Liturgy is one of those words often used in the church which we often aren’t sure what it really means and which is often used in a very limited sense. Most people think that liturgy is only about words, the prayers and the other parts of the service which the clergy say and to which the congregation respond. Liturgy conjures up images of lengthy prayers, traditional and formal language and no room for divine inspiration. But this is putting liturgy in a slightly boring box and not allowing it to be part of our worship. It should be transformative and ever changing.
The word ‘liturgy’ itself is found in the New Testament and literally means ‘work of / for the people’. Already looking at this meaning transforms liturgy from something only those leading worship do to a corporate act involving each and every member of the congregation. You standing in the pew and singing your heart out contribute to the liturgy because it helps everyone to worship God.
Some of the words we say and use are ancient and bind us and root us in the history of the church, we join the centuries of those who have prayed in faith and gathered to worship God together. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus even gave us the words to use himself.
But liturgy isn’t just about words. Liturgy is about the overall ‘shape’ of the service, about its structure. Our worship needs a beginning, a middle and an end to show us where we are, then we can worship God without worrying what might happen next.
Although we sometimes see structure as constrictive, we need it in our worship to allow us to be free to worship God, to be open to God and to allow God to work in and through us. If we didn’t have any sense of structure in our service we might end up with a rousing joyful song which leaves everyone on a high, only to be brought crashing down to reality with a bump when we come to prayers and pray for others who are victims of terrorism, injustice or who are unwell – our heads just wouldn’t be in the right place to pray.
Music also plays a part in the liturgy, it is often the music which takes us beyond ourselves, its words and melodies speak to us in ways we cannot always explain. It can cause us to raise our hands in worship to God, a liturgical gesture in the same way in which some people make the sign of the cross. A response to God which comes deep within us.
The bottom line is that liturgy is about public, corporate worship, where the Body of Christ in its many parts gathers together to worship God, who is Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life. This means that liturgy occurs in all our church services and any point at which we gather together to worship and pray. So we see liturgy in all our Sunday services regardless of whether it is Book of Common Prayer Communion or All-Age worship, in baptisms, weddings and funerals, in Messy Church and when we pray in our house groups.
Liturgy allows us to worship God to be open to all that the Holy Spirit stirs up within us and to be transformed by the experience.