Why Worship Liturgically?

R. Dennis Campbell

Bishop, Anglican Orthodox Church Diocese of Virginia

Rector, Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church

Powhatan, Virginia

 

For centuries Christians worshiped God according to a set pattern of memorised prayers and rites called “liturgy.” Yet liturgy seems odd to many people today.  It has been replaced by user/seeker friendly practices, and many wonder why anyone would want to worship liturgically.  We in the Anglican Orthodox Church believe worship is not about what we want.  It is not about our taste in music, sermons, architecture, clothing, or style of worship.  Worship is about God.  It is something the Church does for God, not something the Church does for us.  It is all about honouring God as God, not about making us feel good.  Liturgy takes the emphasis off the worshipers and returns it to God.  Liturgy removes the temptation to focus on a song, a performance, the personality of the minister, our own tastes, and even our own feelings. Liturgy places all of these things in the background as it gathers the people into one common service of worshiping God.  Of course the only compelling reason for any mode or form of worship is that is either allowed or required by God in the Bible.  We of the Anglican Orthodox Church believe liturgical worship is Biblical worship.

 

Jesus worshiped liturgically. Everyone acknowledges that the Temple services were very formal and very liturgical; few know that the synagogue services were equally so.  Patterned after the Temple, the synagogue followed a beautiful liturgy of written prayers, formal Scripture readings, and liturgical hymns.  Alfred Edersheim described worship in the synagogue during the time of Christ saying: “There, on Sabbath and feast days they met to read, from the same Lectionary, the same Scripture lessons which their brethren read throughout the world, and to say, in the words of the same liturgy, their common prayers” (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 77).  That "same liturgy" is still used in many synagogues and is found in the Jewish book of prayer, the Siddur.  The internet has numerous sites describing it, and many synagogues welcome visitors, so their liturgy is well known.  Jesus was diligent about worshiping in the synagogue and Temple (Lk. 2:41-49, Lk. 4:16, Jn. 18:20). So, Jesus worshiped liturgically.

 

But didn't Jesus change all that in His New Testament Church?  Didn't He "free" us from the bondage of ritual and liturgy?  Wasn't the worship of the early Church spontaneous, fluid, and experiential?  In a word, no.  Jesus did not break with the liturgical form of worship; He continued it.  He actually gave at least two liturgies which are still followed today.  The first is the Lord's Supper.  The second is baptism.  In both we still follow the form and the words given to us by Christ.  The Lord' Prayer is a liturgical prayer said from memory or read in the Church from the days of Christ until now.  Most of its petitions are quotations from the Siddur (Evan Daniel, The Prayer Book; its History, Language, and Contents, p. 2).

 

The Apostles worshiped liturgically. The Apostles and early Christians were Jews and they continued to worship in the liturgical form they had known all their lives.  At first, they continued to worship in the Tempe and synagogue.  Thus, Peter and John went to the Temple because it was the hour of Prayer (Acts 3:1).  The Church continued in "the prayers," as it says in the Greek New Testament, meaning the formal, liturgical prayers of the Temple and synagogue (Acts 2:42).  The early Church met for these services daily, along with other Jews (Acts 2:46).  When Jewish Christians met apart from the Temple and synagogue they took the liturgical form of worship with them and, essentially, formed Christian synagogues (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vii, pp. 329- 536).  This is important because it shows that while the Apostles were writing the Scriptures and founding the Church, they were worshiping liturgically.

 

The liturgical form of worship did not change when Gentiles were brought into the Church.  Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, was a Jew who had worshiped according to the Siddur since childhood.  He was greatly influenced by the Church at Antioch, which was composed of Jewish Christians (Acts11:19-20).  There Paul learned to worship as a Christian.  Since the Church of Antioch consisted of Jewish Christians who had been instructed by the Apostles through Barnabas (Acts 11:19-27); it worshiped liturgically.  When Paul established churches in Asia and Europe, he taught them to worship as he had been taught in Antioch, liturgically. When the Church of Corinth departed from the liturgy and patterned its services after the chaotic pagan festivals of the Greco-Roman culture, Paul chastised it (I Cor. 14:23-33).  The Corinthians' impure worship flowed from an impure faith, so the church's doctrine and living were as corrupt as their worship.  Consequently, the church was in chaos.  First and Second Corinthians were written to encourage repentance and restore order, that all things, including the worship, may be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40).

 

Liturgical worship continued almost unchallenged for the first 1,600 years of the Church.  However, as doctrinal errors corrupted the faith, they also corrupted the liturgy.  The history of this decline is well documented and need not be discussed here.  Let it simply be noted that when the Reformers attempted to return the Church to Biblical doctrine they did not reject liturgy.  They simply expelled the accumulated doctrinal and practical errors and returned liturgy to its Apostolic and Biblical purity.  Martin Luther is known for this in Germany, but Thomas Cranmer and John Calvin did the same in England and Switzerland.  Thomas Cranmer also translated the liturgy from Latin into English, making it possible for English speaking people to become worshipers again instead of merely spectators.  His work is preserved in the Book of Common Prayer, usually called, “The Prayer Book” like the Jewish Prayer Book mentioned earlier.  John Calvin's Geneva Liturgy is well known.

 

Whence, then, came the view, which dominates the contemporary Church, that worship must be spontaneous, people oriented, and devoid of liturgy?  During the Reformation several groups separated from the Reformers on the assumption that they had not gone far enough in their efforts to reform the Church.  Some of these groups remained within the fold of the orthodox Christian faith.  Others left orthodoxy and made up their own religions, combining portions of biblical truth with unbiblical ideas.  These groups usually gathered around charismatic personalities who were unfamiliar with the cultural and historical circumstances in which the Biblical writers lived, and to which they addressed their Books.  Assuming they could understand the Bible without such knowledge, they read their own ideas into the Scriptures and opened the door to cults and false doctrine.  Needless to say, liturgy was one of the first things they rejected, replacing it with their own ideas of what worship should be. The focus of worship was turned from God to the congregation.  Rather than Christ and the Bible, they turned to Europe's pagan past and made it the model of worship.  Human experience and feelings became the standard by which the services were judged.  This led to a growing emphasis on pleasing the people, and the use of showmanship and entertainment to accomplish it.  This view of worship gradually infiltrated the Church, and is the dominant view today.

 

It is clear that liturgy has been the dominant mode of worship during most of the Church's history.  This brings up an interesting question.  Knowing that our Lord spent forty days with the Apostles after His resurrection, and that much of that time was necessarily spent teaching them the meaning of Scripture and the organization and  worship of the New Testament Church, why did He allow them to continue to worship liturgically?  Knowing that His Church would penetrate into all cultures, races, and eras, why did He not instruct the Apostles to adapt worship to the cultures and tastes of the peoples who would become His Church?  Why did the Apostle Paul chastise the Corinthians for accommodating their worship to the tastes and practices of their own culture?  Perhaps it is because the way we worship God is not a matter of personal taste.  Perhaps it is not something left to our own whims and feelings.  Perhaps it is too important to be left to the tastes and cultures of the pagan peoples in which the Church finds herself; too important than to be left to the ideas and tastes of even the most Godly Christian minds.  Perhaps the worship of God is a task so important and so enormous that its form and pattern must be given to us by God Himself.  We have seen in the Bible that liturgy is the way Jesus worshiped, the way the Apostles worshiped, and the way the New Testament Church worshiped.  We believe this demonstrates conclusively that liturgical worship is Biblical worship.  This is why the Anglican Orthodox Church worships liturgically.

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