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The liturgy of the Church

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 5 April 2007


Church attendance away from home can be a risky business, at least in the Protestant denominations although not always. Unlike Roman Catholics who can expect a competent Mass one does not know what to expect from a strange Anglican or Uniting Parish which may vary from the formal liturgical to an informal mishmash of prayers, readings and hymns.

This was brought home to me recently while attending a UC Parish. Two things immediately alert me as to what to expect, the clergy in civies and the beginning of the service with a hearty “Good morning”. What happened to the traditional Christian greeting of “The Lord be with you”?

Under a misunderstanding about the ministry of all believers, all distinction is erased between clergy and laity, the clergy do not distinguish themselves with vestments and hand over as much of the service as possible to lay leaders. The result is a patchwork of different voices with no discernable guiding hand or presence. This is church designed by a committee, a democracy in which all voices are equal.

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Churches may be roughly divided into the liturgical and the non-liturgical. In the former, the clergy presides over a liturgy that has been passed down from the church. For Roman Catholicism this is contained in the Mass book, for Anglicans, A Prayer Book for Australia and for the Uniting Church, Uniting in Worship. The similarity of the contents of these books bear witness to a catholicity of Christian worship, remarkable given the historical divisions between these three denominations.

All three understand the Eucharist as the normal form of Christian worship. All three recognise that Bible readings should be from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Epistles in a three-year repeating cycle. When I was a UC minister, visiting Catholics who attended family baptisms would often tell me after the service that they felt right at home. However, few Uniting parishes would have celebrated a sung Eucharist every Sunday and few do today.

The home of Christian worship is made up of ancient and familiar words that are deeply grounded in biblical literature and have been refined over hundreds of years. The denominations may be separated by church structures but their theology and formal worship continue to coalesce at least as they are defined by “head office”. However, what happens on Sunday morning varies according to how much control is exercised by the hierarchy. The degree of control is highest for Roman Catholic, less for Anglicans and even less for the Uniting Church.

The less control the hierarchy has on what happens on Sunday morning the more variability we can expect and, unhappily, the more crimes are committed against Christian worship.

The non-liturgical argument is that set forms of worship are repetitive, boring and clergy-centered. The alternative is thought to be creative, alive and people-centered. This is why in the service I attended we began with a “caring and sharing” session in which we were prompted to share anything from a birthday to a terminal diagnosis. This is Christian worship captive to pastoral care; the needs of the people take centre stage rather than the worship of God. The result is oozingly sentimental.

The one message is that God loves us no matter what. While this may be true, it is a truncation of the Gospel imperative that while we may be accepted as we are, it is not expected that we remain as we are. Surely our hope is to be transformed into His likeness. However, we have been taught that it is not pastoral or popular to make demands on the congregation so we leave out the hard bits. This leads to preaching that avoids the difficult passages and to a blandness that fails to convey the sharpness of the Gospel. In short, it leaves us where we are.

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Non-liturgical worship is often driven by concerns for the man in the street who might wander in and not understand what is going on. The reduction that results removes readings from the Old Testament, the Epistles and the psalms (at the UC service I attended we had only a reading from the Gospel) and recitation of a creed. A formal confession and absolution may also be absent.

Unfortunately these omissions are often accompanied by clumsy celebration of the Eucharist if it is present at all. In my recent experience it was as if this was the first time this congregation had ever celebrated so thick were the instructions at every point.

If the man in the street were to wander in what would he think? He would probably think that this is a people who are uncertain of their worship, indeed undisciplined to the extent that they could not be taken seriously. By contrast, if the man in the street were to wander into a liturgical service in which everyone knew the responses and every word and action had been weighed to convey what was intended, there may be some things he would not understand, but he would see a serious people who knew what they were about.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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