Thursday, January 16, 2020

Reformation Liturgies and corporate prayer

I've just finished working through Reformation Liturgies, edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey.  This (massive) book compiles a number of different liturgies and forms of worship from the Reformation period (i.e., the 16th century), including liturgies from Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed churches.  I'll be honest, it's probably not everyone's idea of a gripping read, but I found it fascinating, and as a resource for contemporary worship absolutely invaluable.  Those guys, driven by gospel need, thought hard about what Christian worship ought to be like, and strove to put it into practice.  The care that went into those liturgies, to make sure that what was said and done was God-honouring, is really striking.  What is equally striking - and helpfully illustrated in an appendix which compares the 'running order' of all the different liturgies (including, usefully, an outline of the mediaeval Mass) - is that there was a broad consensus amongst the early Protestants, despite differences in detail and approach, on the content and shape of a Christian act of worship.

I don't want to go into detail on that content and shape here - see the book - but I do want to ask a couple of questions.

The first is this: given the consensus in the early Reformation period, how have we got to a point now where anything that smacks of being 'liturgical' feels, to folks in my congregation, as if it is 'Anglican'?

The answer is actually hinted at in the book - the liturgies of some of the English exiles during the Marian period are already tending towards simpler forms, less prescriptive.  The particular history of non-conformity in the late 16th and 17th centuries must surely have a bearing.  Theologically, arguments like that of John Owen in his Discourse Concerning Liturgies (1662) are relevant.  Owen's main points are: that Christ has provided men to lead in worship, equipped by the Holy Spirit, thus obviating the need for set prayers; that Christ having made such provision, any seeking out of other means is contrary to his will; and, that nobody other than Christ has the necessary authority to impose a particular liturgy.  I don't find these hugely persuasive, and I think Owen ignores evidence that set liturgical forms were in use much earlier than he is prepared to admit (and I think further evidence has come to light since Owen's day).  Owen thinks he is arguing for the liberty of the churches, but to me he seems to be arguing only for the liberty of the clergy, to lead as they see fit; and set in that light, the arguments do not appear so noble.  However, Owen's arguments are better than the main arguments expressed in our contemporary setting, which seem to be that set forms are necessarily 'inauthentic', and that only prayer from the heart counts; add to that our culture's strong preference for informality, and hey presto.

My second, and more important, question has to do with the effect of the abandonment of liturgical forms on our churches.  It is commonly observed that our worship is often rather thin gruel; that our services lack 'shape' and depth.  I think that's right.  The work of teaching, formation, and discipleship has come to be focused exclusively on the sermon, with the surrounding informal liturgy being seen as primarily a time for self-expression.  That is problematic, to say the least.

I wonder whether there hasn't been a broader impact on corporate prayer.  I don't want to over-state this, but I do think it is significant that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray he gave them, not a technique, but a form of words.  (I've commented on this here and here).  We learn to pray by praying along.  There is no doubt in my mind that this is easier with 'set prayers' which are repeated over time than it is with extemporaneous prayer.  Moreover, the sense of 'praying along' is surely conveyed better in a liturgical form with space for responses and prayers recited together than a more informal form which reserves only the 'amen' for the 'laity' (so-called).


  1. On the same page as James A K Smith

    1. James Smith gets a big 'yes, but...' from me.