Recently, I was asked by a good friend who has been faithfully reading these long-winded articles to define ‘liturgy.’ Indeed, liturgy is one of those great forgotten words in many church circles today. Sad to say, even with two degrees in theology, I did not have a working knowledge of it prior to my encounter with Orthodoxy. That’s like having two degrees in veterinarian studies and not knowing what a Chihuahua is. Not that the liturgy is the same as a shaky, profoundly emotionally unbalanced, yappy, little dog, but you get the point.
For the Orthodox, ‘liturgy’ is a dynamic term. But by way of introduction, an all encompassing (or in other words, ‘bland’) definition of liturgy is simply the routine public worship performed by a specific religious group; in this sense, every church—whether so-called liturgical church or non-liturgical church—has a ‘liturgy.’ In the independent, evangelical churches I grew up in our liturgy was 30-40mins of praise and worship music, followed by a 10-20min mini-sermon on the tithe, followed by passing the offering bucket, followed by a lengthy sermon, and ending with church announcements. Wham! Liturgy.
This liturgy focuses on the preaching of the word, since the preaching definitely consumes the bulk of the service. What tended to happen in our churches was that the preacher (though I would have hardly admitted it at the time) became the focus. Hence, when the preacher wasn’t on his ‘A-game’ that day the service was “okay.” But when he was really fired up the service was “great,” and the poor chaps that didn’t make it to the service would hear from the newly anointed folks who did saying, “you should have been there.” God forbid if the preacher had too many ‘off’ days in a row as he/she was liable to lose much of his/her congregation. Even worse, if the preacher was to fall into some moral depravity the church would inevitably split.
In the Orthodox Church the preaching of the word is considered a sacrament. Why? Because when the holy word of God is preached a ‘meeting’ place with God is established and the Holy Spirit uses the medium of hearing Scripture to ‘transform’ the believer. What I found to be a serious shortcoming of evangelical-like church services in general is this focus on a single sacrament to the exclusion of others. Indeed, the other church sacraments—Eucharist (communion), baptism, etc—all took an extreme second chair to the Word (in Protestantism, the sole focus on Scripture as God’s revelation is known as sola Scriptura).
This is even reflected in the very way a ‘high sacramental’ and Protestant based churches are set up for service. In a Protestant based church the focus is the pulpit where the preacher stands to deliver the sermon (all the chairs, lights, decorations are pointed towards it). Whereas in a high sacramental church the focus is God’s presence, hence all the attention is centered on the alter where lies the Eucharist.
From my Protestant perspective I always viewed priests who wore highly ornate robes and head wear, carrying gaudy staffs, incense thingies, and crosses as men crying out for attention. For me, they were the ones guilty of taking the attention away from the presence of God, not the TV preacher with his rolex and gold plated Bentley (Lord forgive me!). And besides that, all the icons and expensive buildings and funky pews and smells (actually, I always like the incense they burned), all said to me “old, dead, useless religion.”
I was proud that my church did not repeat dead prayers written in an official manual, nevermind that my entire salvation revolved around repeating a ‘salvation prayer’ after my pastor; I was proud that we honored the Bible over Church tradition and councils, nevermind that Church councils decided which of the 60-70 books presented for New Testament canonization met the requirements of orthodoxy to be allowed into canon; I was proud that we held to sola Scriptura, nevermind that our official interpretation of particular biblical passages hailed from the Seymour/Roberts/Hagen tradition; I was proud that our services were loose and free in order to ‘allow’ the Holy Spirit to ‘do what He wanted to do,’ nevermind that ‘Holy Spirit services’ were scheduled months in advance; the list goes on and on.
What I’m essentially getting at is the fact that my evangelical, charismatic, independent church up-bringing had me believing that we were the only game in town—that our ‘liturgy’ was THE Holy Spirit, Christ established liturgy. What I’ve come to find is that our ‘traditions’ were no less traditional than any so-called ‘traditional’ church. The difference was that we had the new and improved gospel, while those sacramental churches were stuck in the past. The big revelation, which is no revelation at all, is that the Orthodox never needed a new and improved (or ‘Reformed’) gospel because they simply kept the one delivered to them by Christ and the Apostles (sorry for the bold claim right at the tail-end of the article). The way they have maintained this gospel is due in large part to their liturgy, which I’ll talk about in detail on the next article.
Thanks again for reading. Comments welcomed!