Part ONE of the series, which will served as an overview and introduction to the ideological issues at hand, can be found HERE.
This is part TWO, where we talk about the concept of liturgy itself.
“The Liturgy” is clearly very important to us. It easily resides among the top of lists of things that cause anxiety or controversy in our parishes. And it also has a tendency to distract us from other, more pressing issues.* So, over all, this topic is crucial. Which begs the question: what, in fact, is the liturgy?
“Work of the people” is popular among a certain subset of Christians who see “the liturgy” as the sum of what a group of people agree upon in terms of worshipful actions in community. This is particularly common among the so-called “emergent church” crowd (if that’s even still a thing), where Christians—often those who’ve left more conventional churches—come together to foster their own way of “being church” and, in a laudable move toward ancient ritual, tend toward unnecessarily reinventing the liturgical wheel. For instance, The Simple Way House, a nondenominational Christian community in Philadelphia formed in part by Shane Clairborn, has long utilized their own liturgical forms. A few years back, they released a book for other Christian communities seeking to do the same, a book full of prayers, a calendar of saints, a pattern of daily personal and corporate prayer… in case you haven’t yet seen where I’m going with this, I’ll go ahead and tell you that they entitled it Common Prayer.
Now, what about “work for the people?” Well, this is actually the more historically consonant understanding of the word “liturgy.” That’s because “leitourgia” comes out of ancient Athens and refers to wealthy patrons offering materials and money for events intended for the common folk. A good example of this would be the pan-hellenic games. Another would be a festival for Athena. The “liturgist” was the person who funded these events, who made them possible.
So, “the liturgy” was the offering made by the wealthy for the use and benefit of the common populace, so that they could perform their civic obligations and duties as part of the State. Liturgy, then, is (historically) not so much the ritual itself, but what gives space for the ritual to occur.
And this brings us to a key thing to consider: is there a distinction between liturgy and ritual? We often treat these terms as synonymous, but it would be worthwhile for us to consider if that is helpful.
Further, this historical understanding can be useful for us in conceptualizing what it is we do in church on Sundays (or Saturdays or whenever). If “the liturgy” is something different from “the ritual,” then it stands to reason that “the liturgy” is bigger than any individual or any single community of Christians.
Of course, we have to keep in mind that words change meanings from their historical definitions and that, today, “the liturgy” is used to refer to what we do on Sundays. I don’t want us to “actually”** ourselves to death with this terminology. At the same time, knowing this historical definition helps us take account of the development of our liturgy as a thing that is part of a much larger tradition, not simply the agreed upon aggregate of our theological/linguistic preferences for Sunday morning practice. In other words, “the liturgy” has a “liturgist,” one who has fostered space for how we worship. And that liturgist is The Church—a thing narrowly defined and part of a centuries-old continuity.
“The liturgy,” then—as we today understand the term—is a thing that is only comprehensible when it is part of a larger and longer tradition.
An example: If I walk into The Chapel some Sunday morning, roll out a checkered mat, plop down on it, slice up some apples and open a tub of caramel, and tell you that this is The Eucharist, you’re going to have some questions. This is because these actions come out of left-field and have no sense of continuity.
Another example: I’m a Godzilla fan.
Now, this is where we can start talking about inclusive and expansive language. Because it’s one thing to invent something entirely new and give it a recognizable name, it’s another thing altogether to take something recognizable and revise it.****
And we will talk about that, but first, we’re going to take a look at our own liturgical tradition and trace the path that led us from what Christians were doing in Roman houses in the first century all the way to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and Enriching Our Worship. It’s going to be wild.
Click HERE for part THREE.
* I’m thinking here of the Anglo-Catholic movement of the late nineteenth century. This began, overwhelmingly, as a social justice reform movement, rooted in medieval Christian practice—which included the Tridentine (Latin) Mass. But, in time, “Anglo-Catholic” became synonymous with “high-church” and is often treated as preference for a certain kind of ritual. For the record, I tend to identify with the Anglo-Catholic wing of The Church, but I’m less concerned with arguing about how the liturgy “ought to be done.”
** What I’m referring to is a thing common in “nerd” circles, where it’s common for people to correct other people for their misunderstanding of things. A good example might be:
Well-adjusted, normal person: “Hey, I see that they’re making a Captain Marvel movie. It has Brie Larson as Captain Marvel? I thought Captain Marvel was a guy a lot like Superman, y’know, with a lightning bolt on his chest…”
Fr. Charles Some Nerd: “ACTUALLY, you’re thinking of the Captain Marvel from DC comics, who now goes by the name Shazam! in order to avoid this very confusion (and also due to legal wrangling between Marvel Comics and DC Comics).”
*** This is somewhat similar to what happened with the Karate Kid remake a few years ago. The film is set in China and features Jackie Chan, who is among the most famous practitioners of the martial art known as Kung-fu. Not karate. But “Karate Kid” is a more bankable name in the United States, so they went with that.
**** To carry my own geekiness further, there is a Godzilla example for this: 2016’s Shin Godzilla. This was a Japanese update to the Godzilla franchise and which started from ground zero on the character and mythology. Things were altered to reflect current political and environmental problems facing Japan today, but the character remained identifiably “Godzilla.”