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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why Define Liturgy?

Sometimes a nit-picky little distinction can help make an important point or a basic clarification.

For example, while by etymology "liturgy" is the "work of the people"; by definition, it is the official communal prayer ritual of a faith community. 

Making this distinction is important if one wants to develop good liturgical practices. 

To go a bit further, liturgy includes all the various contents of prayer: adoration, petition, repentance, and gratitude.  Liturgy is not merely "public worship", which implies that it is always about adoration. This is a common failing of some of the more entertainment oriented churches marketing themselves as "contemporary". Almost all their efforts go into “worship and praise” music.

Nor is liturgy formless.  By nature it is ritual, lacking in variety, developing its own repetitive rhythms into which the members of the assembly can settle and relax. Liturgy operates within the same sort of rules and predictable behavior as team sports which reward creativity and inspiration within the rules necessary to the activity. Sports rules are traditional, yet controlled and modified by the governing authorities. Today these authorities are often worldwide.  Variations from Olympic standards are usually controlled by national authorities. 

We used to refer to some services as para-liturgical. They were not part of the official ritual of the international church, even though they used similar contents and formats.  They were still public prayer and in ritual form, but they were composed for local conditions and needs.

It is also important to know that liturgy is communal by nature and by definition, which is why the desire of people to pray privately in the liturgical space is so misplaced.  Their desire for meditation or personal recitation does not comport well with the gathering and activity of the praying community.  It is these individuals who need to respect the nature of the community, rather than asking the community to respect their wishes for private prayer in the communal space. This is true by the very definition of liturgy. 

Yet, there is a real need for some people to have devotional space to help them maintain the mood of private prayer. Most congregations probably should consider creating a meditation chapel, whether it focuses on a tabernacle or some other devotional object. Yet, this space is not the same, does not have the same purpose, as the gathering space for the assembly.

Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
[Matthew 6:5-6 NRSV]
Jesus told us to pray as individuals in private because the universal God knows our personal needs.  The community prays in public spaces where our neighbors join us in professing faith, and we get to know each other and support each other in publicly following of the way of Jesus. 

Liturgy continues to be, in its own evolved way, the work of the people, but that is not what defines it.  Liturgy, by definition, is ecclesiastical, ritual, communal prayer.  When preparing a service, keep all these basic elements in mind.

Prayer includes
adoration [praise/worship],
gratitude [thanksgiving/eucharistia],
repentance [sorrow/purpose of amendment], and
intercession [for assistance/guidance].

Communal Prayer takes place in community, not just in public.

Ritual Communal Prayer involves a known pattern into which the communal, local, and seasonal are worked according to the nature of the ritual itself.

Ecclesiastical Ritual Communal Prayer is governed by the faith community to which the congregation is connected. The rules are there to provide unity and familiarity for the members of the congregation. They are the starting points within which planners and ministers are challenged to perform with excellence. They are no more limiting than are the rules of games. One is not to change the ritual of the church to fit one's own concepts and talents, but called to use one's talents to carry out the concepts of liturgy for the benefit of the congregation.

THIS IS HOW LITURGY REMAINS THE WORK OF THE PEOPLE. It is carried out by the people themselves with the help of those called to assist, to minister to, the people. Keep the rituals moving. Enunciate and project. Rehearse in detail and at whatever length it takes to maintain the flow and avoid pauses in the service. Know the difference between elements which are ends and which are means, and keep the focus on the high points of the ritual instead of the minor actions.

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