I am doing a series on the blog about why I became Anglican, and last week I looked at the church calendar, and this week I want to dip into “worship,” by which I mean Sunday morning worship service. (I do not equate worship with Sunday morning worship, but Sunday morning worship is worship.)
If the church calendar shapes the church themes, the church liturgy for Holy Eucharist is shaped by a customary set of elements of the worship service. Each of these is needed, each is integrated into the other, and each is formative for Christian discipleship. To repeat from last week’s blog post, I don’t idealize or idolize Anglican worship, but I believe it is a mature, wise, and deeply theological tradition at work.
I have taken for my text this morning last week’s worship guide, or bulletin. Here are the elements of our worship and eucharist celebration: processional hymn, a call to worship, the Word of God, the proclamation of the Word of God, the Nicene Creed, prayers of the people, confession of sin, passing the peace, and then we move into Eucharist beginning with an offering, doxology, the great thanksgiving, breaking of bread, a prayer of thanksgiving and we close with a blessing.
Rather than break each of these down into bits and expositions, I want to make general observations.
First, the processional hymn tends to be more stately as our pastor/priest and others who will assist process in with the cross. This draws our attention to Christ our Savior and the processional creates solemnity. This is followed by a wonderful prayer connected to the call to worship, a prayer that puts us in the proper frame of mind in worship. This is then followed by three songs.
Celebrant: Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
People: And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.
All: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
We do a call and response here that begins with “The Lord be with you… And also with you” and the celebrant prays the weekly collect (or set prayer for that Sunday in the year). Those who pray are free to add words of their own.
Second, we read from four texts of Scripture assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary. Whatever failings there are in the texts that appear in the lectionary are more than made up for in this way: over a three year cycle our church hears selections from the whole Bible and, perhaps most importantly, the preacher does not (usually) choose the text. The text is chosen in accordance with the calendar so the life of Christ becomes central to the lectionary’s texts and the preacher’s sermon. The four texts come from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and The Gospel (a Gospel text). We respond to each reading: The Word of the Lord/Thanks be to God. For the Gospel the reader says “The Gospel of the Lord/Praise to you, Lord Christ.”
Third. After the Word of the Lord is read we have a sermon/Proclamation that draws on these texts, or one of them. Because the Sunday morning service has all the elements mentioned above, the focal point of the service is not the sermon. Our church seeks to keep the sermon at about 25 minutes. But we don’t go to church to hear the sermon; we go to church to worship and the sermon is part of our worship. When the sermon is done we recite the Nicene Creed — to remind us what we as classical Christians believe. At times Jay Greener reminds us that it also serves to correct anything said in the sermon that needs to be corrected.
Fourth, the prayers of the people come next. This is a set of prayers that takes the congregation through prayers for the world, for evangelism, for the nation and its leaders, for churches around the world, for the sick and suffering, and we close with a thanksgiving. The congregation utters public sentence prayers to fill in the details of each topic of prayer. I like this element of our church service: we are a people of prayer.
Fifth, in response to the sermon and the creed and prayers, we confess our sin in a customary prayer, and what can be more important prior to the Eucharist than confession of sin?
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
It is at this point that some become uncomfortable because some see the absolution of sin by the priest to be some kind of priestly forgiveness rather than the pronouncement of forgiveness solely on the basis of what Christ has done for us and into which we will enter in our Eucharist celebration. This is what the celebrant is taught to say, and I love to hear these words as they assure us of God’s grace and forgiveness:
Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.
We then pass the peace, and this is the perfect time: we have heard the Word and we have confessed our faith and we have confessed our sin and now we are in the condition of being able to pass the peace of God through forgiveness to one another.
Sixth, since I will devote a blog post to the Eucharist, I will simply say that at this time we celebrate the Eucharist.
Finally, when the Eucharist is celebrated and we have all returned to our seats, we hear a Prayer of Thanksgiving, another prayer of deep theology and joy:
Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Blessing follows, and we take our Blessing from a liturgy in Africa. Then our Deacon Amanda says “Go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit” and we say back to her “Thanks be to God.”
We gather, not to hear something new, but to be reminded afresh of something old.