In Defense of Liturgy the Second

If, like I’ve shown, everyone practices liturgy, why then is there a distinction between liturgical denominations and Evangelicals? Why does the latter get grumpy with the former about all their rules, motions and symbols? Now, the common answer goes something like this: “Because, Catholic and Lutheran and all the rest, your ancient liturgy is overly complicated, elitist, snobbish, pretentious, and dripping with wealth. It is all high and detached, boring, old, stuck-in-the-pews, unrelatable to the modern age. The average human being must feel completely isolated amidst it all, as do the youth. It is a party for old, rich, white people, and one can get to God in easier, simpler ways.” Does that sound about right?

Good, because I agree with it completely. I just agree with it in reference to modern evangelical liturgy, not the Mass. Let’s pretend – for an instant – that we aren’t the spoiled, rich, and probably white, Internet-soaked children that we are, and that we actually are your average human being.


Now obviously, not all Evangelicals practice only lame liturgy. And there’s

all sorts of General Christian, Christian, Non-denominational Christian churches
that this applies to. So if your church looks like this…


…or this is your main form of Sunday worship…


…or this is mildly annoying, then I’m talking to you.

If your average human being - pagan, post-Christian or what have you - stumbles into a Catholic mass he will – to the most extent – understand the basics. He will understand that it is about Christ, by the crucifix. He will understand it is about worshipping that Christ by all the liturgical kneeling, bowing and genuflecting that goes on. He will understand that the bread and wine are important – by the candles that surround them, the precious metals they are contained in, by the incense and the bells; in short – by the liturgy that surrounds them. But it is a very good chance that he would not be as easily able to understand a prayer-circle, mega-church or non-denominational chapel. If modern evangelical liturgy is indeed simple and relevant, it is only because it is incomprehensible to those not “in the know”. Blanks walls are simply blank walls to those unaware of what goes on within them. An empty cross is empty. And while you might always walk into a church, you must be invited into a prayer-circle.

Though it secretly is, this is not to say one liturgy is better than the other – for truly, some of my most intimate encounters with God have been within circles of fellow Christians. Instead, this is to ask: Can you not see how evangelical liturgy – which falsely claims to be a lack of liturgy – is simply not enough? That the claim that ancient liturgy is elitist, irrelevant, and isolating is just silly? (Good, me too.) The Universal Liturgy, far from making worship elitist, makes worship public; available. Whereas Evangelical and non-denominational liturgy has effectively attempted to make the private, personal worship of the Christian the same as the public, and has thus limited the liturgy to those who have private, personal encounters with God in the first place, a thing that many of us, saints and sinners alike, have difficulty with. As an example, take the public confessing of sins that so many Evangelical churches include in their liturgy. This takes the personal and private confession of sin to God (or for the Catholic, the privacy of the confessional) and puts it in public liturgy. And thus, those most likely to take part in this public confession of sin are those who already practice the private confession of sin, while those who already find it difficult to confess their sins to God are ‘no way in hell’ going to stand up and tell everyone that they fornicate on the weekends.

Again, the problem is not confessing sins to one another. That is a very good and holy and helpful practice. The problem is the attempt to make that action liturgical, to make what is private worship public worship. The exact same thing – the public confession of sin – takes place at a Catholic Mass. Everyone, priest and congregation, says:

I confess to almighty God,
and to you,
my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
and I ask blessed Mary,
ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you,
my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

But what an immense difference! Here we see a prayer specifically designed as a public exclamation, as a universal claim, as a united recognition of our common failure. It is public worship pronounced publicly, not private worship rammed into a public affair. So that’s why I’m all about old-school liturgy; it makes worship truly available.

And this is a truth that we Catholics – I don’t know about the rest of you liturgical, but still heretical, denominations – often have trouble admitting to. See, there is a temptation to revel in the depth and sublime beauty of our faith, in it’s intricacies and secrets, and certainly; all these things are available. But the Liturgy is universal to the point of stupidity. (Maybe that’s what this post will be remembered for; Catholic liturgy is stupid.) Regard for instance, this conversation that never happened:

Maker of Liturgy: Alright, so the bread turns into Jesus. Awesome. How are we going to signify that? We need to let people know when it happens.
Intelligent Human: Well, we could have the congregation echo the words of the disciple Thomas, and the priest then -
Catholic: Bells!
Maker of Liturgy: I’m sorry?
Catholic: You know, bells? As in: Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling, heeeere’s JESUUUUS!
Intelligent Human: Don’t You think that’s a little blatantly obvious?
Maker of Liturgy: Alright, alright. Uh, let’s move on, shall we? The priest needs to show his reverence for the altar, and thus for the sacrifice of the Eucharist. What should he do?
Intelligent Human: Well, in this case a cruciform blessing would be appropriate, perhaps with holy water, and then -
Catholic: Naw, just let him kiss it.
Maker of Liturgy: What?
Intelligent Human: Are you completely retarded?
Catholic: Just give it smooch, you know? Like: Hey altar, I like you!
Intelligent Human: Screw this, I’m becoming Amish.

And so on. In every aspect of the liturgy, you can almost guarantee that Catholics are performing the most human of responses to divine truths. The bread is God? Alright, let’s put it in a box made of gold. Mary is beautiful? Alright, let’s draw a picture of her. The ultimate example of this happy stupidity is a Monstrance. A Monstrance contains the Body of Christ and shows it to the people. What does the word ‘monstrance’ mean? Literally. a show-er. Goodness.

So there you have it. Ancient liturgy is the cat’s pajamas because it is not  - despite popular complaint – elitist, isolating, snobbish, pretentious or any of the rest. It is catholic in the true sense of the word. And this will all make even more sense in my next post, in which I reveal the third and oft’ forgotten definition of liturgy; the only definition worth following.

Amidst Our Liturgical Differences...
4 Ways (and a Bunch More Besides) That YOU Can Heal Our Stupid Liturgical Wounds
There Is No Such Thing as a Charismatic Mass
The Mode in Which We Go To Mass
  • October Rose

    Very good, very good.

  • beez

    I'm going to take a little exception, Marc. I understand where you are going, and I think you make some good points, most specifically about the lack of clear form in evangelical worship services (these modern iconoclasts).However, I recently participated in a Catholic liturgy that very specifically required two friends and I to prostrate ourselves. (Prize if you can guess which Rite was involved) This is a beautiful and, I would think perfectly obvious action that symbolizes 1) death to self and rising to new life and 2) total submission to the Almighty. Some people have seen this and have claimed (and continue to claim on the interwebs) that I and my two friends (both male – there's another hint) were showing submission to the presider of the Mass.So, what seems obvious and apparent to us Catholics can be lost on others who don't come to the Mass with at least an understanding that Catholics believe in transubstantiation.

  • Practicing Mammal

    Clap. Clap. Clap clap clap. Clap clap clap clap clap clap clap! Clapclapclapclapclapclapclap!!

  • Arkanabar T’verrick Ilarsadin

    Sorry. My main reaction to this post was teh lulz, especially the imaginary conversation.

  • Marc

    @beezI agree with the exceptions, with the exception that they are exceptions. We have all sorts of special things…feast days and holy days being particularly rife with them…but the basics of the mass are uniiversal. That's actually what I love about the Church; it almost operates on two levels, the level of inclusivity that I talked about in my post, and the level specificity, which would be the postrating you mentioned

  • The Ranter

    "Maybe that's what this post will be remembered for; Catholic liturgy is stupid."lulz

  • edwarduk

    I agree with the general points of both these posts. A desire for beauty in worship was one of the things which got me started on the road to Canterbury, and from there to Rome, so I'm broadly in sympathy with what you say.Just as a thought exercise, though, here's how I'd imagine a non-denominational evangelical responding to you:"I ask you, for a moment, to truly imagine a church without liturgy, without form. No thing, no matter how minuscule; not even the seating arrangement, could be repeated. Every service would have to be radically different; even the name of the church would have to change for every service. Perhaps even the location. Public worship without liturgy is congregational anarchy, that is to say, it does not exist."I think our imaginary happy-clappy would say something like, yes, of course the worship has to be structured, and there has to be some sort of schedule, and seating plan; but these are merely practical things, hardly on a par with (say) genuflecting at the altar, or ringing a bell. There have to be practical arrangements to make sure the worship can take place, but this is of an entirely different order from what Catholics do.

  • edwarduk

    As for your second post, one important point is that many (not all) non-denom churches are actively trying to make their services seem unlike worship, and most of all make them seem unlike historical Christian worship. Amazingly, they see this as a good and desireable thing. I've often heard non-denoms say something like 'people have fun at a football game, so why not at church?', with an entirely straight face.Non-denoms often assume, without ever thinking about it, that it doesn't matter how you worship God, provided your intentions are in the right place. There are theological reasons for this, and at the heart of it is a deep-seated philosophical relativism. But explaining this to them is quite a challenge.

  • Jonathan Watson

    You had me chuckling a couple times in that post, though I admit to my feathers getting slightly ruffled at you grouping us ‘Evangelicals’ all together. I claim little kinship with the Evangelicals who open their services with “Highway to Hell” and claim that they can have fun like at a football game.

    I am a non-denom Protestant. My church practices liturgy, private and public confession of sin, and makes no claims about making church ‘fun’. Just to set the record straight— though I know you were being tongue-in-check—that all Evangelicals are not those who have no respect for Church history, our Church Fathers, or our long-standing practices and traditions.


    • Marc

      As always, thank you for calling out my clumsy lumping of denominations.

  • Amiepost

    Random… My husbands cousin and uncle are pictured on ur blog. They are the music ministers at their church outside of Dallas.

  • mary

    I love the points you make about the liturgy being universally accessible. That is what I find to be truly amazing about it. I’ve travelled all over Europe and attended mass given in many different languages, yet I can always follow and know exactly what is going on. If that’s not universal I don’t know what is.

    I was directed toward your blog a short time ago and have been reading through the archives loving every second. Keep up the good work!