For the past year I have been dividing my time between my family in Victoria, BC and my postsecondary schooling in Calgary, AB, which has allowed me to have the rather unique experience of being able to participate in two very different Christian congregations: in Calgary, a high-church Anglican community whose worship follows the Lectionary and the Book of Alternative Services (BCP Mass is also available), and in Victoria an evangelical church whose Sunday gatherings include a time of “contemporary” music followed by an extended homily.
During my most recent semester in Calgary, I had the distinct pleasure of taking a course on the book of Psalms, which included, among other things, periods of intense discussion regarding the significance of corporate worship in the contemporary Christian life vis-a-vis the function of the Psalter in the early Jewish cultic system. It was during one such discussion that my professor made the insightful comment that, particularly in North America, members of the church catholic ought to develop a keener sense of the inherently liturgical elements which inevitably obtain in their own traditions, including especially those traditions that disavow more traditional conceptions of public Christian praxis.
To this end, although it is common for believers to contrast the “liturgical” approach of Anglican parishes such as my own with the more dynamic framework that has apparently been adopted in many evangelical settings, it would seem that such a distinction is to fundamentally misunderstand the inexorably formative effects exerted upon believers through their regular participation in either community. The consistent performance of an action, or the regular utterance of a predetermined formula (whether in a song or a creed), inevitably infuses that act with a significance beyond that which it would have maintained as an entity in itself (if, indeed, it would have had any significance at all); an effect that is amplified when the action is executed within the ongoing life of a religious body, which implicitly defines the particular deed in question as corporately sacred.
Though these observations are admittedly brief, it follows that the manner in which a church assembles as a community may be properly understood to reflect the identity of that body of believers, irrespective of, and possibly in contrast to, the explicitly stated theological tenets of its constituent parishioners: While the members of a church may hold certain beliefs and values privately, these are corporately unintelligible so long as they are not reflected in the practices of the church as a whole.
For my Anglican church, with its deliberately structured approach to Sunday morning worship, focus falls most naturally on the gathering of the community as it partakes together in the Eucharist. Each of the other elements of the service, though important and edifying for believers, is ultimately oriented in relation to this climactic event and its implied theological consequence.
Conversely, for my evangelical church, which only rarely holds a service at which the community receives the Eucharist, congregants’ attention is directed instead towards the scriptural teaching presented in the pastor’s extended homily. Once again, while the music and benedictory remarks that flank the sermon are valuable in their own right, their overarching effect is to create an environment in which those in attendance are invited to prepare themselves to receive the biblical message and then commissioned to spread that message beyond the church’s walls – a subtle, but undoubtedly liturgical, presentation of the Christian life in microcosm.
My purpose in this post is not to comment on the validity of either approach (though I may offer some remarks in that regard over the weeks to come), but, rather, to show by means of juxtaposition the inexorably liturgical organization of both forms of Christian worship.
Whether the liturgy is planned in a deliberate or an ad hoc fashion, a church’s regular practices as a corporate body manifest its underlying identity as a community. It is therefore ecclesiologically dangerous and theologically naive for the implied significance of such actions to be ignored when planning a Sunday morning service. It is incumbent on church leaders to explicitly attune both themselves and their congregants to the particularities of the manner in which they worship together; indeed, those actions reflect the church’s response to the question: Why are we here?