Liturgy: Rhythms of Grace
You’ll notice a few things about our church service: we follow a pattern of prayers and scripted words. This is called our ‘liturgy’ which literally means the work of the people. When we come to church, we believe we are privileged to be given something to do – not just sit there! We stand, we sit, we kneel, we offer our whole selves and our whole bodies to God. This is our ‘gospel aerobics’ and it doesn’t change much. Rest assured that no one is grading you on your participation. We are all students here – learning to live the liturgy takes a lifetime.
At first, it might feel uncomfortable, like a new pair of shoes. C. S. Lewis says that good church services shouldn’t entertain us or change much – because then our focus becomes on the ‘change’ or on the novelty. Rather, a good church service, he says,
‘works best when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.’
So in the liturgy, even if the words are 2000 years old, we are dancing. Even ‘spontaneous’ churches have a liturgy – a set pattern of how they do things and phrases they repeat. So we need to face this and do it well, having our words and actions informed by all of history right into the present. G. K. Chesterton points out that repetition is not for those lacking creativity or individuality, but repetition is for the childlike:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he [or she] is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon… It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. – G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
The Sunday Liturgy is a two-millennia old rhythm and rehearses the gospel for us week after week. Church is not a spectator sport, but an invitation for us to actively receive what our prodigal God sets before us week after week: grace. In this sense, liturgy is not our work for God, or even our work to praise God. The liturgy is God’s gift to us of God’s own self. Through these set prayers, ancient rhythms, sacred Scriptures, repeated cycles, God is trying to give us his own self. We must imagine that God is the host in our worship service, inviting us to partake of his life and presence.
What is the Book of Common Prayer (BCP)?
Every denomination has its own unique rhythm and pattern of how it implements Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer.” The unique Anglican rhythm is summarized in the Book of Common Prayer, originally written in 1549 and is the Bible “arranged for worship.” It emerged in England during the Reformation, and reflected the characteristic “middle way” (via media) of the Anglican church – trying to do nothing in extremes, attempting never to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What this created is a unique book of prayers and Scripture which have kept all the distinctive elements of the liturgy of the early church (and its traditions), while ensuring that they all bowed to Scripture as their ultimate authority. Much of the BCP guides the flow of Trinity Church’s worship, and will be seen in the powerpoint during the service with our call/responses, our Prayers of Confession, the things we say before Communion, etc. Usually our pastors write an opening “Call to Worship” which the congregation recites to kick off our service, but sometimes they will pull an ancient Call to Worship from the BCP that says what they want to say … only better. When it is time for a Baptism, our pastors borrow from this book (which is only 500 years old) because it gathered prayers that were 1500 years old … all the way back to the first century of the church.