Liturgy is Not Enough

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
by them.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

23 thoughts on “Liturgy is Not Enough

  1. bls

    That is, we must live in it before presuming to change it.

    Thank you. That’s the heart of things, right there.

  2. bls

    (I’d also like to point out that there IS something more involved with “recognizing the treasure that we have before us.”

    I’m not sure how that gets communicated, exactly; for myself, I first realized how great the Church was when I heard sung Morning Prayer, and went to services of Eucharist at which the music and the prayers the readings all wove together in this gorgeous flow. One of my first experiences of this was on All Saints’ Day: the gorgeous Acclamation for Baptism (which many now excise because they don’t like the references to Satan) – plus the great readings on that day (“Let us now sing the praises of famous men”), plus the great hymns, plus Eucharistic Prayer D, plus “Holy Is the True Light” as the anthem. It still works, even here in the 21st Century – and even Rite II! – but nobody much seems to know how to do it. I was lucky to have this stuff; not everybody does.

    I guess again this comes under the category of “know the rules before attempting to break them.”)

  3. bls

    (Sorry – I really didn’t mean to put that smiley face in there!

    I guess you summed up what we have to do in point 3 there – but people don’t even know what you’re talking about when you discuss it, sometimes.

    Which is why I think we need more direct teaching of the faith and the whole history surrounding it.

    I wish everybody could go to St. Mary the Virgin for a demonstration of how complex and beautiful a thing the liturgy is, and how much fun it can be to experience it. Well, more are going every time I’m there, in fact, so I think there’s hope….)

  4. Michelle

    You say our Benedictine roots and yet aren’t there rather strong Franciscan roots in England right now. I seem to recall that CoE’s Common Worship is largely Franciscan inspired.

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    The idea of the Anglican balance between the Mass and Office and, indeed, that the Office is something to be valued and shared with all is fundamentally Benedictine in nature.

    Here’s an article by a Roman Catholic Benedictine on the Benedictine Spirit in Anglicanism.

    Yes, there is Franciscan influence in some of our liturgies—but on the whole we share far more in common with Benedictine than Franciscan spirituality.

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    It do has to be taught and we have to do it. Like the caetchetical stuff you were talking about earlier… Do you believe the national church will be doing it anytime soon?

  7. bls

    Yes, you’re right. Well, this is exactly what’s going on in my own place right now; I just wrote exactly that same stuff about the All Saints’ Day liturgy to somebody here. I’ve been saying it here since I got here, in fact – and sometimes even people here don’t get it!

    It seems ridiculous that we should have to fight so hard to retain something so spectacular – and to reject things so awful and so dull – but I guess we do.

  8. bls

    (But you know, the national church DID start to promote EFM in the parishes – and that stuff is good. It comes from Sewanee – and something similar for liturgy could be done, maybe. I think there are actually some things like this, in fact – some of those “Who are the Episcopalians?”-like booklets? Maybe we could post that kind of thing on our blogs.

    You and I and our pals are interested in this stuff, but not everybody is. But in order to become allies with us on this, people need to know what it’s all about in more depth; I sure didn’t, at one time. That’s the problem, to me.)

  9. Christopher

    I’m assuming that EOW and other materials are part of that testing of new materials. Thoughtful considerations of these are in order. As my part in this, I will do just that. I think what is clear as this time around we cannot afford to not offer our own thoughts on these matters to our Standing Commission or we will find ourselves with a book that looks like late 20th century mainline Protestantism rather than our own Anglican via media–and frankly, good taste.

  10. Derek the Ænglican

    As Father Chris and I were discussing the other day, it seems that many of the larger American churches seem to think that there are only two theological options: conservative evangelical or liberal protestant. Many denominations seem to be moving to one or the other–and both at the same time as we see with us, the presbyes and others.

    There are other options. I’d hold up in particular Lutheran Confessional and Anglican Prayerbook.

    As goes the liturgy, so goes the theology. If the liturgy goes bland “mainline Protestant” so will the theology and in doing so we lose the treasures entrusted to us for all Christendom.

  11. John

    You encouraged us regarding liturgy: “We must share its riches. Specifically, this means we must testify to its power and capability to transform.”

    I was a life-long atheist until nearly 40 years old. For the next 18 years, sound evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition grounded me in Biblical teaching. Recently, a Catholic Benedictine abbey was where the Holy Spirit deepened my ability to understand this ancient language. Like the two people on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13, my heart burns within me as the scriptures are being opened during the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass.

    That is my testimony.

  12. John-Julian, OJN

    About the Office:

    DO IT — in every parish, every day, publicly, in the church, at announced times. (And train lay officiants for when the rector – rarely – cannot be there.) And use Derek’s propaganda….

    Make the monastic connection — both for a model and for spiritual support when one is alone in the parish church. Have monks and nuns visit; encourage monastic oblateship or associate status in the parish; start a contemplative prayer group; etc.

    Don’t make it fussy — minimize page flipping — don’t “embellish” or “embroider” it. (Print out the Office — in seasonal versions, if you wish — so folk can follow it straight through and only need the BCP for the Psalms)

    Suggest the public Daily Office as a ministry available to all, of course, but especially as one that can be done by seniors, the retired, the alone — who often cannot do much else.

    OCICBW, but it has worked very well in every parish I have ever served.

  13. Derek B

    This is for anyone to respond to, but particularly follows Father John-Julian’s comments. These steps sound sane, and they complement the advice on Derek’s Daily Office Propaganda page. I’m wondering what any of y’all have to say about using chant when teaching the office. On the one hand, the beauty of the chant settings are definitely a draw for many people. On the other hand, it does take a bit of learning and practice, and if there is not already a group up and running chanting the office in one’s parish, it strikes me that it could be a bit of a distraction at first.

    Any thoughts or advice?

  14. Fr Chris

    By way of advice, the parish near me prints out the whole order for Morning and Evening Prayer, with music from the ’82 Hymnal, in little booklets. All that is needed beyond that is the BCP for Psalms, as Fr John-Julian mentioned.

    The chants needed for this are dead easy — the Phos hilaron, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Venite. Maybe the Te Deum for red letter days. From there, you can add the little in between chants — “Lord, open my lips…” and “Let us bless the Lord…” and all that. We haven’t found that the music is off-putting to anyone. It’s easy to pick up, and for those who don’t sing, the Psalms and readings are the meat of the service anyhow.

  15. Derek the Ænglican

    John–thank you for that testimony! That’s precisely the kind of thing we need to share in our parishes to encourage people to start praying the Office themselves!

    Fr. John-Julian, These are great suggestions. I just want to unpack something inherent in number 4: I think there’s a sense that a lot of spirituality is personal spirituality; it’s something that *I* do for *my* spiritual growth. That’s not been the classical Christian understanding of either solitary or public prayer. Prayer is done in connection with and on behalf of the entire community even if we’re doing it alone. It’s not just something for our own personal edification.

    Derek B., If you’re going to start chant in the parish, then you need to start with a strong core who have plenty of experience doing it. There’s nothing worse than when you hit a rough patch and everyone stares at everyone else wondering what to do. Like Fr. Chris says, keep it simple–but I’d agree with Fr. John-Julian–keep it seasonal. That is, if you do chant it publicly, before the start of each season have an informal dinner/cocktail hour (and invite the whole parish) where you sing through the new chants for the next season.

    That is, don’t try and learn/teach chants *during* a time of prayer. That never works…

  16. John-Julian, OJN


    You wrote “I think there’s a sense that a lot of spirituality is personal spirituality; it’s something that *I* do for *my* spiritual growth. That’s not been the classical Christian understanding of either solitary or public prayer. Prayer is done in connection with and on behalf of the entire community even if we’re doing it alone. It’s not just something for our own personal edification.”

    Can you hear my “HURRAH” from there?

    Joe Smith has to go to work at 5:30 a.m., so he can’t be there for the Office at 7. But Annie Jones is a 68-year-old widow who CAN be there at 7. And she can be there FOR Joe, and Jim and Jane and Sally and Fred and all the rest of the parish community! And that is a true ministry.

    Rahner’s wonderful definition of priesthood is
    appropriate for just this kind of ministry:

    “Für die Menchen, bei Gott zu sein.”
    “For the people, be with God.”
    (my translation)

  17. Christopher

    I want to unpack this a bit more. It is personal and communal. We continue to mix up personal and private/individual–these are not synonymous terms. Of course, it’s personal as to be persons requires others persons, just as Rahner’s point makes very clear. Personal does not imply individual, but implies communal. The moment I do something, say prayer, as a person, I am doing so within the nexus of relationships that form and shape me as a person, firstly God in Three Persons, and the Church, and then the entirety of the world.

  18. Christopher

    I think overreactions to the personalJesusism in the US are no excuse for recognizing that we each do have a personal relationship with God, and that that relationship is within the matrix of God’s relationship to us through the Body that give new meaning to our relationships within the wider world. Some catholics need to examine their fears of personalJesusism as much as some protestants need to recognize that we come to Jesus through others. It’s both/and. Again, personal is a profoundly Trinitarian insight.

  19. J-Tron

    I’m coming late to the party, but allow me to add my voice to the chorus of those who appreciate what is said here. I have often felt the same way. As Anglican Christians we’ve been given a tremendous gift in the liturgy, a treasury of immeasurable value, and we routinely throw it away for the sake of trendiness. Moreover, it is quite true that so many people in the pews who’ve spent their whole lives worshiping in this tradition do not know why they do what they do. And many clergy are equally clueless.

    I think that many of the suggestions made here, especially about the office, will be helpful to me in my own ministry. I would like to add one suggestion of my own. That is to read and study the Exhortation (BCP, 316-317). Not only do most laity not know about the Exhortation but I get the impression from casual conversations that most clergy are unaware of it as well. Yet it contains probably the most cogent statement of Anglican Eucharistic doctrine anywhere outside of the Eucharistic prayers themselves.

    I think that the Exhortation should be read in parishes at least quarterly. And I think that it should be used as a catechetical tool in adult ed classes, confirmation classes, inquirer’s classes, etc. It’s not the only thing that we can do to strengthen our understanding of the gift of the Eucharist, but it seems to me to be a good place to start.

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