Liturgy. One More Time…

There’s a post at the Cafe about what Episcopalians can learn from Baptists. To my eyes, it repeats the usual tropes about hide-bound, static “book” liturgy as opposed to free and spontaneous “spirit-filled” worship.

It’s a tired rhetorical dichotomy that really needs to die because it’s based in a fundamentally one-side understanding of pneumatology.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, liturgical worship certainly can become hide-bound, stodgy and dead. But it’s false to say it all is—or even most.

The chief reason why this hacks me off, though, is the assumption that most Episcopalians are at the place where they can profitably learn things from Baptists about liturgy. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet! Most of the Episcopalians I know need to learn a lot more about Episcopal worship before we start looking to see what we can learn from others.

8 thoughts on “Liturgy. One More Time…

  1. Tim Cravens

    I was raised Baptist and Pentecostal/charismatic, and I am here to tell you that Baptist and Pentecostal/charismatic worship can easily become hide-bound and static, too. I remember one charismatic church we attended in high school (shortly before I fled first to the Methodist, then to the Episcopal Church) where every week, at the precise same point in the service, there was a “message in tongues” with its requisite “interpretation” — which was always the same, about how this church was God’s special anointed and was going to do really, really cool miracles through them, and a bunch of other narcissistic crap repeated almost verbatim every week.

    I first genuinely worshipped when, as a senior in high school, I began attending the Rite I Episcopal parish in my town.

  2. The Postulant

    As a musician (of sorts), I know well the kind of spontaneity that can find a place in fixed forms. It requires a good deal of sensitivity on the part of the musician. I don’t doubt that in principle a good liturgical president can have the same sort of sensitivity — but it does require a thorough understanding of the fixed forms. As a service player, I would never try the inventive stuff unless I were perfectly capable of playing things straight.

    But then you know me. Unless there’s a rubric saying, “Here shall the people be spontaneous,” I’m going to stick to the Book.

  3. Christopher


    I added my own comment. I note that my own most recent post is in sharp contrast to this worn and tired rhetorical device. Bp. Cravens is correct, the most formulaic prayer around is “God we just…” We regular/liturgical prayer types actually have many more formulas to draw upon when the need arises to be “spontaneous”.

  4. John-Julian, OJN

    The old Pennsylvania Dutch adage was “Kissin’ don’t last, but cookin’ do!” and I think it applies aptly to liturgy. The orgaistic emotional jag seems a high-point at the moment, but it tapers off pretty fast, and it is soon discovered that it can’t be reenacted just by wanting it to happen again. And the “with it”, swinging liturgy pales and fades very soon.

    Reliability and familiarity always end up winning simply because they can be depended upon.

  5. bls

    Hey! I’ve got an idea! If the clergy want to do something really daring – really out there – how about they turn around and face East?

    Even bringing up the topic seems to cause “Holy Chaos,” often enough….

  6. Vicki McGrath


    In all the discussion of liturgical vs. “free” forms of prayer, one thing that doesn’t seem to come up is the fact that liturgical prayer has the capacity to be not only renewing and invigorating, but also restful and sheltering, providing an experience of Sabbath and our utter reliance upon God. When we can, as a worshipping community, corporately give ourselves to the silent embrace of the Spirit we become rested, re-invigorated and realigned in a particular kind of way. It shifts our spiritual center of gravity that is ultimately more sustaining than any emotional experience.

    I think you are right; most Episcopalians actually know very little about Anglican liturgical worship. And we clergy have not always done the job we should to provide intentional reflection and formation for worship. While there is an argument to be made that the worship itself is the formative experience, we lose an important opportunity if we don’t provide liturgical education for our communites, as well. God has given us our minds and expects us to use them as best we can, and that includes worship. It is condescending of the clergy to think that parishioners aren’t interested in the sacramental and symbolic meaning and reason for our liturgical practice. Most children, teens and adults I know are very ready to ask the “why” questions about liturgy and are glad and hungry for the answers.


  7. Annie

    Very good responses, Derek. I’m still considering an argument of my own to contribute–but what I really want to do is scream!

    Spirit-filled? Oh heavens! I am in love with the liturgy because it is the only way I know that a person is open to inner seeking–listening to the still small voice of God. What I see in Baptist Churches looks a lot more like mass hysteria. Okay, so I’m being rude! If people don’t like our liturgy, they are welcome to go to one of the many churches that have misplaced it.

    Annie *have I lost my subscription to your blog?*

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