I’m not sure how much you know or understand about liturgy, but I will assume for the sake of this email that it is a fairly limited amount, not because I think you are ignorant or stupid, but only because I assume it hasn’t been on your theological radar per se (as it was not on mine before I became an Anglican). Forgive me if I am assuming too much. Hopefully even a little bit of what I write will be helpful to you.
If your initial, instinctual reaction is to regard it as all rather convoluted and unnecessary, I don’t blame you. That is how I thought of it too when first approaching the liturgical traditions of catholic Christianity.
But as I understood it better (and my evangelical guard was let down a bit) I began to love the liturgy – the seasons of the Church, the holy days and feast days and the liturgy of the Word and Eucharist in the service on Sundays. And now I don’t understand how to worship non-liturgically! Here are the reasons why this transformation happened in me (with an explanation of liturgy along the way):
(1) I came to understand that liturgy is not a unnecessary or distracting “add-on” to worship, nor is it born of medieval Roman Catholic excess. Liturgy has been part of Christian worship from the beginning:
‘Highly Commended’ in the ‘Blog’ category in the communications awards at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, 2013; Runner-up, 2010; Winner, 2009 …
(2) Perhaps the most important thing to know about liturgy is that it completely revolves around the life and ministry of Christ. Here is a short 4-minute intro video about the liturgical seasons of the Church:
As the video tells us, the liturgical seasons of the church correspond to the seasons of Christ’s life. And probably by divine providence, they also correspond nicely with the earthly seasons – Christmas in dead of winter (waiting, hope, light amidst the darkness, etc), Easter in Spring (new life, resurrection, coming of the renewed heavens and earth, etc).
If you read the (rather long) blog post on liturgy in the early church, you will know that the liturgy is based on the Jewish roots of Christianity. Like the worship of the OT, the Christian calendar contains particularly important holy days and feast days, like the Jewish “Feast of unleavened bread” or “Feast of Trumpets” or “Feast of Tabernacles.” “Feast days” do not mean days where you cook (and eat) a big meal. I used to think so! In the Christian calendar, Feast days are days where a particular event of Christ’s life (or the life of the Apostles or Mary) or a particular saint is remembered. So, we might refer to the “Feast day of St. Augustine” or the the “Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.” It is how the Church (and then Western society) kept track of days before the modern calendar was around.
There are (naturally) major and lesser feast days. The major ones are, of course, the most significant commemorations of the life (and ministry) of Christ. The Anglican tradition divides them into 5 categories:
• Principal Feasts (major dates in the life and ministry of Christ which are cause for celebration/commemoration that take precedence over any other significant saint or event in the church). Because these are special days worth celebrating, if it falls on a day normally reserved for some kind of fasting, the fasting is suspended for that day.
• Principal Holy Days (Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday) – These are on the same level as principal feasts (nothing takes precedence over them), but are days of solemn prayer, fasting and reflection instead of celebration due to the nature of the commemoration.
• Festivals – called “Holy Days” on the back of your calendar (these are also known as “major feast days” commemorating other aspects of Christ’s life, the life of His Apostles or Joseph or Mary). Like the principal feasts, any fasting or self-denial is suspended on these days (unless they are during Lent) because they are cause for celebration.
• Lesser Festivals – Also known as “lesser feast days” which commemorate the lives of great saints or martyrs.
• Commemoration – feast days where the saint or commemoration is not recognized with any special prayers, psalms or readings.
For all days but commemoration days, there are special “collects” or collected prayers for that day in the Daily Office (daily prayer book – for Anglicans, the Book of Common Prayer). There is also always a daily collect, so on special feast days, you get to pray an extra collect corresponding to that feast day, which is kind of neat! There are also special psalms or readings to be recited for the major feast days.
You can read more about the categories of feast days here:
(3) Liturgy rightly emphasizes the corporate nature of Christianity and the communion of the saints, rooting us in history and thus binding all Christians together in all times and places:
Here is a great quotation from Colin Dunlop, former Dean of Lincoln Cathedral:
“It is essential that every local congregation shall realize that it does not worship in isolation from the rest of the Church, whether on earth or in paradise, and also that it worships in and through a Being other than itself, Christ, the Head of the Church. Public worship must always be understood, not as the human initiation of a process in one corner of the earth, but rather as a joining in something always going on, both throughout the Church on earth and eternally in the heavenly places… A consciousness that the congregation of which I am a member is only one of tens of thousands on the earth’s surface, and is as a drop in the bucket among the myriads in the world to come, make me less clamorous that my momentary preoccupations shall dominate the concern of all at public worship. I want rather, not a liturgy which comes down to my level, but one which will take me and my fellow worshippers out of ourselves and our little world into a vaster experience with God than I can ever imagine with my modest spiritual resources. A fixed liturgy, gloriously indifferent to my worries and notions, not hedged about with the limitations of life in my neighborhood or the decade in which I live, is going to do for me just what needs doing. It will confront me with the eternal verities and place me upon the everlasting hills; I shall realize that my thoughts are neither God’s thoughts nor His ways mine; and then I may begin with the angels and archangels to worship and adore… A fixed liturgy with a long and steady growth behind it, slowly evolving through the centuries, with roots in early antiquity, not too strongly betraying the special preoccupations of any one epoch of history, is the ideal material for public worship.”
He adds: “To try and entice a nonbeliever by obscuring the ‘whole counsel of God’ is as fruitless as it is unprincipled… What is fashionable today will be unfashionable tomorrow; the bait that is attached to the liturgical hook in one decade will have lost its savour in the next, even if it ever had any! There is always a ‘scandal’ or stumbling block in Christian faith, and the liturgy, no less than the Creeds, cannot rid themselves of it if they are to be true to divine revelation.”
Christian worship was never meant to be practiced as some kind of strange, individualistic “relationship” between the believer and Christ. That is a modern, evangelical distortion. When Christ taught us to pray, he began with the pronoun, “Our” not “My.” The archetypal and quintessential Christian prayer is thus a corporate one to “Our Father, who art in Heaven.”
This doesn’t mean that believers don’t have an individual relationship with Christ. But it does mean that Christian worship has never been practiced in that context. It has always been corporate and communal (until the implications of the Reformation began to bear fruit and lead to what we see in the evangelical church today).
(4) Thus, the liturgy is timeless, yet timely. Christians don’t have to re-invent worship every generation. We don’t have to constantly make up prayers or lessons for each Sunday and each day in our personal devotions. They have all been set by the Church for us as it moves through the seasons and through the Bible in those seasons. We can still pray spontaneously and create new sermon material on set passages, and new hymns, but we don’t have to create these things ex nihilo as it were, without any richer context to give them deeper meaning.
(5) Thus, the liturgy is unifying. Because it is timeless and practiced universally across catholic Christianity, it truly binds Christians together. It is so uplifting to know that on any given day, there are hundreds of millions of Christians praying the same psalms and much of the same liturgy as I am. It also makes sense of praying the psalms (or reading the Scriptures) that seem to have no relevance to my life – because they have relevance to some other Christian in the world praying the same psalm and reading the same Scripture.
I will wrap it up here. I hope you have learned a few things. I have provided some links for gaining more knowledge of the liturgy and probably correcting some of the errors I have made. There is so much more to the liturgy than I have talked about here. There are also liturgical prescriptions for Christian praxis and ritual that I have not gone into. We can get into it more if any of this begins to take hold in your mind and spirit.