Liturgical Snobbery

Those of us who either grew up in or had our spiritual coming-of-age in liturgical churches (for the most part, the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions) tend to find great comfort in our liturgy. The order of worship each week – and weekday, for that matter – is the same. Many of us were taught that our liturgy finds its roots in the liturgies and practices of the earliest church. That’s a nice myth, but the truth is that worship practices weren’t standardized until the 4th century – far from the earliest Church, but arguably the earliest standardized Church. The word liturgy actually means something like “work of the people,” which makes it awfully curious that the so-called liturgical Churches tend to argue that what they call non-liturgical Churches aren’t “doing liturgy.” Since that “work of the people” has generally been understood to be worship, how is it that churches that either follow a different order of worship than the historical one or even change things from week to week aren’t doing the work of the people? The earliest Church was a highly persecuted Church that tended to meet in homes and other places (sometimes caves). When they gathered they did what they did, it was impossible to standardize their worship practices because doing so would be dangerous. One never knew when the next new member would in fact be a spy sent to expose these early Christians as followers of the Way, as they were known.

Human beings have a desire to exclude others to make themselves feel acceptable. If we can identify the people who worship incorrectly, we can convince ourselves we are doing things well. The group that has been expelled for doing things incorrectly usually then turns back on the group that showed them the door and lists the manifold reasons why their way of doing things is incorrect. Everybody excommunicates everybody else, and nothing substantial gets accomplished. Everybody digs their heels in a little bit deeper, eventually burying themselves in a trench from which they cannot see out. Such is the history of the Church.

I came of age spiritually in the Episcopal Church – though they for the most part would like to forget that little detail! The liturgy was comforting to me and created a prayerful environment that I relished. I listened to the history of the liturgy as it was taught and bought the whole thing. Those non-liturgical people really didn’t know how to worship, and their services were lacking. If a service didn’t end with Communion, it was incomplete to me and evidence of a narcissism that seemed to say that what the pastor had to say during the sermon was the most important thing. For me, of course, the Sacrament was the most important thing. Even after ordination, when I was part of an ecumenical service that didn’t include Communion I felt as if I had been short-changed.

Lately, though, I have come to see the arrogance of that position. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to visit worshiping communities from other traditions and have found their liturgy – yes, I said liturgy, their work of the people – beautiful in its own way and no less nurturing than any other. I have also heard well-meaning liturgical people emphasize the value that could be gained if only they would become liturgical. What we all fail to see is that they already are liturgical. They are already worshiping, doing the work of the people. In fact, quite often their service is richer and more profound than what I have experienced in most so-called liturgical churches! How are we to make sense of that?

People often talk about Christian unity, and every year there is a week of prayer for Christian unity – one of the biggest, most misdirected masturbatory rituals I have ever seen. First of all, Christian unity movements soon decay into a king of the hill game where every group really wants to assimilate all of the other groups – and that just isn’t going to happen. Rather the creating a master church, we would be better served by learning how church bodies might get along – and not just within a tradition but across them. Can we learn to see the validity that exists in all traditions, while at the same time being humble enough to admit that our group doesn’t have an exclusive franchise on truth?

More to the point, can those of us engaged in ministries of interspiritual reconciliation come to see the value of all liturgy, whether or not it is our individual cup of tea? Can we walk into a service of another tradition and choose to suspend evaluating it in favor of celebrating it? Can we who claim to celebrate diversity and who claim to champion inclusion welcome everybody and let them bring their practices with them? If we can’t, perhaps we need to sit down and ask ourselves what inclusion really means.

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