Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eclectic Worship

One of the biggest problems in the world of liturgy today is that no one is eclectic enough. Most folks tend to glom on to their peculiar brand of worship and stick to it.

This is no great surprise when it’s the Roman Catholics, because in spite of Vatican II (or maybe because of it) they have settled back into the way of “tradition.” But it is, or should be surprising when Protestants lock themselves into their various boxes.

It appears, however, that in terms of worship reform in many circles, the tendency is to pull in the boundaries and adopt a purist posture. The so-called “free” churches stress the American frontier model centered around the sermon, with all else being anticipatory preparation for the homiletic event. Anglicans and Episcopalians seem to have continued their retreat into the liturgy as defined by The Book of Common Prayer in one of its many versions. Protestants such as Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians seem to have finished their reform and settled into the comfort of the result. Worship gets to be sedentary.

The point is, it doesn’t seem that anyone is eclectic enough these days when it comes to Sunday worship—they’re not looking for and incorporating the best in various traditions. And this is surprising when it comes to Protestants, because it seems that we have forgotten the battle cry of the Reformation: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda—The church reformed, always being reformed.

Certainly such reformation should be constantly taking place in the arena of worship. The liturgy of the church is not a fossil from the ancient past, nor is it the latest and greatest embedded for all time in some spiritual amber. There’s always room for reform.

Of course, that doesn’t mean change for the sake of change. Nor does it mean calling in all the latest gadgetry so we can be in step with the newest digital fad. Reform means much more.

First of all, the Reformation slogan stressed that the church is “always being reformed.” This is the work of the Spirit. We do not reform ourselves—we require spiritual strength beyond our own. Liturgical reform, then, is accomplished when the Spirit is welcomed by our open hearts and open minds. The prayers of God’s people ought always to include, “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.” Reform in the church is always a spiritual exercise.

But it is also requires intellectual effort. The best thing Vatican II did for Protestants was to remind us that we had 1500 years of history before the Reformation that belonged to us too, and there could be found much liturgical richness that had been forgotten or rejected by the Reformers. How do we know what the liturgical options are if we are not students of the history of God’s people?

This is one of the big reasons pastors and musicians and others responsible for worship in a congregation just keep on keeping on. They simply don’t know what the options are. They look through catalogues or leaf through commentaries, but they haven’t gone through the repository of theology and practice of the people of God at worship through the centuries.

Clergy and musicians need to be students. The time for learning did not end with the degree—it is just beginning when one enters the parish. Just as prayer sustains clergy and musician in offering their talents to God in worship, so disciplined thought and study will enable them to see possibilities they never knew were there. Then they will be able to educate the congregation as well.

An example of this, but not done very well in most places, is the greeting of peace. When this act of worship was “discovered” by Protestants back in the late 1960s, there was great excitement. The biblical reference was cited (---), it found slots in the service after the prayer of confession or before the Eucharist, and it worked wonderfully to revitalize worship. But the congregational education hasn’t always been so good. Too often it slips into a mundane greeting, a repetition of hellos spoken before church or to be said afterward. The exchange of God’s Peace as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ is a far cry from “howdy.”

So, the way to go, if we are serious about reform, is to stay open to the surprises of the Spirit and do our homework. That way we will be more eclectic.

Notice, if you will, that the word “eclectic” is based on the same Greek root words as “ecclesia”. They both arise from “call” and “out”. Just as the church is “called out” by God to be God’s people in the world, so the planners of worship are to “call out” those forms and acts and arts that will serve God’s people in their prayers and praise.

Eclectic worship is not random selection, but wise and imaginative selection in which God’s Spirit has a playful part.

How attentive are your clergy and musicians to music and spoken word in liturgy of other churches?

1 comment:

  1. This posting is timely and of interest to those of us who are of a mind that liturgy has a deep historical foundation which needs to be lifted up in the present church. The denominational worship books offer some guidance but they are a place to begin not end. Much of what passes for worship today is shallow and self-centered, without much form and substance so the church must look back to see the way forward.

    I have sent your link to several in the Order of Corpus Christi.

    +Abbot Richard


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