Structure and content

The word 'liturgy' has commonly been used to describe an established form of service in which there is an agreed structure, containing certain prescribed elements, such as prayers and forms of confession or praise to be said together.

Traditional Anglican services have been rather like 'set menus' in restaurants, where some variation has been provided as you move through the 'courses'. But a liturgy can also be quite informal, with a broad structure, in which different elements can be inserted.

For example, the regular pattern in a particular church might be praise, teaching, and then prayer.

But week by week the content of each section may vary: different songs will be used in different places; different Bible passages will be chosen, often in relation to the sermon; different prayers will follow the teaching of the Bible.

Contemporary services can be even more  'à la carte', where you get to choose from a large number of options, and sometimes you skip a course or take things in a different order each week.

Most churches have a liturgy in one way or another. They may not have set prayers, but they still have an order of service.

So here are some critical questions to ask about the effectiveness of your local 'liturgy', keeping in mind what the Bible teaches about the gathering of God's people:

  • How well planned and conducted are the services?
  • How meaningful is the content?
  • What is missing?
  • How helpful is the structure?
  • How is the church being edified?

Some benefits of established liturgies

Consider first the educative and pastoral value of 'menus' and 'courses' that have been prepared by those with some expertise, and then tried and tested by others in various contexts. Every aspect of what we do when we gather together should contribute to the growth and maturation of the congregation: prayers and praises, testimonies and confessions, in addition to the central activity of reading and expounding Scripture. The sequence is important, as well as the contents.

The preservation of doctrinal orthodoxy becomes a vital factor also, when we see how easily congregations can drift from biblical views of God and the Christian life. Will sermons and songs be sufficient to keep us from error? If we mostly have spontaneous prayers, will they be theologically deep enough and pastorally relevant enough to edify the church?

Memorability is another important factor. Although we may rely on sermons for the core teaching of the church, many messages are quickly forgotten. Well-crafted prayers and songs can highlight truths being taught, penetrate our consciences, and have an ongoing impact on our lives, continuing to challenge and encourage us in everyday discipleship.

For example, with many vivid expressions, this updated version of a confession from The Book of Common Prayer reveals different facets of sin, and the need for ongoing repentance:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against your holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have left undone those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.

Prayers and songs learned by heart are particularly appreciated by the sick, the elderly, and by others who are isolated from Christian fellowship and corporate worship. But people of every age and stage of Christian development need to be nurtured and trained by the pattern and content of church services, not merely by the sermons. We need to learn how to pray and praise God in a biblical fashion. Spontaneous contributions that differ every week may lack the same power to mature and sustain spiritual life.

Fellowship between congregations can also be a pressing local issue. Different groups, meeting at different times in the same building, may have very different patterns of service. How can they learn to appreciate one another and work together more closely? How can people transfer from one congregation to another if there is little in common in their meetings? How will new generations of Christians come to appreciate what is valuable to older believers, and how will older believers come to appreciate what matters to younger believers? On a wider scale, the issue of fellowship between congregations is important when people move churches or when congregations seek to share ministry in a particular area.

Dealing with objections to liturgy

Authenticity is a key issue for many who are critical of liturgical patterns of worship. They are troubled about using written prayers that are not their own words, and about being forced to say things to God that they may not feel at the moment. But there can be a similar difficulty when we sing songs written by someone else, or say the Lord's Prayer together, or when we are encouraged to say 'Amen' to someone else's spontaneous prayer. Familiarity with the words can actually help with the authenticity of our response to God, because we can 'own' the words for ourselves when we know them and use them regularly.

A key factor here is the skill and preparation of the service leader. A good leader can fill a familiar prayer with meaning and conviction, just as a poor or unprepared leader can reduce it to meaningless words. It is important to reflect on what we are about to say together before rushing into it. Intelligibility is essential, though we may not necessarily understand everything about an item when it is first used. Profound prayers and praises will continue to yield meaning when they are used regularly.

But repetition is a problem for some. It can be boring and meaningless, unless leaders work hard to introduce familiar prayers and responses appropriately. Repetition can also be modified by a degree of variation each week. For example, there may be a formal confession of sins each week, but four different prayers used in a month. Church is about being together and expressing our faith together as a community. Repetition can be a way of affirming and encouraging mutuality and conviction.

There is evidence in the Bible that confessions of faith, prayers, and praises were used corporately on many occasions (see, for example, Exodus 15:1-18; 1 Chronicles 16:4-36; Nehemiah 9)

Sometimes repetition was required in biblical patterns of prayer and praise (see, for example, Psalms 46, 118, 136).

God's people were encouraged to affirm things that were true, even though they may not have been feeling these things for themselves at that particular moment.

Predictability is valued by some, but not by others. On the positive side, knowing what is coming next can help to engage you more fully. Surprises may leave you wondering why a certain item was included at that point in the service. On the negative side, predictability can lead to a mindless recitation of the words by rote. Once again, the solution may be some variation within a predictable pattern, good introductions, and a carefully planned flow to the service.

Of course there will be times when an order of service may be constructed from scratch, to suit local needs on particular occasions. Every meeting does not need to contain all the elements listed on the following pages to be honouring to God and helpful for those who gather. But there should be an emphasis on hearing God's word, responding in prayer and praise, and ministering to one another in love. At this basic level, and in more detailed ways as well, the principles, patterns and contents of the Prayer Book remain a helpful guide and resource.

Next: Anglican liturgy in perspective