Those of us from liturgical denominations know about the liturgical police. They are the ones who go apoplectic if the prescribed liturgical script is not followed to the letter. They give the appearance of holding the key to right worship, and having the authority to grade performance on God’s behalf. I am among those who take liturgy quite seriously, but I have a hard time with liturgical cops.
I take it seriously because, to me, worship is, in part, a form of dance in which congregations in synchronization with worship leaders are led through graceful movements of prayer and celebration. Liturgy is the framework for how that happens, and each element of it should gracefully guide us through the worship service. I love liturgy done well. I treasure the structure of the Eucharist and Daily Office that engage me in prayerful conversation with centuries of faithful worshipers, and few things grate on me more than liturgy done poorly.
However, and there is a big however, here and there it seems that liturgy has taken on its own life, and become an end in itself. Some congregations seem proud of their weekly stage show so full of elaborate pomp that God and worship become obscured behind veils of smoke, vestments, and music. But wait, there’s more. There are liturgical leaders with their noses so deep in the right way to do things that they seldom look up to see, know, and love the people right in front of them.
My two simple points are these. First, unless liturgy is a conduit for worship in its deepest meaning, it’s not good liturgy. Second, unless liturgical leaders see, know, and love the people in front of them, they are not good leaders.
Two services, side by side, using identical liturgical settings, can exhibit both good and bad liturgy. It’s hard to explain, but in one the people in the pews can feel drawn ever deeper into prayer, and ever closer to the moment of receiving Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. In the other they can feel jerked from one thing to another in hopes that it will soon be over. In one, the stage shines so brightly with performance that all feel greatly entertained. In the other, performance becomes a translucent icon through which the divine appears. In one, the leaders seem so serious in their work, and so angry over any infraction, that any chance of God’s love making itself know is remote. In the other, the leaders seem to take such delight in what they are doing that God’s love spills out on every side.
I can think of several examples of the best in liturgical leadership. For several years I worked with an organist and choir director whose gifts of virtuosity were known internationally. He teased the most amazing music out of our small choir and modest organ, and he did it all as an act of prayer giving glory to God’s name. He got singers of marginal ability to reach for the highest standards of performance, not for performance sake, but to give their best as an offering to God. It made a difference.
The bishop who oversaw my call to ordination could be so filled with the joy of celebrating the Eucharist that his smiles and laughter infected others with delight in God’s presence. Another bishop, who owned every possible piece of liturgical vestment, and genuflected with aerobic enthusiasm, did it all with such humility that others felt enveloped in prayer with him. An old friend shambles through the liturgy as if he’s almost forgotten what comes next, until you realize that he’s praying his way through it. Another old friend leads each service with such seamless grace that an hour and a half seems but moments. That’s liturgy done well. That’s giving your best and doing it well as an offering to God.