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Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII



Part VI:  The Place of Art in Worship

Chapter 3

Liturgy: A Help or a Hindrance?

     FINALLY WE come to the question of the form of the worship service, whether liturgical (i.e., structured by the use of a prayer book) or free (i.e., making use of extempore prayers only). According to the dictionaries, the term "liturgy" includes both the prescription of prayers and the prescription of ritual for the ordering of worship. To many of us of evangelical persuasion, the term "ritual" has unfortunate overtones. Where it serves chiefly to entertain the thoughtless or mystify the ignorant or glorify the priests, I think it is all bad. But there are some rituals -- and there really is no other way of describing them -- that are very meaningful and profoundly moving.
     I remember talking at Campus-in-the-Woods in Canada to a young lad who was a rugged individualist and had more than an ordinary share of spiritual problems due to a rather rebellious spirit. He was telling me what really influenced him to give his first serious attention to spiritual things. He attended a Meeting of Friends and they performed the ritual of the washing of feet. He watched with mixed feelings as others entered solemnly

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into the spirit of what was being done until finally it came to his turn. When his feet also were washed, he broke down completely, overcome by the magnitude of the human sentiment it involved. Such a ritual has nothing whatever in it of entertainment or mystification or any such thing. It was full of beautiful simplicity and meaning.
     During one winter after that, a little conference for the deepening of "parish life" was conducted by an Anglican minister in a house I have in the Thousand Islands. At the close of this conference, at which the Lord was assuredly present, a simple communion service was held for the nineteen people who took part in it. This was a moving experience. But what moved me even more was the brief closing exercise before everyone went home, an exercise which by its very nature must be classed as a ritual. Starting with the minister himself and passing successively from one person to the next, the first person held the second person by both hands and said, "The Lord be with you." To which the second person replied, "And with your spirit." The latter then turned to the next in line and said, "The Lord be with you," to which this third person replied, "And with your spirit." And so the blessing and salutation passed around the circle without affectation and with complete sincerity. It seemed a fitting conclusion. Yet we do well to recognize that such rituals as these lose their force if they become mere habit . . . which is the chief criticism leveled against all liturgical forms of worship.
     May I give one more illustration of another kind of ritual, but one which never seems to lose its impact: the sharing of a meal. Some fraternities have as part of their rules the requirement that all members must eat a certain number of meals together: and I believe it has been rightly said that one never really knows a friend or a brother in the Lord until one has shared a meal with him. The Lord shared many meals, and actually it is difficult to think of very many great actions in His ministry which did not involve some kind of sharing of food (e.g., Matthew 15:32f.; 26:20 f.; Mark 6:30f.; Luke 19:7; 24:30; John 2:1 f.; 12:2; 21:9 f.).
     In Revelation 3:20, the Lord illustrates the reality of His fellowship with us in striking words which bear out the importance of shared meals. He said, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me."  One day, when a number of young people were present in our living room, I quoted this verse, to one of those who knew the Lord, as an illustration of the importance of this particular form of fellowship. I was not aware that anyone else was listening, but about ten minutes later one of the non-Christian girls in our group came up to me with a radiant face and said, simply, "You said, 'Behold I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice and open the door, I will come in. . . .' Well, I did. And He did." And there was no doubt that He had. The power of the Word of God is extraordinary.

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     This little story is in a sense by-the-bye, but the fact remains that the ritual of a meal shared around the table has profound significance in the context of Christian fellowship. There are therefore rituals of great value of which we should not rob ourselves merely because some part of the organized church has adulterated them. However, what I really wanted to speak of under the general heading "Liturgy" is the matter of using formal rather than spontaneous prayers
     The usual objection made to the use of written prayers is that the words quickly become so familiar as to be meaningless. Yet no one hesitates to accept written hymns for praise. There is no question whatever that they too can become meaningless. I know from experience that I can sing a hymn right through from beginning to end and yet, a moment later, not be able to recall one line! Should we then discard the hymns? Should we merely have a tune for praise, leaving it to the individual to set his own pattern in complete independence? This does take place in some churches. But when it happens, the congregation as a whole ceases to speak with one voice and the conflict of sounds, while the individual worshipers may be edifying themselves, has a rather doubtfully edifying effect upon the rest who may not feel in the same mood. Because the words of our hymns are written down, we may not only sing together, but also encourage one another by the very corporateness of the act. It is not an uncommon experience, when the spirit is low, to find oneself lifted up by the very fact of joining in with the joyful singing of others.
     This principle extends to written prayers also. One of the most important aspects of a liturgical form of worship is that the spiritual ups and downs of the individuals who are leading cannot have nearly so pronounced an effect upon the rest of the congregation. A simple illustration: I have once or twice been suddenly asked to lead in prayer at the end of a rather tiring day when I felt anything but spiritually vigorous. I have never failed to marvel at the way in which, merely by being able to recall the beautiful words of one of the Reformers' prayers in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, my own spirit was lifted as I used it to direct the thoughts of those who joined with me. This might be called a crutch, I suppose. But if we are lame at times, there seems every justification for being enabled to lead others in a clear path by having such a crutch which is not only beautifully worded and appropriately formulated, but absolutely sound theologically.
     An unbeliever may read aloud the Word of God to the benefit of all who hear it, because the Truth there is a double benefit for the hearers. Nevertheless, the Truth has a power in itself and God can use it even in

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the hands of an unbeliever. By the same token, the Reformers' prayers which embody profound truths can be a great blessing to believers even when read aloud by a man who does not share their understanding provided he is a capable reader.
     Anyone who has studied carefully the precise wording of the great prayers in the Anglican Prayer Book -- the call to repentance, the prayer of humble confession, the general thanksgiving, indeed every collect and most of the responses -- will be forced to admit that it is scarcely possible to conceive of a better way of expressing the same thoughts. Consider one example. Upon occasion the minister will read the Ten Commandments. It is not a bad idea for us to be reminded of them. But the striking thing is the response which the congregation is called upon to make after each one: "O Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law." Reflect upon this simple but profound little prayer. Where else should we start after hearing one of God's commandments except by appealing for His mercy? And then? Should we ask the Lord that we might keep this commandment? Or should we thank the Lord that we are not under the law any more? Or should we congratulate ourselves that we have not stolen or murdered or committed adultery? I think not. I think the best we can do is to ask the Lord to "incline" our hearts to keep these laws. This is realism.
     It is true, of course, that the Prayer Book is not infallible, and that here and there we run across statements which make us hesitate.
(12) But even here it is surprising how often it turns out that those who formulated such statements were remarkably near to the truth even when they seem to have been positively in error. In my younger Christian days I benefited greatly by using the Scofield Bible: and I remember when I first came across the footnote to Psalm 51 which states, with reference to verse 11, that no Christian in the present age should ever pray "and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me." I agree entirely. But it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion from this -- which I think is what Scofield really intended us to do -- that the Anglican response, "and take not Thy Holy Spirit from us," is equally inexcusable. For a long time this disturbed me, and I refrained from making the response whenever the occasion for it arose Then one day, reading John 14: 17, I noted the words of the Lord: "And He [the Holy Spirit] shall be in you, and He shall be with you". To me there is a clear

12. Some of these, perhaps most, have been corrected in the Prayer Book of the Reformed Church of England.

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distinction between these two phrases. In the one case it is a matter of personal indwelling (i.e., in you), but in the other case it is a question of corporate presence guiding the thoughts and plans and activities of the local body as a whole (with you). We do not need to be warned that the Holy Spirit will not abide in us, for I believe God promises the opposite. But we do need the assurance when we are planning concerted action that God is with us and will prosper the action we plan.
     Thus I believe that by and large the liturgical prayers, at least insofar as they reflect the spirit of the Reformers, can be a profound blessing to everyone who will use them attentively. At the same time such a congregation is never left to the caprice or spiritual idiosyncrasies of a minister who often carries a load which leaves him in a continual state of exhaustion.
     It should also be underscored, I think, that only by this method will a congregation be led in their thinking to pray about a broad spectrum of concerns in the world. It is a rare occasion indeed to find a godly man who, being habitually called upon to lead in prayer, does not in time fall into the habit of praying for a rather limited range of subjects of concern, using an equally limited terminology to do so. I would say that as much time ought really to be spent in thinking about the prayers which one hopes everyone else will follow and share and support, as is spent in producing a sermon. Yet most of us assume that we can be quite extemporare in talking to God but must be extremely careful in preparing what we are going to say to God's children.
     Finally, it may also be observed that even an unbeliever who has nevertheless entered the ministry in sincerity of purpose may use the prayers of the Anglican Prayer Book to lead a group of worshipers to their great benefit. Certainly the language and literary form of these prayers is such that the most refined and highly educated people are not hindered even if the minister himself is a man of comparatively poor education. Perhaps such things ought not to be important, but they sometimes matter. The decency and order so characteristic of liturgical worship may lack something of the spiritual vigour of the "freer" forms of worship, but this lack is compensated for by a certain solid spiritual permanence which has allowed the Anglican Church, for one, to be revived under God again and again even when it seemed it must surely be utterly dead.

     One final point. I know there are times when one feels like staying away from congregational worship of any kind. One goes through these periods now and then, feeling out of fellowship or feeling that there simply is no

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real basis for fellowship because there is no harmony of minds or the form of worship is not conducive. But in my experience it is a bad thing in the long run to stay away for such reasons. We are not to forget 'the assembling of ourselves together', and so much the more as we draw near to the day of the Lord's return (Hebrews 10:25). J. Stafford Wright summed up this problem rather nicely, I feel, when he said: (13)

     One further point may be added about corporate worship. Here we face the perennial problem of individualism versus corporate life. If corporate worship is to be judged by the criterion "What do I get out of it?" the individualist has a perfect right to stay away and say, "I get far more out of my private devotions and meditations." But worship is primarily Godward and is the outgoing of the creature to the Creator. Secondly, corporate worship is the recognition that we are members one of another, and "weak" and "strong" alike come together to be linked in the service of God.

     Worship is, in fact, a service which we are privileged to offer to God, not a time when we merely go to "get something" for ourselves.

     So there we are. I am personally convinced that God's house should be like a house of God, a place of great beauty and some mystery. I believe the music is to aid private reflection and corporate worship and never merely to entertain. I believe the adornment of God's house is proper provided that no elements are used which might encourage idolatry. I believe there is much to be said for liturgical forms of worship. I am, in short, an Anglican! But oh, how I long to see its service purified, its message restored, its false doctrines expunged from some of the ordinances in the Prayer Book, and its ministers indwelt by the Holy Spirit and alive unto God.

13. Wright, J. Stafford, What is Man? Paternoster Press, England, 1968. p.138.


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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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