The Limits of Liturgy

Regular readers of this blog and people who know me personally are well aware of my strong affinity for liturgical worship. I love it so much that I have not been willing to compromise my relatively new-found convictions in this area, not even to save my job. That’s why I can’t wait to see what God might have in store for us through the “gatherings for worship in the liturgical tradition” which begin in Plain City, OH, on February 21. (Facebook users, click here for more information. Others can click on the “Gathering” button under the banner at the top of this page.)

In addition, regular readers and people who know me well (or have read my book, The Long Road from Highland Springs: A Faith Odyssey) know that, over the course of my adult life, I have identified with several different faith traditions, from conservativeCapture evangelicalism through Anabaptism to the Anglican version of the liturgical tradition. For the most part, my progress through each successive stage of my spiritual pilgrimage has meant that I have added one or more dimensions or qualities—important aspects of faithful discipleship—which I had not previously encountered. Only relatively rarely have I jettisoned or repudiated some element of a faith tradition with which I identified earlier. (The exception to that would be fundamentalism; I currently embrace very few of the distinctives I originally inherited from that tradition.)

I was an evangelical Christian who became an Anabaptist (serving for more than a quarter century among Mennonites) without repudiating everything I had come to appreciate about evangelicalism. The same could be said of my ongoing relationship to Anabaptism even after I took Holy Orders as an Anglican priest in 2011. Today I am a confirmed Anglican (that is, I have received the Anglican sacrament of Confirmation) with strong appreciation for and identification with the Anabaptist tradition and its emphasis on radical, cross-bearing discipleship.

I mention this in the interest of integrity and balance as we embark upon the “gatherings for worship in the liturgical tradition.” I want to highlight the practical and spiritual benefits which I have received from participation in liturgical worship (words like beauty and order and reverence and awe and mystery come to mind) without implying that participation in liturgical worship automatically results in deeper spirituality or greater faithfulness. It does not.

I have identified with three major streams that help to make up the “river” of contemporary Christianity, and I have been ordained as a minister or priest in all of them. In each of them—mainstream evangelicalism, Mennonite Anabaptism, and liturgical Anglicanism—I have seen examples of the best and the worst in “Christian” attitudes and behaviors. In each of those traditions, I have met people who have challenged and inspired me, some of whom are my good friends to this day. I have also met some rascals in each of them as well.

I won’t be coy. I wish all Christians could find in liturgical worship what I have found. At the same time, I wish all Christians would embrace the discipleship distinctives of Anabaptismbasin and towel—especially its emphasis on peace, justice, and simplicity—which have become such an integral part of my life as a follower of Jesus. I feel greatly blessed to have been privileged to identify, closely and personally, with both of these traditions.

Liturgy ties me in to some of the most ancient and most enduring aspects of Christian worship. Anabaptism, which arose during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, reminds me that, periodically, the church needs a fresh vision of what really matters in the practice of Christian discipleship. And, as the Christian church has split and splintered so many times since the Reformation, it is clear that no single tradition embodies the fullness of Christian truth. We need each other.

Liturgy is an instrument which can contribute to fulfillment and faithfulness in Christian living. The beauty and mystery of liturgical worship has enhanced my experience of worship even as it has encouraged and energized those elements of faithful discipleship katholischer Priester bei der Kommunion im Gottesdienstwhich I embraced in Anabaptism. Liturgical worship offers a meaningful form for corporate worship. As an instrument under the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, it can bring renewal and transformation to the worship experience of those who enter into it expectantly. It will not, however, magically transform a practitioner against his or her will.

Even as Jesus reminded his hearers that the Sabbath was made for the people of God and not vice versa, it is well for me to close with the reminder that liturgy is an instrument of faithfulness, not a rigid structure marked by burdensome requirements for doing things right. It is our servant, not our master. If you attend any of our worship gatherings, I think you’ll immediately recognize that we worship God, not the liturgy. But, approached with humility and expectancy, the liturgy can enhance that experience of worship immeasurably.

For a splendid 13-minute review of the purpose and shape of liturgical worship, click here. And please think about joining us for worship in the liturgical tradition on Saturday, February 21.

Soli Deo Gloria.

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