Liturgy, “the work of the people”? or not?

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Theologian and writer, Maggie Dawn, reflects on the often quoted translation of “liturgy” as “the work of the people,” and argues that we may not be understanding this in the correct way.


What say you, good people?

Liturgy is NOT “the work of the people”

By Maggie Dawn writing in her blog, “Maggie Dawn”

I mentioned earlier that there is a current trend to define liturgy as “the work of the people”. I think this little phrase has gone viral partly because even among traditions that have never embraced the idea of “liturgy”, the rediscovery of ancient liturgy by the alternative, emerging and non-liturgical traditions has made everyone want to buy into the idea, and in addition, to stress that worship isn’t something put on by the clergy, the worship band or the local elders while everyone else looks on. For this much, who can complain? It’s brilliant if people want to get knee-deep in the creative, theatrical, devotional, theological treasure chest of liturgy, and it’s absolutely true that liturgy/worship should be participatory, not observatory.

The Greek word leitourgia derives from two root words – laos, the people, and ergas, a work. But the popular definition is highly misleading. Leitourgia was never actually used to mean “the work of the people”. It was, rather, a word that described acts of public service, usually initiated by a private benefactor. So, for instance, some wealthy person might build a temple or a town hall, foot the bill, but the work itself was for the community. Likewise, any public work done in service to the gods, but that would also benefit the community, would qualify as leitourgia. It’s work. And it’s about people. But it’s not the people’s work, it’s work that is for the people, and transformative of the wider world.

So liturgy might legitimately be said to be work for God, that transforms our world, and benefits people. But liturgy isn’t mine or yours. In short, it’s not about me.

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6 Responses to "Liturgy, “the work of the people”? or not?"
  1. She's right. Everyone participates in liturgy but it doesn't belong to any of them. That goes for the clergy too.

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  2. I'm certainly with Tobias and Maggie on this. "Public Work," the good that shapes community, touches friend and stranger, and makes us first civil and then, God willing, more human, is what leitourgia meant when Christian mission around the Mediterranean spoke Greek and the word was an ordinary everyday word the church and its missionaries borrowed. The popular mistranslation "work of the people" made rough, practical sense as a needed antidote to clericalism and magical sacramentalism. A couple of years back, I wrote in Episcopal Cafe about an experience that brought this all home - "Public Work at Ground Zero" - the street-preaching-like experience of praying and singing and teaching in St. Paul's Chapel as literally hundreds of pilgrims to the WTC memorials around the walls filed around our gathering, stopped to offer their eyes and ears, and sometimes joined in. The piece is here in the Cafe's archives:

    https://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/mission/public_work_at_groundzero.php

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  3. @Maggie Dawn "So liturgy might legitimately be said to be work for God, that transforms our world, and benefits people. But liturgy isn’t mine or yours. In short, it’s not about me."

    bravo! exactement!

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  4. This little word study is very exciting to me. The idea that the public worship of the Church is a "public work" rather than a production of mine and yours little Christian club is a needed balance in the "liturgy the way *I* want it!" atmosphere of most mainline and Catholic churches these days. Just have church, and care enough to do it well.

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  5. Maggie Dawn is dead right as far as I can tell. See: http://www.tlg.uci.edu/lsj/#eid=64315&context=lsj&action=from-search

    And, if I wanted to be provocative, I might bring an NT passage to bear on the discussion: "And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices..." (Heb 10:11) in which "at his service" renders a nominative masculine singular participle of the verb _leitourgeo_

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  6. Maggie is almost right, deirdregood. Leitourgia is actually derived from the root leitos which means "public," not laos which means "people." The spirit of her argument is dead on though because it does mean "a public work done at private expense." In a liturgy we each play our own part for the common good. (Props to the good Dr. Jim Turrell at Sewanee who has also been dispelling this misunderstanding for students in his liturgy classes for a few years now.)

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