by Alastair Sterne
December 19, 2012
8 min read
In my previous post, Why Anglicanism?, I discussed the strengths of Anglicanism at its best. In this post I hope to address the most common misconception about Anglicanism. It goes something like this, “Aren’t Anglicans just Catholics in disguise, who value empty ritual and tradition more than Scripture?” As Bobby Gross reflects about his entry into the Anglican tradition, he confesses that initially “it all seemed very ‘Catholic’ to me, which was not particularly positive given my uniformed stereotypes and inherited suspicions.” This is a fairly common objection. People take it further still and suggest that liturgy does not engage one in the “heart of worship.” It seems necessary that I address this concern, especially since I listed Anglicanism’s “liturgical heritage” as one of its greatest strengths, when many consider it a crippling weakness.
It may be helpful to first define what liturgy actually is. The word means “work of the people” and liturgical worship is precisely that. It is based in the belief that worship is an act performed by all of the people of God in response to God’s revelation (by that, I mean his revealed character and nature as seen in Scripture). Hence, the idea behind liturgy is that the whole congregation participate in the act of worship, be it the reading of Scripture, through intercessory prayer, or even prescribed prayers.
So, when someone who comes from a background where Sunday worship involves mostly—if not only—songs and sermons, entering into a liturgical worship setting can feel like entering into a foreign land. The people there seem to sit, stand, and sit again, then kneel, then sit, and stand without a blink of the eye. They listen to the minister say some words, and then together they say words back. Often the decorations seems antiquated, the language unnatural, and the cathedral cold. A big fuss is made over the Eucharist, and then its all over. It’s easy to enter into a liturgical worship setting and feel like an outsider looking in. It’s even easier to conclude that all these people are just going through rote ritual without engaging their hearts.
If these basic assumptions are true, then no wonder people ask, “can’t liturgy just be empty, rote ritual?” This is undeniably a risk, and in some cases it is unfortunately true, but this risk exists for every form of worship. Someone can go to a contemporary service, hear songs, hear a sermon, and not engage their heart one bit. They may have their hands in the air, and may look like they are engaged, but that hardly is an indicator of where their heart is at. The external act of worship does not guarantee an internal experience of worship.
It’s also important to acknowledge that every single type of worship service has a form of ritual: a shape to the service that for the most part is repeated week after week (this parody makes my point). The elements of the service may be different from church to church, but they are there all the same. And I think that the elements that make up a service are not the problem in and of themselves. The problem is that our hearts can often remain cold, aloof, and we find ourselves echoing the Psalmists: pleading with our souls to worship God.
So, like any form of worship, the liturgy will be most transformative when active participation occurs. The desire isn’t for empty phrases to be heaped up, or to believe that just because you prayed the prayer of confession without meaning it that it automatically sticks. The goal is for people to be fully engaged in what they’re doing. The desire is that people understand the words being said, digest them, and see them as their own. But not just as their own, to see them as the community’s and most of all the Church’s. The formalization of the liturgy isn’t meant to cause distance between God and the worshiper, although I can relate to how it may seem that way. It is actually designed to draw people near to God and into the tenderness of his love.
Yet so far, I have responded to an assumption that worship is most meaningful when the heart is engaged, and our minds engaged on a conscious level. While this certainly is the goal (and my preference), the reality is that people are shaped by far more than just their cognitive processes. While we want to strive for active participation in worship, social psychology is showing us that routines and rhythms form us even if they are done in rote monotony. James K. A. Smith writes, “Worship is best understood on the order of action, not reflection; worship is something that we do. And even if we don’t think about it in this reflective way—and even if some of us can’t think about it in this way—the practices of Christian worship do this work nonetheless because of the kind of creatures we are. Reflection certainly deepens the doing, but the point is that there is always more happening: our imagination is being formed in ways that we are not (and perhaps cannot) be aware of.”
The liturgy powerfully shapes the non-cognitive dimension of the human experience by creating a consistent rhythm that roots Christians in the gospel story. An Anglican Communion service, for example, takes people through two entire acts of confession, absolution, Word, and response. In other words, they hear the gospel, and respond to the gospel first through the preached Word, and then through participation in Eucharist. The Holy Spirit uses these rhythms to shape our hearts, especially when active participation occurs, and even when it does not.
If this is true, and I think it is, then we really need to think about what the structure of our worship services are telling people. They are consciously and subconsciously taking it in. This means that everything we do matters. Personally, I want to make sure that the shape of the service roots people in the gospel, not just through the words we sing, or the Sermon preached, but the entire service itself. I also want to make sure that the service teaches them that the act of worship is done by them, and not done for them by others.
This leads me to a second, but related, misconception about Anglicanism. People assume that the liturgy, the words said during the service, are just a man-made ritual. But that is hardly the truth. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is saturated in Scripture. It is so entrenched with the truths of Scripture, that one could even mistake it for the Bible at times. Even more importantly, almost all the forms of worship found in the Book of Common Prayer can be found in Scripture; Confession (cf. Daniel 9), absolution (cf. John 20:23), praying in unison (cf. Revelation 5, 11), and the like.
These routines, these rituals, will shape people regardless of how presently they engage it. It is the consistency that will change them on the subconscious level, and then it will begin to bubble up on the conscious level, and over time the worship will become more meaningful. That is not to excuse the necessity of instructing people on what the liturgy means, or how to make the most of it. But it is to say that we can trust that even rote monotony can be redeemed by the Holy Spirit. Liturgy becomes a powerful tool of transformation in the hands of God.
This takes a load of pressure off. It can be very challenging and difficult to recreate a “heart” experience week after week. Some weeks it may happen, other weeks it will not. But the quality of worship is not dependent upon how we feel. The quality of worship is dependent upon God being acknowledge and glorified. That is the point of worship—any experience in response to that is icing on the cake.
So, is the risk of empty ritual present in Anglican liturgy? Yup. But is this inherent in the liturgy itself? No. It is inherent in the human heart, and challenges any form of worship. The goal of the liturgy is to root people in God’s story. This is its greatest strength because, ultimately, worship is not about us. True worship whether through Anglican liturgy or not, makes God known, roots people in the gospel, and transforms them over time.
Finally, liturgy is like being invited over to a friend’s family dinner. The first time you experience dinner with their family its a little awkward. You’re not use to the order of dinner, or the way they banter. The second time over, you feel more like yourself and more at ease. By the third time, you feel as if you’re a part of the family, and it makes sense.