As my readers know, I love the liturgy a great deal. I believe, in fact, that the liturgical cycle as it came to fruition by the end of the early medieval period is the greatest tool for Christian formation that the Western Church has ever produced. Much of the great writings of the medieval monks, mystics, and others could have only been produced in relationship to this cycle. It is a great and powerful engine for the formation of disciples.
But it is an engine that has largely gone untuned.
At the time of its creation, it was only accessible to a small number—namely those who lived within intentional liturgical communities, had the capacity to become fluent in a language other than their mother tongue, and had the temperament to turn their wonder, creativity, and intellect to its majesties rather than to other arenas.
At the time of the Reformation, the English Church was the only dissenting group that preserved the key elements of the cycle—the Mass and the Office—but even these were severely pared back, breaking, obscuring, and eliminating many of the connections that had bound the cycle into a harmonious whole.
For most of its history, the Episcopal Church has been an either/or body: either Office or Mass. With the coming of the ’79 BCP and Eucharist becoming the normative Sunday celebration, two hundred years of Office supremacy came to an end—but balance has yet to be achieved. Too, the ’79 book has recovered more of the classical links with its inclusion of seasonal material than any other BCP with the possible exception of the failed English ’28 text.
And yet the discipling inherent in, promised by, the liturgy has not appeared.
And it will not appear.
The experience of the liturgy is not enough.
Certainly there will be some who will start to see and make connections. Who will discover a hunger and turn to earlier and other sources to learn of the connections, to recover or recapture the mystery and the power they feel near its surface—but this is not “most”. Nor necessarily even “many”.
If the liturgy were enough, the discipling would be happening.
If it were enough, there would not be people in our churches who have stood, sat, and knelt through decades of liturgies and not been formed by them. If it were enough, there would not be clergy in our churches who have
stood, sat, and knelt through decades of liturgies and not been formed
The liturgy is not enough. And yet it is an engine of great power. It does not choose to sit idle; we allow it to do so.
What the liturgy needs from us are three things:
- We must be open to it. This is the first and greatest step. We must open our hearts to its leading in confidence that the Holy Spirit speaks through its ways and its means.
- We must recognize the treasure that we have before us. The liturgy is many things. It is a path, a discipline, a place where aesthetics, intellect, the affections and emotions are all engaged. We must recognize its value and allow it to have its own authority over us. That is, we must live in it before presuming to change it. And I don’t mean existing alongside of it—I mean living in it. Opening ourselves to it and following where it leads. Because this isn’t really about the liturgy. The liturgy is a path and discipline that leads us into the mind of Christ. And that’s what this is really about.
- We must share its riches. Specifically, this means we must testify to its power and capability to transform, and we must educate. The liturgy is not self-evident. You must be open to it—but it also must be opened to you. Preeminently, this means communicating that the liturgy is an embodiment of essential Christian theology. We don’t do a solemn high mass or evensong just because we like it (though we do, of course…) but because of what it communicates about who and what God is and who we are in light of that reality. Liturgy is theology made kinetic and aesthetic. Even when we succeed in our first two tasks, this is where we have failed in the past and are continuing to fail today. The Episcopal Church is moving towards a new prayer book; protesting at its arrival is too little, too late. If we hope to see a prayer book whose liturgies stand in continuity with our Anglican, our catholic, our Benedictine roots, then we need to start learning, talking, and teaching now while it is yet on the horizon and not yet here at our doorsteps.
All of us who love the liturgy must be intentional about these things if we wish it to exercise even a quarter of its full power within us and within our communities. Through the centuries, I believe the Holy Spirit has crafted this great work as a faithful and true means of guiding humanity into the mysteries of God. But we have to be faithful and true to it as well.