My earliest memory of church is sitting beside my mother on Sunday morning at the age of five, in small Methodist parish which was situated in a rural part of East Tennessee. In this little chapel, there was no incense, no bells, and no pipe organ, but there was liturgy. We lit beautiful candles, the clergy wore neat vestments, we used a common worship book, we said common prayers, and it all seemed so holy to me. I was being formed for a worship expression that would be with me my entire life, but I did not realize it at the time. Later in my teen years, my family decided to move to another church (a much larger church) and a faith community within another Protestant tradition, which was very different from what I had known before.
We left our small liturgical church and for the next six years, we were immersed in a preaching-centered tradition that left me wanting for the holy and sacred. It was not until my first visit to an Episcopal Church at the age of twenty-five that I once again connected with the beauty of common worship, the beauty of liturgy, and the historical connection to the ancient faith. We as Episcopalians share an ancient connectedness with centuries of Christians who have expressed their devotion to and love for God in a particular way. A part of the beauty and richness of our Sunday worship is that we do share a common pattern with the early faith tradition, which was passed on to us from as far back as the third and fourth centuries. Take for instance the Sursum Corda (The Lord be with you, and also with you. Lift up your hearts; we lift them up to the Lord). This simple phrase has connections to the earliest of historical liturgies in the Christian tradition. It is this and so many other ancient connections in our worship, which reminds us that we are a part of a much larger Church, a communion of saints that stretch back for many millennia.
In the Episcopal Church, we share a common liturgy that is mutually expressed in every other Episcopal parish in our Province of the United States. Our liturgy follows a common pattern and source (The 1979 Book of Common Prayer); our music also follows common patterns and has prescribed sources (The 1982 Hymnal, “Wonder, Love and Praise” Hymnal, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Hymnal). Unlike many other faith traditions, our worship follows a common pattern because it is a living source of our common identity. The Book of Common Prayer is more than a formula for “how to do worship,” it expresses our theology, it reveals who we are as Episcopalians, and it instructs us in what we believe. The Latin phrase, “Lex Orandi/Lex Credendi” (the law of prayer is the law of belief) can loosely be translated, “prayer shapes believing.” In other words, what we pray shapes how we believe, and what we believe shapes how we pray. During our last Christian Education Series, I discussed the theological shifts between the 1928 and 1979 Prayer Books regarding the Rite of Baptism. Although subtle, the Rite itself was changed in the 1979 BCP to reflect the theological evolution that emerged because of the influence of the Liturgical Movement of the 1960’s. What we do in worship is more than mere empty gestures, liturgy is significant and all that we do is important. Liturgy is also organic, because with each generation it evolves, it emerges anew, but it retains its connection to the ancient traditions that came before. Liturgy is flexible, but it also has form.
In our Prayer Book, we have space for flexibility to add variety and freshness to our devotion to God. We have several Eucharistic Prayer options, which for Rite I (8:00 am service) include Form I and Form II. For Rite II (10:00 a.m. service) we have Eucharist Prayer forms A, B, C, and D. At St. David’s, we mix it up a bit at the 10:00 a.m. service and use one of the four Eucharistic Prayers on a rotational basis each week. In addition, we have six forms of the Prayers of the People, which we also rotate every week. There are many other opportunities for us to use variety and innovation and still remain within the rubrics (rules) as stated in the Prayer Book. For Episcopalians, the rubrics are a signpost, a liturgical rule of sorts that maintains our corporate liturgical expression, and keeps us from straying too far into innovations that take away from our common liturgical identity. In our tradition, we say certain things at certain times; we sing certain hymns, we wear colored vestments during particular seasons because this form and common expression, serves to reinforce our common identity as Episcopalians. Even so, we do have flexibility in some instances, through which we can express the unique nature of our particular community. In the coming months and years, as we explore those areas of worship where we can dabble in the variety and richness of our liturgy, I invite you to embrace the ancient connectedness we share with centuries of Christians, and to be open to the new, fresh expressions of our liturgy that are emerging before us. Peace, Fr. Eric+