Learning the language of liturgy
by Kelly Wilson
What makes liturgical worship so special? What is it like to enter into liturgical worship for people coming from another tradition? What is attractive about liturgical worship that we in the Episcopal Church can elevate, emphasize, and educate visitors about as they pass through our doors?
Liturgy attracts newcomers—when it welcomes them
In the last installment of this series, we talked about the number of Evangelicals (or former Evangelicals) finding their way to the liturgical worship of mainline protestant churches, including the Episcopal Church.
I talked with several writers and clergy about the many reasons that certain people might be making such a move. They include an attraction to the experience of the liturgy itself; a desire to be in an environment that is more progressive, inclusive, or open to questions; and a discomfort with the political and social alignment of many Evangelical churches at this moment in history.
As writer Rachel Held Evans, author of the forthcoming ““Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” put it when I spoke to her about her transition from Evangelical worship to an Episcopal Church, “Even if you’ve had a good church experience growing up, when you become an adult you may look for traditions that complement the one you were raised in and that may offer some things that you didn’t experience—even for all that might have been good about how you grew up.”
In this installment of the “Evangelical Shift” series, we will dive in more deeply into liturgy and the ways that Episcopal liturgy differs from the patterns of worship in other traditions. We will examine what might be inviting or daunting for outsiders and how to use this moment of interchange as an opportunity to deepen everyone’s experience of liturgy.
Liturgy is work (and maybe even magic)
The word “liturgy” is derived from the Greek words for “people” and “work.” The official Episcopal Dictionary of the Church defines liturgy as “the church’s public worship of God,” and goes on to declare that liturgy is “the work of the Christian people.”
Liturgy, then, is what we in the church do, collectively, when we meet in public to worship. It’s our job. From the moment we walk in the door, all the singing, the readings, all the sitting and standing and crossing ourselves at the right times, are all part of the work. This is the holy work of engaging with ourselves, with one another, and with God in the contemporary liturgical event.
The Dictionary continues by saying, “Liturgy includes actions and words, symbols and ritual, scriptures and liturgical texts, gestures and vestments, prayers that are spoken or sung.”
It’s notable that this part of the description of liturgy applies largely to the clergy and the musicians—not the congregation.
Before the Liturgical Movement that called for more community involvement (in the the Catholic church in the late 1800’s, and later in the Episcopal church in the early 1900s), liturgy was experienced by the congregation from the outside, while the clergy performed the magic. For many coming in to the Episcopal tradition from outside, our liturgy can still seem like a kind of distant magic.
When I first started coming to the Episcopal church, coming as I did from a simple “sermon, 3 hymns, and an altar call” Evangelical tradition and later from a Charismatic church with stage lights and a rocking praise band, the liturgy looked to me like a kind of Hocus Pocus.
I’m not sure if the story is true, but I once heard that the magic words “Hocus Pocus” originated from centuries ago, when parishioners witnessing the liturgy of the Catholic church heard the priest murmuring “Hoc Est Corpus” over the magical bread that transformed into divinely human flesh.
I often think of that moment now, when I worship in the cathedral where I work, and the clergy are smoking up the altar before the last verse of the presentation hymn as the organ music crescendos up to the high ceiling and beyond, before the choir bursts into song.
It was only later, after considerable time listening and learning, that I came to know the language of liturgy well enough to join in.
Liturgy through the eyes of Evangelicals
Even though liturgy looked like magic to me, to some who come from more Evangelical traditions, it may look less like magic and more like rote ritual, without the emotional highs or personal connections of the churches they left at home.
But as the Episcopal Dictionary points out, there are elements of the liturgy that invite the clergy and the congregation to the table together, connecting each individual with themselves, with one another, with our history, with the truths we can speak, and with truths that remain a mystery.
Writer and musician Aaron Niequist, author of the forthcoming “The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning,” who has worked to introduce traditional liturgy into Evangelical churches, talked with me about what people from Evangelical backgrounds might be looking for in the liturgy, “There are two groups of Evangelicals who are really excited about liturgy right now. One feels to me like it’s the hip style right now. You know, let’s just bring a kind of a dash of something old into our service and that’ll be kind of cool. And that’s okay, I guess, but that’ll pass really quickly, because there will always be something more cool coming,
“But I feel like there’s another real deep movement, that it’s not about style. It’s about what forms us into Christlikeness for the sake of the world. And that’s where it started for me.
“I was a worship leader at Mars Hill Bible Church out in Grand Rapids for a number of years. At that point, Rob Bell was teaching a lot about the Kingdom and all these things, and I realized that all I have as the worship leader is four pop songs and a hymn. That’s all I have in my toolbox, you know?
“And then I realized, these tools can’t possibly capture the widths and the depths, and the complexity, and the nuance, and the beauty, and the power of this kind of sweeping Kingdom vision that he was preaching about.
“I didn’t know anything about the historic liturgy. I just knew, we can’t just get together and sing songs each Sunday. There’s got to be more.”
And as it turns out, there is more—a lot more.
Liturgy connects us with history
I won’t quote the entire Episcopal Dictionary entry for “liturgy” here, but as I read through, so many of the statements leaped off the screen when I read them, and resonated with things I heard from the many people I interviewed for this series.
“Liturgy expresses the church’s identity and mission, including the church’s calling to invite others and to serve with concern for the needs of the world.”
Several people that I talked with described the experience of dipping into a greater history when they entered into liturgical worship. In that long history of the church, which goes back beyond the theologians and reformers of the past many centuries, we find our true identity as Christians, seeking that connection with those first creedal statements of our faith.
As Aaron Niequist told me, “I think learning about liturgy is about realizing what a small slice of the story our tradition has.”
Where some outsiders might see empty formality, those who engage fully with liturgy can see themselves walking in the footsteps of the apostles themselves.
In my research, I was fascinated to find this passage in the Catholic Encyclopedia, regarding the surprisingly ordinary origins of liturgy:
…it must be said that an Apostolic Liturgy in the sense of an arrangement of prayers and ceremonies, like our present ritual of the Mass, did not exist. For some time the Eucharistic Service was in many details fluid and variable. It was not all written down and read from fixed forms, but in part composed by the officiating bishop. As for ceremonies, at first they were not elaborated as now. All ceremonial (liturgy) evolves gradually out of certain obvious actions done at first with no idea of ritual, but simply because they had to be done for convenience. The bread and wine were brought to the altar when they were wanted, the lessons were read from a place where they could best be heard, hands were washed because they were soiled….
Just as our modern Eucharist arose from the Sunday night “Agape dinners” that set the early Christians apart from other first-century Jewish worshippers, many of the motions of the liturgy as we know it have their origins in apostolic tradition.
I talked with Right Reverend Clifton “Dan” Daniel, who is currently the Interim Dean at the Cathedral of St John Divine in NYC (where I also work and worship) about his feelings on the liturgical tradition within the Episcopal church, “I can tell you that as I have moved in this church and around this church, and I have grown to love the tradition ever more greatly. I love the worship. I love the style. I love the formality of it, and I love feeling rooted in a tradition that stretches all the way back to Christ himself.”
And for some, that connection with our history can be as high a thrill as a guitar solo from the praise band, or as deeply touching as Amazing Grace on a piano in a country church. It can also transport us out of the present moment, particularly in troubled times. As Jonathan Merritt author of the soon-to-be-released “Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them” and cohost of “The Faith Angle” podcast told me, what he values about liturgical tradition is “a liturgical expression of worship that feels deeper and more mystical and a connection to historical Christianity that roots itself beyond the present moment.”
Liturgy not only connects us to the first Christians of an earlier time, it also connects us to a reality outside of the present, outside of time itself.
Liturgy connects us with one another
“The unity of the members of the church in Christ is expressed most fully in liturgy.”
One common theme through many of the discussions I had about liturgy was that of coming to the table together. For many who come from other Christian traditions, this act of getting out of one’s seat and approaching the altar is not something that typically happens right in the center of the regular worship event, as opposed to a call to the altar after the main part of the service has ended. Many talked about the power of this shared experience of joining into the liturgy itself to overcome differences between people.
I talked with Clifton Daniel about how our tradition creates the framework for witness and welcome, “I can tell you that the Episcopal church and the Anglican tradition is absolutely rooted in scripture, sacraments, tradition. These are the sum of this tradition. The authority of scripture, of the efficacy of the sacraments, of the Tradition with a big T, not just in whether we light the candle on Sundays or not, but the big Tradition of witness, and the Nicaean Creed and the Affirmation Creed or the Apostles Creed, if you will, being the sufficient summary of the Christian faith. They set the boundaries, which are very broad, and we move around freely within them. You’ll find Episcopalians espousing just about any point of view that you can imagine, but we all come to the table together.”
Writer Jerusalem Greer who is the Project Evangelist for Baptized for Life: An Episcopal Discipleship Initiative (a project out of Virginia Theological Seminary and funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.), talked about how our engagement in the liturgy unifies us, “In our baptismal covenant, we say that we’re going to respect the dignity of all people, and then we actually try to do that. It’s not lip service. We’re not just saying, Jesus wants us to love our neighbors, and then take a stand against our neighbors. No, we say, with humility, we will do our very best to do this. Not of our own power, but with God’s help. And then we try to actually do it. And that means that it’s uncomfortable sometimes, and that people in our congregations disagree, but then we all still come back to the altar. And I think that’s the second part, it’s the fact that we can be in communion with each other while disagreeing, and nobody is forced to leave or to acquiesce, there can be two people going to the rail together who have a very different idea about heaven and hell, and neither one of them needs to leave the church.”
For those coming from traditions that may have close-knit communities, but for whom questioning or departing from dogma means no longer being welcomed, a community that can contain and even embrace differences in points of view is a very attractive reason to walk in through our doors.
Liturgy connects us with our faith
“Liturgy is sacramental. Outward and visible realities are used to express the inward and spiritual realities of God’s presence in our lives.”
While some criticize the formalities of liturgy—and some churches may spend more time than others polishing the silver to a high gleam—but one thing that happens with sacramental worship is that a faith that may seem like an abstraction is brought to tangible life through our empirical senses.
I’ll tell a story here I’ve told a couple of times before. I was once sitting in a pub on the corner near the cathedral where I work, and struck up conversation with a patron who turned out to be a physics student at the nearby university. When we talked about the fact that I worked in the church, he asked me how I could be patient in so limited a space.
“You want to talk about infinities,” he said. “I study the universe. I look at infinity every day.” “Yes,” I told him. “But the kind of infinity you’re talking about is one that I can’t conceive of. When I walk into the cathedral and look up at that high vaulted ceiling, I’m looking at an infinity I can see.”
Rachel Held Evans had this to say about sacraments, “Something I appreciate about the Episcopal church and other liturgical traditions is the emphasis on sacraments. It just was not a part of my religious upbringing at all. When we did communion, we did it once a month, maybe, and it was passing the plate around with the little oyster crackers and drinking the little plastic cups. It certainly was not the center of worship.
“That’s something that I really, really like about the Episcopal church, that the whole service is building to this moment where we gather together at the table. I really like the tactile nature of that and all the sacraments.
“My faith had, at one point, become kind of something of an abstraction, instead of propositions to believe. And the fact is that the sacraments got my faith out of my head and into my hand, into things I can taste and touch and smell and feel. It’s so experiential. And it knocks the pastor out from being this fixture of the worship service, and centers Christ’s presence at the table. I can never complain like I might in an Evangelical church that I hadn’t been fed that Sunday. I get fed every Sunday, at that table.”
A church that leaves people feeling like they have had a connection with the divine—even if it is a mystery beyond our full understanding, will be attractive to those who feel disconnected from their faith in other traditions.
Liturgy has an order to it
“It is also shaped by the seasons, feasts, and fasts of the calendar of the church year and the lectionaries for the Holy Eucharist and the Daily Office”
Liturgy is not improvisational. Not only does the service itself have a solid and repeatable structure, but the year itself has a rigorous pattern of seasons and feasts. Even the scriptures from which the officiant must choose to develop sermons are laid out ahead of time in the lectionary.
This may seem limiting to those coming from traditions where the core of the service is the personality of the minister, whose robust teaching is based on the happenings of the day, or recent events in the church, or personal preference. But the highly structured Episcopal service and liturgical year do a couple of important things.
The first is that it the ordered liturgy becomes something of a meditative practice, a kind of scaffolding of the known upon which the Spirit can build with the unknown.
For me, as a sound engineer in a cathedral, my understanding of how the liturgy worked began to develop over time. I come from a theater background, and as I watch the liturgy and try to create a seamless experience for those in the congregation, I see it as something like a play. From the sound booth, I see how the Deacon is often speaking in the voice of the people, how the Celebrant is often responding with the voice of Christ, how the smoke is making things clean…
In a way, when we invite people into the liturgy, we invite ourselves and our neighbors up onto a kind of stage, to become part of the show, and in acting out their story, to connect with the bigger story of our faith and place in the universe.
Rachel Held Evans spoke with me about the life that she discovered within the ritual of the Episcopal church, “I think it’s a misunderstanding about churches that have liturgical worship in general is that it’s all just rote, although certainly it can be for some people. If it’s been your life experience, I’m sure there’s a tendency for some to start just going through the motions. But Evangelicals can do the same thing. Just because your worship has louder music and a fog machine doesn’t mean it can’t also turn into routine and habit that doesn’t have much life in it. A lot of it has to do with the posture that you come into the service with. With the Episcopal church, when you read the liturgy and really immerse yourself in it, it’s beautiful, it’s Biblical, it has a crescendo and it points to the end, to the sacred meal and this time where we gather together at the table. So, it’s very meaningful to me.”
The second thing that happens through the use of the lectionary as part of an ordered liturgy is that Episcopal congregations receive a great breadth of exposure to the Bible—contrary to the perception that mainstream churches are drifting away from scripture—often leading us during the course of the church year through challenging passages that no pastor in their right mind would willfully select as sermon topics, including the high standards and sometimes conflicted direction of early apostolic teaching and even the troubling fires of Gehenna.
And this we are invited to navigate together, not simply relying on the preacher as the sole interpreter of scripture, but engaging it together.
The Reverend Winnie Varghese, the Director of Justice and Reconciliation at Trinity Church, Wall Street, describes the difference in the role of the preacher this way, “The job, in officiating, is to invite people wherever they are into the place that the liturgy wants to take them. So the question for me is, can I lead the prayer in such a way that people are centered in themselves? Not just not distracted, but actually invited into themselves. And can I be a competent leader that’s going to get you from the beginning to the end, and create a safe space for you in this community for you to go deep into yourself?
“And then, in preaching, the job is to invite people to be able to hear the text and bring it into their lives more profoundly every time. So I should be guiding in such a way that the next time you hear this you can engage it differently. And I think it should be done as to a way that you feel equipped to engage that text on your own.
“As in, oh look, you could do that, you can think this imaginatively, you can find this. Oh, look, of course it has to do with what happened yesterday in the news. Then that text becomes more theirs. It literally causes people to reflect and to be empowered. They come to the table informed and ready for transformation.”
A church that offers a narrative arc, inviting congregants into the experience to make it their own, will feel more dynamic and alive to people coming from a tradition where they feel they do not align or connect with what’s coming across the pulpit.
In Liturgy, Christ is present
“Liturgy reflects the belief of incarnational theology that tangible and finite things may reveal divine grace and glory.”
In my recent Episcopal formation class, in which I prepared to be confirmed in the Episcopal church, one of the stories we talked about was the encounter that the apostles had with the stranger on the road to Emmaus.
As they walked along the road, devastated that they had lost their friend and hero—their only hope of liberation—they met a stranger who asked them what had happened. They were surprised to find a person who had not heard of the tragic death of their rabbi Jesus, and told him the terrible story on their way back to the place they were staying.
When they arrived, they invited the stranger in to share their dinner with them. As was their custom, they brought out the bread and the wine, and in the sharing of these sacred elements, they suddenly realized what their blinded eyes had not told them up until this moment: Jesus was right here in their midst.
In my past religious experiences, I have felt moments of absolute transcendence and thrilling revelation. I have been so moved by just the quietest tinkling of piano keys while a lone singer whispered the words to the old hymn “Just As I Am,” that I have nearly run and slid into the altar like a ballplayer into home plate. I have played tambourine and danced in the aisles to the music of a band that that was funkier than if angels played at Motown. I’ve spoken in incomprehensible tongues, uttering prayers that only my soul knows the meaning of.
A story that I heard over and over again, as I talked with people about this article, was that the emotional highs of the altar call and the praise moment only last a short while, that the experience is wonderful but paper thin. People want to feel something intense and good, but they want authenticity.
When I first approached Episcopal worship, the ritual was something like background music for my meditation. Sometimes I would do the standing and sitting, sometimes I would sit in the back and refrain. (Once, my then teenage nephew came to visit the cathedral, and whispered during the service, “Do you know why these seats are so nice? Because you guys never use them.”)
What I liked about the message and the liturgy was that it didn’t challenge me. It was big enough that there was nothing that came across the pulpit that made me want to stand and challenge the minister, and nothing surprising in the litany of prayers and songs that led to the eucharist.
Until the day that I realized that I was among people who believed that Jesus was actually here in the midst of us. That all of this, the progressive mindset, the radical welcome, the devotion to our public and communal practice, was because Jesus was here, not despite it.
And in that moment, I realized that Jesus, my longtime brother, friend, and yes, savior, who I’d known my whole life and had been missing for some time, was indeed right here in our midst every time we came together.
And beyond the emotional experience of the calls to the altar for salvation, beyond the call to praise and prepare for worship, I’d discovered a new experience—the abiding presence of Jesus who walks with us every day.
That was the refrain I hear over and over again from those who have a positive experience in the Episcopal church: a church which brings Jesus to life for the believer is going to create a spiritual home for a Christian who seeks him.
Liturgy can—and should—be engaging
“By the Spirit, through liturgy, the church manifests the love of God and the unity we share in Christ. This loving unity was shared by the Father and the Son, and it is offered to all Christian believers. Liturgy is a public and social event. It engages our lives and faith, our thoughts, feelings, hopes, and needs-especially our need for salvation in Christ.”
We have talked about people who are attracted to the liturgy—the quiet and contemplative, those who find peace in the practice.
But now let’s talk for a moment about those for whom the liturgy can be less welcoming, those who come to our doors looking for a spiritual home, and find themselves like those early outsiders, baffled by the Hocus Pocus.
As Rachel Held Evans told me, “I’ve visited a few Episcopal churches where you feel like, oh my gosh, if I breathe wrong these people are gonna look at me. And you feel this sense that everybody’s just doing what they’ve always done and there’s just not life to it. That’s not my church, or even most of the churches I’ve been to. But every now and then you end up in a real stuffy Episcopal church and you’re reminded why some people are turned off by this, because there’s this whole insider language that takes so long to learn.
“I think the Episcopal church and other liturgical church traditions can do more to infuse excitement into how they talk about their traditions, not just in their confirmation classes but just generally. And to help others along. I just spoke at an Episcopal church not long ago where they had a something like a little cheat sheet to accompany the program. That was really helpful actually in the way it described what we were doing: we kneel here because of this, and we’re wearing these colors because of this. It was really helpful, for new people especially and people unfamiliar with traditions of the church calendar and so on. There are ways to communicate to people who are new. And often it helps the people who have been a part of the church for a long time too, in going back to why we’re doing this. Whether it’s during announcement time or in a bulletin insert or during the Sunday school hour, it would help to infuse a little bit of excitement and just remind people, this is why we do what we do.”
It is written into the very definition of liturgy that we are encouraged to bring our hopes and feelings to the table. To talk about why we do this. And hopefully to get excited about it.
I loved what Aaron Niequist said about some of his less-than-riveting experiences in the Episcopal church, “Whenever I visit other churches, like when I’m traveling, it’s always an Episcopal church. I am so bent toward it. I got out of bed from a hotel and drove to this church by myself, because I really want to learn from this, and nine out of ten times I am blown away by how bored the people seem. Or, worse than that, the priest is more bored than anybody. And I want to stand up and say, ‘Do you realize the treasure that you are immersed in, that you are just drenched in?”
I talked with Jerusalem Greer about bringing some of the excitement that one finds in Evangelical and Charismatic churches into the Episcopal church: “Over in the liturgical word, we have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of beautiful, rich, amazing content, but no strategy for infusing that with excitement so it’s attractive. It’s like there’s a fear in the liturgical world of showing our emotions. The default is always in the head. Can we do both? I think that’s what the Presiding Bishop is after, what the Jesus Movement and the evangelism push are about saying, don’t you love your faith? If you love it, why don’t you share it? Like, tell somebody about it, be as excited about this as you are about the food you’re Instagramming. You spend all this time at church, you go there, you’re for it. You should be able to share that excitement with other people.”
As the Episcopal church at large is challenged to get out there in the world and talk about what it is we do, what we love about our Church, why we do what we do out in the world and our communities, we can also show our visitors what we are excited about when we come to church on Sunday.
It is, after all, in our job description.
One aspect of the Episcopal church that we talk a lot about, and which draws many people who come from other traditions, is our commitment to radical welcome. We will examine what we have done to create a welcoming space, and what we can do differently to increase the diversity and inclusivity of the Episcopal church.
author: Kelly Wilson is a writer and blogger living in New York City, where he also serves on the staff of the landmark Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. More of his writing can be found at www.kellywilson.com.