Finding God in Liturgy
Updated: Aug 20, 2019
Trinity I 2019
The Reverend Beau McLaurin Davis, Sr.
"O God, the strength of all them that put their trust in thee, mercifully accept our prayers; and because through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping of thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Today is the Octave of Trinity Sunday, and therefore the beginning of Trinitytide (Ordinary Time for the nontraditional and non-Anglican). There are 23 Sundays until the new Church year begins with Advent. While in the rest of the year we reflect on the events of Christ’s life (birth, death, resurrection, and ascension), during this time we study the teachings of Christ and how we as Christians are to act in accordance with them. For the past few years, I have taken the opportunity to delve into Church teachings which relate to the weekly propers (the Nicene Creed last year, the Deadly Sins the year before) instead of the pure explanation of our texts. My hope in doing so is to make the faith more accessible to you, thereby making you well-equipped witnesses to our rich heritage, and not just an observer.
This Trinitytide, I want to explain to you the importance of what we do in our Holy Communion service. The liturgy (the ritual of the Mass) is what visually separates us from the Protestant churches, and from the outside looking in it could seem to be an odd event; but every religion has its rituals. I grew up in Baptist churches. A Sunday service in the Baptist Church has some essential parts: a handful of hymns accompanied by organ, choir, and usually piano; an hour of sermon written on whatever scripture tickled the preacher’s fancy that week; some handshaking at some point near the beginning; and inevitably an altar call near the end. The movements might be less formal, and the timing might be less predictable, but you can check all the boxes if you know what you are looking for. Every portion of that service was instituted for a purpose which conforms to important Baptist theology: hymns to elevate the spirit and make a joyful noise to the Lord (as directed in Psalms); explanation of biblical principles in sermons; establishment of fellowship at the beginning of worship; and the opportunity to repent in open confession before God’s people at the “altar”. Likewise, everything we do in our liturgy has deep meaning. Nothing is superfluous, not even the placement.
The Book of Common Prayer is the foundation of our worship life. It contains everything which the Church has deemed necessary for the worship lives of its members since the first version in 1549. Let’s call it the basic formula for the function of a parish. The 1549 Prayer Book was, for the most part, a loyal adaptation and compilation of the rituals (albeit simplified) which existed in England prior to the Church of England’s independence from Rome. Henry VIII had fought the introduction of Protestant influence, and the Church remained largely unchanged under his guidance; but his successor Edward VI was nine whenever he took the throne and inherited the position of “Supreme Governour” of the Church of England. His overzealous Protestant regents (along with Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer) convinced Edward to permit continuous gutting of the liturgy, much to the dismay of the large Catholic population. In 1552, the second Book of Common Prayer was published. It denied the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion, outlawed the reservation of Communion for the sick, removed the Introit (the portion of the Psalms at the beginning of the Communion service), moved the Gloria in Excelsis from before the pre-Communion Collects to immediately after Communion, and removed the altar and its furnishings while replacing it with a plain table in the center of the choir or nave. While this Prayer Book was only used for just under a year (and not implemented in most of the country), it became the basis for the Prayer Books which followed it (even our 1928 BCP).
These historical details may seem minor, but the manner in which we worship directs our theology. Anglicanism is not a confessional faith: we have no set of strict definitions written down which we have to ascribe to. Ours is an incarnational faith: our faith is made flesh in the living of it, not some notion in our heads. How we pray directs and displays what we believe. Our faith is made reality by our living it. Movement or removal of words and actions make a statement and guide the mind. The outlawing of the elevation of the body and blood of Christ is a declaration that they are not important: that there is nothing there, and the partaking of them does not grant God’s grace. The removal of the Tabernacles and discontinuance of reserve Sacrament states that Christ is not present in the elements of bread and wine, and teaches the believer to not revere them as the body and blood which Christ said them to be. Serving Communion at a table in the middle of the church instead of at an altar rail from an altar changes the service from something holy -other- to something ordinary and familiar. The removal of two words (miserable offenders) from the general confession in the 1979 BCP removed the culpability of those praying it, making God the one responsible for our sins and faults (and giving credence to the excuse of “God made me this way”).
How we worship God is important. God is very descriptive in scripture on how he wants to be worshipped (lots of talk about altars, sacrifice, abstinence, fasting, incense, and music; not so much on warm fuzzies on your couch). While reformers have done plenty in our Church to sway the belief of Anglicans toward a different theology by changing the way we worship, there have always been those who strive to return the Church to the Catholic faith by keeping those universal beliefs and practices of ancient Christianity. Restoration might seem uncomfortable, but nothing we do is arbitrary. We seek to bring the people to a proper understanding and experience of God, while worshipping God the way he seems to want to be worshipped.