What is liturgy, and why is it valuable?
Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...
“Liturgy” means a structure of worship, and every church has one, whether the people involved call it that or not. Every service has a structure: a characteristic ordering of the songs, Scripture readings, sermon, prayers, collection, and so on. In typical usage, though, “liturgy” is usually associated with particular traditions such as the Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches, which have structures for worship that include set prayers and responses for the participants.
For those who’ve never attended a liturgical church, think of it this way. Every Christian knows the Lord’s Prayer, and it’s often included in a worship service for the congregation to say together. Now imagine that the whole service is structured around a framework of prayers and responses like this, taken from Scripture or written by great saints of the church. That’s liturgical worship.
...and blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever.
My church tradition, Anglicanism, is a liturgical one. In the United States (as in many English churches as well!) we use the Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer, or the BCP as it is affectionately known, is an Anglican prayer book that is readily available in any Christian bookstore or through Amazon. Created in 1500s England, it incorporates prayer from the very earliest Fathers of the Church, and prayers based on Holy Scripture, as well as prayers written by 16th century and later pastors. You can also find the contents of the BCP online here (in printable form) and also here at BCPonline.org. There’s even an iPad / iPhone app!
The Lord be with you...
The greatest benefit of a set liturgy is that it’s completely predictable. Every worship service will use the same words; and, with seasonal variations, the prayers will be the same as well. The Scripture lessons, Psalms, and sermon will change, but the structure remains the same. Why is this a benefit?
...and also with you...
First, because it creates an environment more suitable to genuine prayer. Whenever I visit a different church, I’m distracted by wondering what’s going to happen next, or what I’m supposed to do. In contrast, in a liturgical service, I know exactly what’s going to happen, and when: it frees me to pray during church!
...Let us pray.
Second, because it provides a structure for prayer that helps strengthen my spiritual life where I am weak - even when my weakness changes from week to week and year to year. My own prayers are always, inevitably, in danger of falling into a rut of my own habitual concerns. In contrast, the time-polished liturgy incorporates different kinds of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, petition. If I have been praying for the needs of my friends and family, I may be reminded by the Prayers of the People to also pray for the needs of my community, the nation, and the world. If I have avoided considering my own sins, the prayer of confession reminds me that I have indeed sinned in thought, word, and deed.
Lift up your hearts...
Third, the liturgy of the BCP is taken almost entirely from Scripture, with the various prayers and ‘collects’ (short summing-up prayers for the particular seasons and feast days) often written by great saints of the church, like Thomas Cranmer or St John Chrysostom. Thus, by speaking and hearing these words, week in and week out, I am given the gift of internalizing words, phrases, and images at a deep level, and making them my own.
...we lift them up unto the Lord.
Fourth, the repetitive nature of the liturgy is a rebuke and a correction to my own self-centeredness. It reminds me that worship is not about me - it’s about God. If I am tempted to say “It’s always the same... it can be a little boring...” then I’m viewing worship as a form of entertainment, with its purpose being to entertain or interest me. By having a repeated, consistent structure the liturgy reminds me that worship is about God the most holy Trinity, and only about me insofar as God has so graciously drawn me into Himself and invites me to share in the body and blood of His Son, in the eternal Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Let us give thanks unto our Lord God...
Fifth, the liturgy is not emotionally laden. That is, these words and phrases and responses are not designed to key up the worshippers into feeling prayerful or Spirit-filled. That’s between the individual and God. It’s a great blessing to worship in a tradition in which one’s piety is not judged by how emotional one gets during worship (and it’s possible to judge oneself too harshly as well, even if other people aren’t judgmental!). When I’m feeling distracted, anxious, disconnected, tired... those are the times when I might not know how to pray, or might not have the motivation - but the liturgy takes me by the hand and leads me through prayer and worship nonetheless. When I’m feeling the powerful presence of the Spirit, and am rejoicing in God’s goodness and mercy, the liturgy channels that joy into praise and thanksgiving and love for God and my neighbor.
...It is meet and right so to do.
Liturgy should always be meaningful; it should also be as beautiful as we can make it. It can be adapted, and have new and fresh elements brought into it, but never just for the sake of change. Liturgical worship is also just one part of a larger life of prayer, one that includes extemporaneous, individual, unstructured personal prayer. I know that I have been deeply blessed by worshipping in the Anglican tradition, and by including liturgical prayer in my personal prayer life, through the Daily Office (morning and evening prayer). I encourage anyone who is interested in deepening their relationship with God to try morning or evening prayer using the Book of Common Prayer; here’s a link to a piece I wrote on praying the Daily Office.
Therefore, with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord most high.