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Saturday, June 20, 2015

What Do We Mean When We Use the Word Liturgical?

You should just know, upfront, that I've stolen much of this material from my friend Rich, who should have just written this post, himself.  There.  Now I feel less guilt.

For whatever reason, many Protestants get really squirmy when the conversation turns to liturgy.  I'm just finishing up a class on Christian History, and it's fascinating how deeply the reformation splintered the Church.  What's even more mind blowing is the fact that this wedge between Catholics and Protestants has continued to grow, over centuries, in large part because Protestants argued that everything must change.  We threw the holy water out with the bath water, friends.  And then we kept doing it in era after era after era...

And so we hear "liturgy" or "liturgical", and everyone panics, because we must be Catholic now.  We must have decided to reverse the Reformation.  (As a side note, would that really be that bad?  Wait.  Don't answer that.  We'll never get through this post.)

OK, actually, those last two paragraphs were mine.  Now I turn to plagiarism.

"Liturgical... really means all that we 'do' in our worship together.  Since the root is 'the work of the people,' it means that we all are liturgical, only some of us think through our liturgies more than others.  Even the most free church traditions have liturgies, and to be liturgical in its formal sense just means people who have a pattern of worship, which is really all of us."

Hmmm...  no kidding.

And yet, it seems that some people have confused "high church" with "liturgical" and "high church practices" with "sacramental practices".  I really like a lot of "high church" practices, but I haven't always deemed them synonymous with sacramental, although maybe there is a valid argument for this considering the differences we fleshed out between sacrament and sacramental in the earlier post, "How to Get Yourself Into Serious Trouble Regarding Sacraments".

"Typically, most practitioners of high church liturgy would nearly all call themselves 'sacramental,' because they view their liturgical actions as actual means of grace. In fact, I would say that many of us 'low church' folks are low church de facto because we do not see liturgical action as sacramental."

But, to be sacramental, something must only be a means of grace.  There are no other requirements.  It's really interesting how our symbols and icons even play a part in this.  Is the cross sacramental?  I don't mean the cross on which Jesus was crucified.  Clearly, it played a part in atonement, so yes, a means of grace, but I'm talking about the cross hanging at the front of your sanctuary.  Is it sacramental?  I think it could be.  What about the altar?  Sacramental?  Grace is often bestowed there.  So, why not?  Is it also liturgical?   Does your church employ it regularly in an order of worship?  Guess what, if you answered yes, I think the altar just became a part of liturgy.

Maybe liturgy is not as frightening as we think. 

Just for some additional perspective, I searched for synonyms for liturgy.  What I found added to my understanding about why this is all so confusing.  The list included: ritual, worship, service, ceremony, rite, observance, celebration, sacrament, tradition, custom, practice, rubric, and formal ordinance. 

OK, I lied.  Maybe liturgy is as frightening as we think, but not for the reasons we had imagined.  By connecting all of these words that actually carry vastly different meanings, we may have lost the definition of liturgy, altogether.  No wonder it's scary.  Navigating the unknown is like that.  Unless you like mystery.  Then you'll probably be OK.  Maybe that's exactly why I've decided that I like liturgy and sacraments and sacramentals.  If everything has the potential for carrying the grace of God, then the patterns of our lives really do become sacramental.  I think this type of thinking also tends toward more established rhythms and even ritualistic practices as we begin to resonate with the things that touch us most deeply, with grace, in the midst of worship and routine.    



  1. Even though I admit to being a "Low Church" attender and a life long Nazarene, the way you described liturgical was not too scary. In fact, I found it quite interesting!

    (How's that for not droning on too long)?

  2. Why do people hear "liturgy" or "liturgical", and panic?
    Can you share examples of what they're worried about?

    What is "High Church" vs "Low Church"? Examples?

    1. Debby -

      I think, in part, it comes down to the way the Protestant Church often views the Catholic Church, although, in recent years, I think there is more to it. It seems that many Protestants are afraid of anything that is ritualistic or sensory oriented, for starters. I'm not quite sure where the actual fear comes from. Maybe it is simply the unknown.

      "High Church" would generally be defined as more liturgical and sacramental in nature. The Eucharist is likely going to take the central role, week after week, in worship. It is likely that the lectionary will be used to determine the passages of Scripture that are a part of corporate worship, and that means there is often much more Scripture included, overall. You might be more likely to see the use of candles, incense, symbols, images, icons, etc. "High Church" is often much more formal in nature. As a note, I think I would have described "High Church" as "boring" as a kid. That may be because of how attractional we have tried to make the church. Now I see it as "real" and maybe even a little bit "raw".

      So, "Low Church" would typically be what most Nazarenes are used to participating in on a regular basis (although there is some hope for transformation, and some Naz. churches are embracing more "High Church" practices). "Low Church" still has a liturgy. Just try to mess with the order of service, and you'll see how quickly a pattern of worship becomes important! ;) Often preaching is central to the "Low Church" rhythm, sermons may be based on topics of interest, and the Eucharist may not even be celebrated on a regular basis.

      As I was typing this response it occurred to me that "High Church" seems quiet to me, while "Low Church" seems loud. I'm not sure if that makes much sense. If it doesn't, just tell me!

      Ironically, I really like elements of both for specific times and situations. This, of course, can make for really eclectic corporate worship (I could write a book).

  3. Who or what is the 'lectionary" that is determining scripture?

    Thanks for the explanations and examples of “high church” vs “low church.” As a child, I attended an established Presbyterian church. I would say it leaned very much towards being liturgical. I loved sitting in that sanctuary with it's beautiful stain glass windows, the ministers in full robe attire, banners hung for the different Christian holidays, singing the doxology weekly, pipe organ playing, etc. I'm sure I got bored but there was something reverent about the worship time. That might be a good portion of why when I'm truly tuned into worship between myself and God, I close my eyes and pull into my thoughts with words of worship. (I'm generally not a hands held high, face lifted up corporate worshipp-er....I'm sure not opposed to being with those sort of worshippers because they often help me to really focus into worship instead of 'squirrel.') I do love that we now sing many worship songs more as a celebratory thing more so than at the pace of a funeral dirge. ;)

    So, a couple of years ago our worship pastor decided to incorporate readings between songs. You know where the leader says a line and then the congregation responds with the words on the big screen. These readings were based on scripture. I heard rumor that we had people get upset and decide to leave the church because of this.

    1. Here's a link to the revised common lectionary:

      Thank you for sharing your story and also for being willing to admit that you appreciate people who worship using different styles than you prefer, yourself. I think that is *really* important! For me, there are definitely certain liturgies that "draw me in" to worship, most effectively, but I also recognize that other elements are essential to the life of worship for other people, and I never want to get in the way of that. It sounds like you're on the same page.

      I am not a huge fan of responsive readings, *unless* they are deeply rooted in Scripture, creeds, prayer, etc. It sounds like your local church is using them well (even if incorporating them did make some people upset).

  4. Wow! The "Lectionary!"

    Now I know.