Updated: May 1, 2021
One of the distinctive features of Anglican churches is that we use pre-written prayers as part of our church services. These set prayers are known as ‘Liturgy.’ Using set liturgy does not mean that we do not also have unscripted parts of the service – but the liturgy is an important aspect of our gathered worship. People often ask why we do use liturgical words – as some churches do not do so.
Words are a gift from God – created by God and reflecting his character and our need to reveal our thoughts to form relationships. Given the important role of words in creation, revelation, salvation, mission and church, it is unsurprising that there is a value in sometimes taking time and effort to select exactly the right words for the occasion. The liturgy used in our Church services is made up of words that have been selected by teams of thoughtful, godly Christians. The words have value because they have been so carefully selected to draw out our thoughts, feelings and to state rich doctrine aright.
The liturgy used by Anglicans reflects words used from the reformation and includes numbers of pieces of liturgy dating to the second century. This means that as we say the words together we are joining with God’s people past, and settling ourselves into our place within God’s universal people. People who were shaped by the cultural assumptions of the 1960s and 70s often believe that young people thirst for the free, unconstrained styles of expression. In reality, while that was the preference of many in those decades, a lot of young people today are tired of the rootless lack of identity that constant reinvention demands – as a result they are curious and enthusiastic about the traditions that have stood the tests of time. We use ancient liturgy for wedding vows in church – I explain to bride and groom that they are not free to make up what marriage means for them. So they make the same promises people have made for centuries. This is reassuring to them.
The most common fear – an understandable one – is that set liturgy will constrain and stifle people’s freedom is prayer and corporate worship. The best reply to that is the one given by CS Lewis, who said that good liturgy is intended to be like a ‘comfortable pair of slippers’ – you get used to wearing them and in time no longer notice them. In this way the words become a vehicle that drives us to God, freeing us from focusing on the words or evaluating them, to speak directly with God. In reality churches that never use liturgy tend to settle into a pattern where the minister regularly repeats pet phrases such as ‘We just need to know God loves us’ or ‘let’s turn to page 43’! A case can be made that every church has a liturgy – it is just that some are aware of it and make it as rich as they can. There is of course value in words that are spontaneous – so we combine liturgy with other comments and prayers.
Our Communion service uses the Book of Common Prayer – the liturgy that once was used in every Church of England church and still sets the doctrinal standard for Anglicanism. The wonder of the communion is beautifully described in prayers that have shaped the English language as much as Shakespeare – and form part of the English culture and cast of mind to this day.
The service at Emmanuel Anglican Church uses a combination of liturgy, taken from the English Prayer Book (published by Church Society) and the Book of Common Prayer. We have been combining this liturgy with music and each week have a few minutes of explanation of one aspect of the Liturgy.
As an Anglican minister I value liturgy. I am aware that it has challenges and misuses. I find though that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. There is always a difficult balance to be struck between updating and changing the language, and maintaining the link to the past. This is something that needs to be worked on and regularly evaluated.
The set prayer for the Third Week of Advent may be a fitting conclusion to our reflection:
O LORD Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.