty’ sound strange to some, then it is precisely they who need to be challenged with such words and the realities that they express.  People who are far removed from sacred things need to be shown that fact by the slightly foreign language of worship. 

Rather than do violence to the faith by expressing it in inappropriate language, the language of worship should challenge the modern hearer to learn of the new and strange things of which the Church speaks.  The art historian speaks with a special vocabulary (Romanesque, gesso, fresco, iconic) which the student has to learn and which cannot be abandoned without making it harder to explain art history.  Why do we suppose that, in an age when people do not typically imbibe their religion with their mother’s milk and their mother tongue, that the Church can abandon traditional liturgical language without making it harder to learn the faith? The fact is, it cannot.