August 2018  
Rector's Msg.



LITURGY NOTES: WHY DO WE WORSHIP AS WE DO? Often a visitor to Emmanuel or any other Episcopal
congregation will remark about the liturgy. If the person is from a “non-liturgical” background, the remark may be something like,“Why do you follow that same formal pattern every week?” It’s an interesting question, and one that deserves an answer.

One kind of answer might be historical. Episcopalians follow a liturgy because that is what most Christians have done down through the centuries. It was only after the 16th century Reformation that some Christian groups decided liturgies were too confining, and so began to experiment with more “free form” worship. Yet even the least liturgical churches tend to do things pretty much the same way from Sunday to Sunday; perhaps it isn’t written down in a book, but the pattern, the order, even the words
don’t vary too much.

Another answer might be theological. We follow a liturgy because we’ve found that doing so is one very strong protection against wandering away from the truth that we confess as Christians. The liturgy reminds us, week after week, of the foundations of our faith. It keeps us from substituting our own ideas or desires for the teachings of Christianity. In a way, the liturgy is like a railroad track: it keeps us moving in the right direction.

A third answer has to do with unity. We follow a liturgy because by doing so we are proclaiming our oneness with other Christians. This was one of the basic principles of the Anglican Reformation. Christians in England had fought one another tooth and nail over certain matters of faith and practice; the solution to the strife was a decision that English Christians could all pray in the same way, even if they didn’t agree on every aspect of theology. The Book of Common Prayer is named that way for a reason: Anglican Christians would pray in common. Today, more than any time since the Reformation, the liturgies of the Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and many Methodist, Presbyterian and other congregations, are recognizably similar. Our liturgy proclaims that
we are gathered, not just with those who happen to be within the same four walls, but with all those around the world who on any given Sunday are hearing the same lessons, praying the same prayers, doing this in a similar order.

A fourth answer reflects realism about human beings. There are days I don’t really feel like praising God, but the liturgy pushes me to stand before God and sing praise! That’s a good thing, for it raises my eyes from my own problems and places them instead on God. There are days I don’t feel like being part of a community; I’d rather sulk in a corner. The liturgy pulls me out of myself and speaks God’s Word: “It is not good for you to be alone!” At every turn, the liturgy confronts my human faults and weakness, and brings me to stand before God.

A final answer is that the liturgy is a good educational process. Sometimes people complain that it is just “rote recitation.” But isn’t that how we learn? We may pray those words, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”; and when will we really know the truth they proclaim? After a dozen times? A hundred times? A thousand? We human beings simply need to repeat things, over and over again. That is how we learn.

C. S. Lewis made an interesting comment on the liturgy: “We do things best . . . when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. . . . I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress is the art of worship.”

“Feeling at home in it”—what a great phrase for the liturgy! For us human beings, what is comfortable is what makes us feel at home. At its best, the liturgy becomes that for us—a comforting, reliable place where we can feel at home. And in feeling at home, we can direct all our attention toward God.

--Fr. Richard Johnson

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