Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Reformed" Worship

Some words, especially when used as an adjective, can be dangerous, as is the case with “reformed” when used as a modifier of “worship.”

The danger is, of course, that it implies that worship, when carried out by those in the Reformed Tradition, is utterly circumscribed by the theological dogma produced in the 16th Century. The word “Reformed” brands the liturgy, and confines, constricts and otherwise inhibits the worship of the people. Such labeling neglects basic concepts that are part and parcel of worship as conceived and carried out in Presbyterian and other reformed congregations.

The Protestant Reformers came up with a wonderful idea about five centuries ago. They captured it in a slogan: “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.” This is usually translated, “The church reformed, always being reformed.” This is the principle of on-going reform, refreshment and renewal of worship.

Worship is not static but dynamic. Any attempt to crystallize worship into the one-size-fits-all people and occasions usually results in fossilizing it instead. From Sunday to Sunday the people change and so may the conditions and situations surrounding them—therefore, for example, the service that “worked” last Christmas Eve in all likelihood would be out of sync if used word for word and note for note the next Christmas Eve. As we find ourselves beset by changes, so our worship of the Almighty will find fresh expression.

Also, because our worship is reformed, planners and preparers will take into account the full history and tradition of Christian worship. We are not liturgical orphans, but have a spiritual DNA and voluminous records of our family of faith to inform us when we praise and thank God. Sometimes our reform of worship means remembering some of what we have too easily forgotten.

Often we act as though “history” means what can be brought up by living memory. Especially this is true in congregations who have “always” sung certain hymns and not others, or who insist on reciting the “traditional” Lord’s Prayer.

Because we have a liturgical past, we are delivered from the madness of re-inventing everything for the sake of novelty. If we only knew, we’d be surprised to discover that much of what is conjured up and proclaimed as the latest and greatest has been around for centuries. Rediscovering the old, however, can be as refreshing and vitalizing as venturing forth where none has gone before.

Those who are concerned for good liturgy tend to be conservative, in the best sense of the word. They like to preserve liturgical traditions, with thoughtful up-dating and re-shaping. The world of the twenty-first century is a long way from the first three centuries, yet much that was fashioned for Christian worship in the beginning is helpful to us today in appropriating ancient principles for contemporary worship. Furthermore, what has persisted over the centuries and is still used and useful to today’s people in the pews should be taken seriously. What is solid makes a good place to stand for moving ahead.

Reformed worship also has an ecumenical aspect to it. While the Protestant Reformers wanted to reclaim the fullness of Christian tradition in its purity, the liturgical practice of Reformed churches has not done it justice.

We who worship in the Reformed tradition need to remember that, just as liturgical history did not begin “when our pastor arrived,” it also goes back far beyond even 1514, and reaches far beyond the boundaries of the United States or even Europe. We should realize how dependent we are on traditions that have made emphases far different from ours. In the interest of making our worship the best Christian worship that we can, we should be alert to insights and contributions from other Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches. Thus we are called to account to the larger tradition of the whole church, and from this dynamic tension we are nudged into continuing liturgical reformation.

Referring back to the Reformation slogan, you’ll notice that we are “the church, always being reformed.” Renewal of worship, just as the renewal of the church, is not something we accomplish either on our own initiative or by our own strength. No matter how hard we yank on our own bootstraps, we’re not likely to get far off the floor and hover there. Renewal, real reform, comes from the Spirit. Therefore, worship that is truly “being reformed” in the sense of the slogan will come forth from a prayerful theological process into which the Spirit is welcomed.

What in your congregation’s worship needs to “be reformed”? What do you find in Roman Catholic or Orthodox worship, or that of other Protestants that would enrich your worship? What do you know of Muslim of Jewish worship that might inform your Christian worship?

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