Saturday, August 12, 2006

Liturgical worship and the Heisenberg principle

The term "high church" and "liturgical" was once defined solely in terms of the Catholic and Anglican Churches. " Low church" was the disparaging term applied to the Anglican Church. But high church "may now be used in speaking of viewpoints within a number of denominations of Christianity in general" (Wikipedia). High church "emphasizes liturgical and theological formality. Vestments are more formal. Parts of the service are often sung or chanted, and may include incense and sanctus bells (aka 'smells and bells')." Note the word "may" — use of the term "high church" need not be limited to the most extreme cases of formality and rites.

"Protestant churches, which initially kept liturgical forms and music that were consistent with Roman liturgics, gradually saw many of the forms change over time as theology and doctrine itself changed in Western Europe." ( Protestant Liturgics)

Likewise a "liturgical" worship service was originally associated with the type done at Catholic Churches, complete with censer, lots of vestments and other accouterments, plus many rituals — a formal atmosphere. In that light the Methodist Church would be seen as non-liturgical. As culture has changed, however, the terms "high church" and "liturgical" have seen different use. Church members now use these terms to describe their worship service in relative terms.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies a bit here. We can describe and discuss exactly what we currently do in worship and try to apply a label, but by the time the debate is done, the momentum of our culture can make that label suspect. We need to always consider trends in our culture when deciding where we are and where we want to go in terms of church and worship style. When I was a child I sang as a child (classical, including some in Latin). OK, I was a teenager, but you get the point. Today, that same style of music in worship seems ancient to me ... an anachronism ... out of place in time.

Our current western culture uses several different ways to label our churches and worship services:
High church <---------+---------> Low Church
    Liturgical <---------+---------> Non-liturgical
  Liturgical <---------+---------> Evangelical
  Traditional <---------+---------> Contemporary
   Very formal <---------+---------> Very informal
These are a continuum, not an either-or situation. For example, the Percept Group's area reports of people and preferences done for the United Methodist Church use a "Church style" continuum of Traditional-to-Contemporary, based on worship, music, and architecture styles.
Even using the phrase "traditional" is really a relative one. What is contemporary for a church today will become traditional for that church if used for a decade or two. Individual Protestant churches show a wide variety in use of such things that many would see as leaning toward the liturgical/high church/formal/traditional:
  • Vestments - more vestments, robes, and gowns worn means more formal.
  • Additions such as altar, formal chancel area, candles, use of acolytes, fancy goblets and plates for Communion, and the presence of an oversize Church Bible.
  • Old and Latin language terms such as Narthex, Introit, Gloria Patri, Doxology, Chancel, acolytes, and postlude.
  • Rituals.
  • Standing for the reading of the Gospel (but not the Old Testament, of course).
  • Use of the "Liturgical Psalter", as the Methodist Book of Hymns calls it.
  • Congregational singing of responses during reading of the Psalter.
  • Rigid order of worship.
Discussions about a church's style and worship service would be more productive if all concerned accepted terms as they are commonly used today, not their original usage decades ago. Using terms such as "more formal" and "less formal" to describe our church and worship style might well help newcomers and the unchurched. The relative terms "more liturgical" and "less liturgical" are better suited to discussions within a church community, but then only after discussing what that means.

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