A Quick Point About Liturgy


Speaking of consequentialism, exposing me to this article arguing that Reformed Christianity provides the “best basis” for Christianity at our putatively-coming time of exile from polite society in the post-Modern world is like letting a cat loose among a bunch of mice. Because, come on.

I will restrain myself to making one very narrow point regarding liturgy, because the following passage is emblematic of the thinking on liturgy from many Reformed/Evangelical sources that I have seen over and over again:

What, one may ask, about liturgy? Is the naked Word preached by itself, without the force of an institution to support it, sufficient for nourishing a vibrant Christian faith, particularly in times of difficulty? Is there not an element of corporate performance beyond simply listening to the Word that is vital in shaping our understanding of who we are and of the world in which we live? Every time we switch on the television or go on the Internet, we are bombarded with a myriad of liturgies that exert an arcane power to shape our identities in ways of which we are often unaware. Can a thirty-minute sermon once or twice a week possibly counteract such insidious subversion? Don’t we need ballast to prevent us from being pushed this way and that by every wind of secular doctrine?

Reformed theologians understand this point. James K. A. Smith highlights the liturgical nature of all of life and the need for the Reformed Church to be self-conscious in its own liturgical performance. David F. Wells underscores the need for an intelligent and well-constructed liturgy that reflects our theological convictions.

“Corporate performance” may or may not be “vital in shaping our understanding of who we are and of the world in which we live” but it must be noted that in the self-understanding of the first fifteen centuries of Christianity and of those churches that retain this understanding, this function of the liturgy is quite beside the point.

In the traditional and biblical understanding of apostolic Christianity, liturgy is “vital” (in every sense of the term!) because it is a concrete encounter with the living God, and that is its only self-justification. Liturgy is the encounter with the Word who is always the Word made flesh, the Lamb sacrificed from the beginning of the world. It is corporate worship (and if those terms are properly understood, worship is the antithesis of “performance”) of and communion with the God who is Emmanuel, who is the hunter, who stops at nothing in his pursuit of dwelling with his beloved disciples (and indeed, his beloved Bride, which is the Church) for the sake of the simple yet transcendant joy of union between God and his good creation.

All these instrumental, consequential benefits may or may not obtain as a consequence of a robust culture of liturgical worship (and I certainly frequently urge my fellow Catholics to up their game in this regard), but those Christians with less-liturgical cultures who look at liturgical churches and imagine that they can be the reason or justification thereof, or that these are the reasons why some Christians stubbornly insist on the importance of liturgy, are really speaking of something completely different.


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  • mochalite

    The link didn’t work for me, but yeah, I about leapt out of my chair at “corporate performance.” Gag, ick, bleahhhh! This was a big deal in my years singing in church choirs … should we pursue excellence, or is that “performance?” Who is our audience, the congregation or God? Much of evangelicalism has answered that with barefoot guitar-strummers and air-voiced pop-music singers who achieve neither.

    To the extent the Reformation has grown generations who don’t understand that liturgy is “a concrete encounter with the living God, and that is its only self-justification.” it has failed Christians, and that is just pathetic.

    • Well, without a robust theology of the Eucharist, that’s where you end up.

      • claycosse

        I remember a piece you did called “you can’t steal the sheep if the shepherd is doing his job.” I agree that “Reformation” theology is just bunk (I mean come on, Luther had basically no knowledge of Aquinas, the greatest philosopher that ever lived. How can you trust a theologian that doesn’t know his Aquinas?).

        But don’t we bear the responsibility for creating the conditions that allowed Luther and Calvin to poach the faithful? We should take joy in how awesome our Church and theology are, no doubt about it. But we shouldn’t look down our noses at people who don’t realize it. In John Chapter 6, we see people who walk away from Christ because his teaching on the Eucharist was hard and who could accept it. So in every age there will be people who don’t hear the Word no matter how the Church preaches it.

        On the other hand, there are inevitably brothers and sisters who don’t listen to the Word or enter full communion with the Church because of our failure to preach and live the Word in the “sexiest” and truest way possible.

        • That was precisely my point. I’m glad someone read that post and didn’t think I was spitting in the face of Mother Church. 😉

          • claycosse

            Not at all. I feel you.

  • claycosse

    I read that piece. Homes lost me at “Calvin.” More to your point though, brother PEG, I’m reminded of Father Barron invoking Aristotle. Something along the lines of–the most us the most useless thing there is. That is, it cannot be subordinated to any higher good. It is not done for a reason or a purpose. It is its own end, its own purpose, its own good in and of itself. It makes me sad when I read pieces like this and people act like (I’m sure he holds his beliefs in good faith, pun intended) the Church isn’t THE Church.

    • claycosse

      “the mass is,” not “the most us.” stupid auto correct