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Changing the world through liturgy

Changing the world through liturgy

by Linda Ryan

In one of my Education for Ministry (EfM) groups we’ve been asked to think about liturgy and its place in our lives and ministries. I’ve found that I really know a lot less about it than I thought I did, and am less able to articulate what it is and what I believe about it as well.

I’ve been involved in the church for many years and in two denominations. I would have said that the church of my childhood was not “liturgical” while the Episcopal church is highly so, and I would have been wrong. What I have begun to realize is that liturgy is not merely a formal style of religion, although that can be a form of it, but rather the way people worship which differs from denomination to denomination and sometimes from church to church within a single denomination. Liturgy is about people: work, community, service and worship. The word itself is a combination of two Greek words meaning “people” and “work”, combining the two to mean either work for or by the people.

I mostly think of liturgy within the church, the rites and rituals done in community or even individually. I was surprised when discussing liturgy with an American Baptist friend some years ago. I mentioned that ours was a “liturgical” church, thinking of liturgy as the order and method of worship as we do in the Episcopal church, but she corrected me. “We are a liturgical church too.” What it boiled down to was that worship was done in a particular order and way, whether one used something like the Book of Common Prayer or not equals liturgy. Both churches used hymns, prayer, readings, a sermon and something invitational – whether an invitation to accept Jesus as a personal savior or an invitation to join in the Eucharistic meal. I can even participate in a liturgy when I read compline or join in prayers and conversation like we do in our EfM groups.

Liturgies cover all manner of things, cyclical ones like Easter, Christmas, the church seasons and the daily prayers from the BCP. They can also cover what are called crisis liturgies, those liturgies that mark a change in state or status of an individual, group or nation. When I think of crisis liturgies, I think of those that were done after 9/11, Blue Christmas liturgies or anointing when someone is in extremis and facing death. There are liturgies for traumatic events and liturgies for joyous ones. I don’t normally think of baptisms, weddings, ordinations, consecrations, confirmations or matriculations as crises, but they do mark changes in state or status. There are inward changes and outward changes, but all represent and mark milestones in the life of a person, group, church, nation or world.

Crisis liturgies have come to be very important to me, specifically the liturgy of healing. About three weeks after I received a diagnosis of breast cancer, I attended my annual EfM mentor training for recertification. It was good to see folks I hadn’t seen for a year and who I’d gotten to know over the past four years of training sessions. I was still rather foggy-headed about the diagnosis and it was never too far from my mind but I didn’t tell anyone in the group until we started to plan for the final Eucharist of the seminar. I spoke to the trainer privately, asking if it were possible to incorporate a service of healing in the liturgy, but to do it without drawing attention to my situation as I wasn’t totally comfortable with asking for prayers or speaking about the diagnosis. To make a long story short, it was incorporated and everyone was anointed by the trainer before we each gave each other the bread and the cup of communion. It was a powerful experience, one which finally allowed me to thank the group and to be open about my new state as a cancer patient. It certainly was a crisis liturgy in my mind, even though I didn’t really remember that it would be classified as such. I experienced a second one a couple of weeks later in an online mentor training seminar, and it was even more powerful. It was certainly an experiment, and even though the formula of the liturgy was fairly familiar (with a few changes), the idea of doing an anointing in a venue that is usually perceived as impersonal, somewhat anonymous and certainly remote was novel. I don’t know how it happened, but honestly, what I felt during that liturgy was almost indescribable. And the effects lasted for several days. Again, a crisis liturgy definitely had the effect of changing my state of mind and acceptance of my state, thanks to my fellow mentors and their brainstorming, willingness and creativity in adapting a familiar liturgy to work in an unusual setting.

Liturgy seems to be about doing things as well as changing status or state. It is a definite yet sometimes fluid way of doing worship, but it is also about building community among those gathered together to participate in a common activity and for the common good. This form of liturgy isn’t limited to worship but rather is more like putting worship to work to accomplish something other than a good feeling after an hour or so on Sunday morning or occasionally helping at a food bank or homeless shelter.

To carry the work of liturgy into the world sometimes takes creativity as well. There are stories of the imposition of ashes on public transit station platforms, prayers and anointing on public sidewalks, and ecumenical services held involving groups who normally would not meet together for an event surrounded by a religious aura. People seem surprised that those liturgies have an impact on just ordinary people who might not have darkened a church door for some time. But then, what if the idea of liturgy were expanded to encompass all the work of the people – working for environmental health, good stewardship of the earth and its resources, humane treatment for both animals and human beings, equality in the workplace as well as in the home and church, promoting the safety and welfare of our children, affordable and available health care for all, especially the elderly and those with infirmities, and a whole list of other things that would fall under what could be called a liturgy of kingdom work, making the kingdom of God here on this earth and in our lifetimes.

Liturgy confined behind church doors benefits those who are also behind church doors. Liturgy done for a greater good in a larger arena benefits many, many more. Liturgy, the work of the people, needs to come out of the church and into the world, and the only way that can be done is with the intention of the people to change things, to make things better for all people and, above all, to build God’s kingdom. I need to consider for myself what liturgy I can take into the world and how I can make even a very small contribution to the kingdom work. That, I believe, will be a work of change – and for the better for all concerned.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter


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Thank you for your comments. I found them very interesting, especially your pointing to a differentiation between liturgy and ritual. I confess, it’s often very easy to combine the two into just one thought.

Thanks also for the links. looking forward to perusing them.


Baba Yaga

Seems like you are highlighting the intrinsic question here… where does liturgy stop? You are so right in saying that it’s much bigger than we think it is, much more diffuse, and wildly polyvalent.

I think it’s interesting to consider a point of difference between ritual and liturgy. Humans make rituals to organize themselves and their groups, because as we move through time we need sustaining ways to affirm meaning and to articulate belonging. Humans can build rituals without intention – emptying the dishwasher, fastening a seat belt. Rituals keep us from having to remember all the steps to every process.

One definitional difference between ritual and liturgy might be in intentionality. Liturgy, then, would consist of trying to inject meaning into rituals. All kinds of thought-leaders attempt to do it. Advertising promotes liturgies of consumption. Political conventions promote a liturgy of activist loyalty. So – I agree with you that there is room to take liturgy into the world – and I’ll add that there’s room and need to offer a liturgical critique of how our culture’s liturgies are operating to infuse meaning.

Linda, the Daily Episcopalian essays breeze by so fast that I often can’t get my feet under me quickly enough to make a sensible response. Your wondering about room in the world for non-professional liturgist put me in mind of this outfit:

Surely, this is a major work of meaning-construction. I think also of the Bread and Puppet Theater:

But these thoughts are only a fast sketch of my responses to your fine essay. What an interesting conversation this would be to continue in a notional world where people could actually meet face-to-face.

Pamela Grenfell Smith

Bloomington, Indiana

David Robinson

I’d hope that all Christians might properly see themselves as liturgists, offering all that they encounter – and all that comes pleading to them – whether as honest thanksgiving or genuine lament. The only skill that’s needed is in listening, the only training needed is in knowing when to act or speak, and when to keep still, and the only experience needed is your own so far. I’ve done ‘big liturgy’ in cathedral-sized spaces, but ad hoc liturgy at the bed-side or on a park bench is what people most often need; but what they most deeply need, as one very wise priest once said to me, is quite simply “you;… the word made flesh.” That’s scary; but it’s what we’re all given, and all called to. If someone knows you as a Christian, and says “Say one for me” I reckon the brave but necessary response has got to be “Let’s find something we can say together, here.”


Thank you for sharing the story. Yes, it was very much a private and personal liturgy. Thank you, sir.

But part of my concern is that we expect professionals such as yourself to take the lead in creating and actually performing liturgies, even when you have to “wing” it, so to speak as you did in the story. Most of us would, I guess, be able to read something out of the BCP in an emergency, but as far as being able to liturgize in a crisis situation or even in a pastoral situation is probably beyond us. Personally, I’d love to study liturgy and its creation, use and mechanics (such a mundane word, but the best I can come up with at the moment). I wonder, how much room in the world would there be for a non-professional liturgist?

Just thinking out loud. Thank you again for sharing your story and your thoughts.

Linda Ryan

David Robinson

I’m sure hospital chaplains on both sides of the water – I’m a C of E Anglican – can tell many stories of creating liturgy in secular settings. Of many that come to mind from my own chaplaincy days, I recall particularly a very young mother whose baby died, full-term, at delivery, when what were assumed to be her labour pains turned out to be an eventually fatal trauma to her bowel. She survived just long enough to leave ICU; and as she lay dying in a side room the (resolutely secular) mortuary technician and I made it possible for her to hold, at last, the child who had died three weeks earlier, and find, somehow, actions and words that mattered for her to do and say. This was a very private and personal liturgy, of course; but in many not-so-similar circumstances, equally involving non-church participants, the task was always to find words and actions that embraced and transformed the circumstance.

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