Friday, July 27, 2007

Why Some Conservative Presbyterians Don’t Like Liturgy - Part II

Continued from Part I

Our Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Christ will never enthusiastically embrace liturgical worship without a pastoral leadership that is not only able to explain its biblical and theological rationale in lessons and sermons, but maybe more fundamental even than didactic expertise, be able to lead liturgical worship with pastoral expertise and sensitivity.

I believe that too many Presbyterians congregations have not experienced the benefits of a liturgical service and this is primarily because our ministers themselves have not experienced anything like the kind of lively, engaging, biblical liturgy of which I speak. And it goes without saying that they have not been sufficiently trained in liturgical leadership. Leaving the theology of the liturgy to one side for the moment, let me address the question of competence in officiating liturgical worship.

Presbyterians congregations don’t like liturgy because their ministers don’t know how to lead such worship. Consequently, since they have had no definitive training, pastors either causally and often rather apologetically and bashfully “lead” worship services without much confidence in their official station as ordained ministers. Worse still, many simply abdicate leadership entirely to “worship committees” and “worship teams.” There are all sorts of “performance” issues, I believe, that obstruct proper appreciation of liturgical worship.

Some “traditional” services are performed so slowly and deliberately that they lack the life and drama that ought to characterize liturgical worship. The minister’s portion of the service may be conducted with such tediousness that no one is inspired to respond with heart-felt words of confession or praise. Hymns may be sung at such a ponderous tempo that many in the congregation look forward to the final stanza. Even if the proper order of approach to God is observed, the leadership can so careless that people fail to appreciate what God is doing for them at any given point in the service.

How might this happen? Let's rehearse a few. A minister (or lay leader) may be too wordy or flippant or casual such that he calls attention to himself rather than functioning as the instrument of God in service to the people. Ministers or lay readers that fail to adequately prepare before the service can divert the congregation’s attention from the Lord’s service to them and their grateful response so that they feel sorry for the man who cannot seem to find his place or the right words to say at any given point in the service. Arguably one of the worst hindrances to worship is ministerial leadership that is not sensitive to the solemnity of the situation and does not therefore carefully serve God’s people in the service. If this is what it means to do traditional worship, our people think, then by all means bring on the spontaneous, congregation-initiated praise. I agree. I would much rather be in a such a service. Frank Seen is onto something when he says,
The experience of the Reformation also teaches us that when liturgy goes awry the problem may be less with its form and content than with the way in which it is celebrated and interpreted. Today historic forms of worship are being jettisoned in favor of “alternative liturgies” that employ popular-type songs and dramas with the argument that traditional liturgy is boring or meaningless to occasional (and sometimes even to regular) worshipers. Almost invariably this argument is put forward by pastors who have little competence in presiding at the liturgy in a knowledgeable or compelling way and who may even be insecure in the role of presiding minister. This ritual incompetence includes not only poor public perfor¬mances by ministers, musicians, and congregations but also poor judgment on the part of worship planners in deciding what to add to or subtract from the orders provided in the authorized worship books. Many liturgies get bogged down in extraneous details not specified by the order, or go in uncertain directions ritually and therefore also theologically. It is little wonder that they fail to engage contemporary worshipers. As to the argu¬ment that the liturgy is boring, the historic Western liturgy does not suffer from a monotonous sameness; it has a built-in principle of variation in the rites, customs, and textual and musical options of the church year (“The Reform of the Mass: Evangelical, but Still Catholic” in The Catholicity of the Reformation, ed. by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996], p. 51-2).

Continue Reading Part III


Lori Waggoner said...

Spot-on! I have experienced the exact liturgy of PRPC at another church and it was inconceivably tedious - the only redeeming factor was the unusually large communion cups filled to the brim with quality port! However, it would not be enough to entice me to endure it weekly!

The Rev. David Beckmann said...

Jeff: When I moved from the PCA to the EMC, what I did was go to England and attend as many of the best Anglican services I could to see how the liturgy should be done. It really helped. Of course, not everybody can do that, but they could seek out other churches in the country that they can emulate.

BTW, reading Hart's Recovering Mother Kirk helped me in my transition - ironically, considering Hart's intent for writing the book. I was having to leave the PCA for a number of other reasons, but it was encouraging to think that I could leave the worship war behind.