Throughout most of the history of the Christian Church the bedrock to the worship service has been the liturgy. It has been the liturgy that has set Christianity apart from other religions, particularly other monotheist religions. Even those Protestant churches to which we refer as non-liturgical are liturgical in some fashion, just in a more simplistic way devoid of any mystery or ontologism.
And that is why I find so many non-liturgical churches wanting. Whereas, such churches as the Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Baptist and other less ceremonial mainstream churches (leaving out wacko fundamentalists and cults like Mormons and Christian Scientists, etc.), the focus is on the sermon. The problem with sermon oriented service is the congregation is mostly passive, sitting there for 20 minutes to over an hour* listening to someone blather on about what they are supposed to believe from what was read earlier in scripture. Moreover, there is very little congregational participation outside of the singing of (usually 2-3) hymns (which occurs less and less nowadays) and the occasional responsive reading of a psalm, reciting the Apostle’s Creed (because it’s shorter and easier than the Nicean Creed), and the Lord’s Prayer. Presently, in unfortunately more and more cases, the what now passes for congregational participation is nothing more than clapping to some, mediocre at best, commercial style praise band. The result is there is no introspection, no penitence, or spirituality, no existential perception of a greater phenomenon: just entertainment.
So, what’s so special about the liturgy? Well, for pretty much the opposite reasons of the sermon based service. First, and most importantly, the focus of the liturgy is the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper to the non-liturgical), not a sermon. Although there is a spoken lesson or, homily, by the priest, that’s all it is. Although the dictionary defines an homily as a type of sermon, it is usually of a nondoctrinal nature, and is usually only 10 to 20 minutes in length (of course, there are always going to be anecdotal exceptions). What is important to remember about the homily, is that its not the focus or even the summit of the service; rather, it is merely a part of the liturgy, one of its numerous aspects, which ultimately climaxes in the taking of the elements; i.e., communion.
The other aspect of the liturgy, and perhaps most significantly, is music. One of the saving, and ultimately civilising, graces of most major religions (with the glaring exception of one — hence its continued barbaric nature) is the incorporation of music into their various worship services, or liturgies. In Christianity music to the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Benedictus) acts as the catalyst for the metaphysically, spiritually and overwhelmingly mystical experience of liturgy. This usually occurs in what we commonly refer to as “high church.” What defines high church (to me) is not only the highly ritualised format of the liturgy (colloquially known as “smells and bells” because of the extensive use of incense and the ringing of bells at critical points of the eucharist), but that it is primarily or almost entirely (except for the homily) sung. The singing can consist of intoning (i.e., speaking on primarily one musical note) by the priest and occasionally the congregation, the singing by the choir and/or soloists, and of course, the congregational singing of hymns.
As you can see, participation by the congregation is and has been (even in the old pre-Vatican II days) an integral part of the liturgy. That’s how it is, and that’s how it should be. But, this depends upon the congregation’s ability to participate naturally, so as to fully descry the essential and ultimate beauty of the liturgy. Here’s why:
The mystical experience that only the liturgy can give depends on many factors not easily, or phlegmatically, achieved: a polished flow from Prelude, Introit, Kyrie, Credo, etc. to Benedictus and Postlude is paramount, and monumentally difficult to achieve. Too many churches are all too willing to settle for the substandard, even clumsy execution of the liturgy; the result is a congregation feeling, not so much that they may have wasted an hour of their time (though many do, hence the low attendance) but, of wanting more — more metaphysically, spiritually. On the other hand, when the liturgy is right — i.e., when the combination of superior organ playing, singing and intoning by all involved flows seamlessly from Prelude to Postlude, particularly during the eucharist — the spiritual transcendence simply cannot be described. The problem, of course, is: will that church be willing commit to the one thing that seems anathema to the mystical or otherworldly experience? I’m referring to that most mundane of tasks… rehearsal.
Achieving the ultimate meaning of the liturgy — which requires us to travel mentally, or spiritually beyond our empirical, material, circadian lives — is a delicate, gossamer phenomenon. It, like so many other worthwhile things in our lives, such as learning a language, practising music, writing poetry, painting, cooking good food, etc. demands from those leading the liturgy — the pros, so to speak — to make it work. It’s not up to the congregation to make it work (they are the recipients not the purveyors); rather, it is the serious collaboration between musicians and clergy that “makes it work;” and that, quite simply, requires rehearsal. I’m not referring to a simple, slip-shod run-through like most wedding rehearsals, rather, a serious detailed rehearsal. As they say, timing is everything; that couldn’t be more true when trying to achieve a smooth, fluid liturgy. Even the most experienced participants, including those who have worked together for years, need to have an occasional in depth rehearsal of the service/mass so as to maintain continuity and thus ensuring the transcendent experience for the congregation. Because, let’s face it, it is for them, those who have come to church to find, within that brief hour away from their daily struggle with the empirical world, a chance to commune with and connect to something far greater. It’s an empyrean experience; and that comes only if the machine is well oiled and in excellent working order.
Now, there are going to be those who are uncomfortable with the liturgy of the Mass. It all just seems so complicated and “involved.” You are right! Getting the hang of the mass: figuring out where you are: the standing, the kneeling, the sitting, the kneeling some more, the standing again, etc. When, or do or should you genuflect (which way does it go?), am I allowed to take the elements, should I take the elements, do I have to take the elements? Yes, there is a lot involved for the congregation to do. But, that is part of the beauty of the liturgy. The congregant is not just a spectator. The congregant is a participant. What needs to be understood is that the liturgy is the great equaliser; Clergy, musicians and congregation all have their part, each substantial, each vital, to arriving to the transcendent and ineffable moment in which all become one through the unifying transcendence in that consummate mystery of communion in which all partake of and become part of the “Body of Christ.” Whether you believe in that aspect of the theology or not is really quite incidental: It’s the experience! It’s what happens to you as a person and the spirituality, the metaphysical sensation — the peace — that you experience that counts. A beautifully conceived, performed liturgy will do that, no matter what your theology or spiritual tenets.
To those of you who find dealing with “high church” too cumbersome, or too complicated, or too “Catholic (Ugh! I hate that),” or don’t think that Christianity is, should be, deeply metaphysical, or preternatural, then you are more than welcome to take the easy way out and worship at a church where you just sit most of the time and watch as the praise band, or whatever singers and the preacher basically do it all for you. Go ahead. All I can say is that you are missing out on a truly resplendent, and wondrously enigmatic experience. To bad for you.
* Curiously enough, I’ve found that the length of the sermon is often inversely proportional to the intellectual level of the theology of the clergy.