Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Liturgy That Gives Rest

Today’s snail mail brought an envelope from Regent College theologian J. I. Packer. Inside was an article clipped from The Anglican Planet. It was titled “Liturgy That Gives Rest.” There was also a note in Packer’s hand commending its author, Julie Lane-Gay.

The article had many good things to say about the Anglican service: Its historicity gives it a “tried and trueness,” for example, and its use of the lectionary means that “old women in India, the Queen of England and surfers in Queensland—we are all on the same page.”

But the article’s main point was about its restfulness. That’s a point I resonate with.

Ms. Lane-Gay writes:

My first Anglican service was quiet and calm. Instead of feeling that I had to conjure up enthusiasm, I felt like someone had handed me an antique pillow to cradle my weary mind and soul. I didn’t have to think what to say.

My own experience was different. I wouldn’t have compared the liturgy to a pillow. But I felt the same relief that I didn’t have “to conjure up enthusiasm.” Conjuring up enthusiasm—and godly grief and glorious rapture and even stillness—all of that was part of what I had been exhorted to do in the religion of my youth, a religion that owed much to American revivalism.

That side of revivalism placed the accent in worship on my feelings. Revivalism fed off of a cycle of duress and release, and it required that I feel the right emotions as we approached the transactional moments of worship. When it came time to (re)dedicate myself to Jesus, the moment was validated or invalidated by my feelings.

The liturgy taught me that there was instead one great transaction. It happened on Calvary. In the liturgy, we celebrate and memorialize that transaction together—together as a local congregation and together with Christians around the globe, together with Christians throughout history and together with those who have gone on to glory. Fortunately, that celebration continues in spite of whatever feelings I may have because the great transaction was completed before I ever experienced my first emotion.

The liturgy “did the work of worship for me,” writes Lane-Gay. She discovered this when “after ten years of marriage, flexibility, and professional success, parenthood upended [their] lives.”

The liturgy took on a startling new role: it did the work of worship for me. I did not have to think up my prayers or create my own confession—neither of which I could have done in my sleep-deprived state. It took the pressure off me to evoke certain feelings. I rested in the liturgy; I sunk deep. … I could say the words just as they were printed, … and leave the rest to God. I did not have to cajole myself into being joyful or thankful or contrite. I could just show up at church, baby in tow, burp stains on my shoulder and participate.

Seven years and three more children later, she writes about being “able to arrive at church and fall into a structure far bigger than I.”

That bigness is what draws me to the liturgy. There’s a bigness in the church's liturgy just as there’s a wideness in God’s mercy.

The liturgy must be seen as part of God’s mercy. It is not the words that do “the work for me.” God acts toward me in the liturgy. That is why in Morning Prayer we often say a paraphrase of Psalm 51:15: “O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall show forth thy praise.” Without God’s help, we can’t even start praising.

When worship loses its bigness, the sense of God’s mercy also contracts. But when we join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we also know instinctively that the quality of God’s mercy is not strained.

* * *

Read Julie Lane-Gay’s full essay here.

Public domain image of 1596 Book of Common Prayer via Wikimedia Commons.


Cindi Pete' said...

Thank you for drawing this to my attention. I, too, resonate with the "quiet and calm" of liturgy. I've experienced it in the Episcopal church (All Saints, Pasadena & St. Matthias, Whittier, California). I attend another local church, but slip away now and then for an occasional Episcopal service for the liturgy which anchors my soul peacefully. I go to the Prayer Book now and then, too. This post and the article put words to the grand sense I feel in the straight forward liturgy, the historicity, and the unity.

Anthony said...

I very much resonate with the ideas and sentiments expressed in this post, but I am not comfortable with idea of the liturgy doing the work of worship for the worshiper. Certainly liturgy frees us from the burden of conjuring, but I think it thereby allows us to enter more fully into worship.

The liturgy is very much like the dynamic of grace insofar as in Christ we lose our fallen lives in this world to find new life in him, a life that is permeated by communion with God. Likewise the liturgy is a gift that forms us at the deepest level and reorients upon the life that God freely gives us in Christ.

Unknown said...

I understand the "work" comment that Anthony makes, but I also suspect that he is going for a different connotation, or maybe even definition, of the word than is/was Gray. Or perhaps that's just the personal bias of an old Anglican. The Liturgy is there, at least in part, to let us rest in the sacred song of the Church temporal and ever evolving. That just makes it out-right easier...i.e. less sink into worship in general and, in particular, to the worship that lies beyond the bounds of

Anonymous said...

Good points. Thank you for sharing this. The Scriptures, confessions, creeds and body of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs can or do provide such stabilizing and edifying constants as anchors and harbors for spiritual rest within the church, whether or not a church might also have a prayer book or other liturgical aids. Along with this, however, I think the church needs to consider it is a body, with real working-moving parts, which meets for significant activity, not a massage, based upon NT passages describing the role of many participants (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4). The New Covenant assembly takes on a different quality in certain respects from the Old Covenant people of God. In the New Covenant community all are priests called upon to make use of their gifts in worship to God and service to one another (1 Pet. 2:9; 4:10). The very name for the church (ekklesia) conjures up the townhall meeting where everyone has a say and contributes something to the advancement of the community. I mention this not as an either/or proposition, but as a both/and endeavor. I am sure the article you shared meant for this to be kept in mind as well. Meaningful liturgy and active, muti-membered ministry should go together.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this article. My husband and I are part of a small community that does morning and evening prayers together and I have found that the rhythm of liturgy at set times during the day as well as in church on Sunday is a wonderful point of stability that provides an inner peace in the midst of a turbulent and rapidly changing world. Liturgy really does anchor our souls peacefully as Cindi says and make us feel a part of that great host that has gone before us - both important in times of insecurity and uncertainty such as we are experiencing in our world today

Todd Deatherage said...

David, thanks for drawing attention to this. I, too, come from a church background very much influenced by American revivalism, and have truly found "rest" in Anglican liturgy and worship for the past dozen years. I love the liturgy and the prayer book for all the reasons you articulated.

Garnet Lese said...

This was fabulous, thank you so much. I'd love to chat with you about this sometime. I, too, come from very different religious traditions, and struggled with my emotions being correlated to my relationship with God. The Episcopal Church liturgy is a very healing thing for me because (as you said) "that celebration continues in spite of whatever feelings I may have because the great transaction was completed before I ever experienced my first emotion."

Jodi said...

So will I be the fly in the ointment if I say that YES, i find tremendous rest, worship and comfort in the liturgy, I adore reading the confessions and prayer, there's something inexpressibly beautiful about doing this corporately, but still individually ... and YET, I still like the freedom of expressing my extroverted emotions when they lean toward dancing, raising my hands, and in general, "whooping it up" as I reflect on God's amazing deeds - much as I imagine King David must have done while Michal viewed him from her window at the palace. Personally, I am as comfortable in the Anglican church as I am in an African-American Pentecostal church. I love aspects about it all - and I suspect God does too. I just wish I could find a church that embraces it all... Perhaps I am odd, but I strongly dislike having to constantly choose one end of the spectrum over the other. Love the verse from Psalm 51 and the thought. One of my favorite hymns has always been "Come Thou Fount" - i love the line - tune my heart to sing thy grace. Indeed, I need that more often than not...

Taylor W Burton Edwards said...

It seems to me that early Methodism provided a model where both "enthusiastic"/"conjured" worship and the "established public" patterns could be part of one's regular worship life, without tension or contradiction.

Anglican services, as well as the Reformed, Baptist, and even a few Roman Catholic services that early Methodists attended on Sunday mornings all had a piece of the "liturgy that gives rest" motif to them. At least they did in the eighteenth century.

Methodist Society meetings, held on Sunday nights, would have been more enthusiastic and ex tempore.

The point is there is deep value in both for our full expression and formation as Christian worshipers.

At the same time, it is nearly impossible to try to do both in the same liturgy. There are exceptions to this, but generally that is what they are. Different gatherings for different purposes have a different ethos-- and there is goodness is each being different.

What has happened in my tradition (United Methodist), of course, and the influence of revivalism may have been one symptom of this, is that the different forms of community gathering (society for exhortation to holiness, plus weekly class meeting with more intimate fellowship, PLUS worship with a congregation of some sort on Sunday morning) is that all of these purposes have more or less been collapsed into one community gathering, when, in the eighteenth century, it would have been accomplished in three discreet ones in different places.

In short, we've lost the discrete community contexts that make sense and plenty good room for these different expressions of worship. Or, what may be happening, is we've decided that only ONE of them is the "one right way" and so have allowed our worship and our souls to be truncated by a choice between "traditional", "contemporary," and "emergent."

The early Methodist experiment shows it doesn't have to be that way.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
The United Methodist Church

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Maxine Hancock said...

Jule Lane Gay says so well what the liturgy has come to mean to me, too, in twenty years of Anglican worship. I felt like I could lean my weary self against the ancient strong bones of prayers and scriptures--what the preacher said was often only incidental to how God spoke to my spirit, how the Eucharist fed me. We have moved and are back in a church patterned by traditional nonconformist worship (choosing our place of worship on "the nearest viable congregation" basis;) and many Sunday mornings I ache with homesickness for the liturgy.

Julie LG said...


I am honoured by Jim's gesture, and your kind words. Thank you! I had no idea Jim had even seen my piece, and no clue that he popped it in the mail. In my experience one of the best pay-offs of being a writer is finding out you gave a bit of encouragement to someone you might never meet - might not be cold water but it's a lot better than nothing.

I will confess that the Anglican Planet actually broke my piece in two, due to its length. I have no idea when they plan to print the latter half. If for any reason you would like to read the latter half, I would be glad to email or mail it to you myself.

Regardless, thank you very much. You made my day.

Julie Lane-Gay

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John said...

I definitely did mean the Episcopal Church in particular. Episcopalians seem to have a deep and particular love of our Church, one that you rarely see expressed elsewhere, and I'd like to try to get to the heart of that. I'm still thinking about it - I started a list of my own, and will post more later.

I'll start by saying that I love that you can pretty much say anything at all in this Church; you can be who you are, and talk about where you are in the faith journey, honestly. IOW, I like the freedom to think what we like and to debate it openly.
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