Several years ago I served as liturgist for a large, week-long, Presbyterian worship and music conference. It was one of those events where every liturgical detail of every service was carefully planned—every word, every note, every gesture and movement. We were going to do this right, and we were going to do this well! And we did, more or less.
At one service I led the prayer of confession and declared the forgiveness of God from the baptismal font. The liturgy was well-crafted, and I spoke the words with conviction, lifting water from the font to call to mind the outpouring of God’s mercy. Then I turned and walked across the chancel to my seat.
As I walked, I noticed that my fellow worship leaders were looking at me bug-eyed, trying to convey some message without calling attention to themselves. Their faces wore that classic “you’re supposed to be doing something you’re not doing” expression, and it finally dawned on me, halfway across that huge expanse of chancel, that I’d forgotten to say words of peace to the assembly, the words that would then launch them into sharing Christ’s peace with one another.
Realizing that the proper moment had passed, and that everyone in the room but me knew that I’d made a blunder, I turned to the congregation, spread my arms, and blurted out, “You know what to do!”
Of course, everyone laughed, and I flushed with embarrassment at my less-than elegant recovery. But afterward, one of my learned colleagues said to me, “That was some of the best teaching you’ve ever done.” Surprised, I asked him what he meant. He responded by saying that I was telling the truth in that statement; the assembly did, in fact, know what to do, even without the proper verbal cue, and that in acknowledging that I let them know that this was their liturgy, not mine.
The idea that liturgy belongs to the people might not seem like much of a revelation to a Roman Catholic. But Protestant worship in general, and Presbyterian worship in particular, can often be almost exclusively clergy-led. Hymns are announced and people are instructed to stand and sit. Ritual acts are explained before, during, and after their performance. Ordained ministers speak the opening sentences, lead all the prayers (sometimes offering long “pastoral prayers” that serve more as secondary sermons than intercessions and supplications to God), and speak nearly every word—except perhaps the announcements. As a result, worshipers do not speak or move unless they are told.
I admit to nursing a bit of envy when I think of the ways Catholic worshipers are formed. Members of the assembly know their parts—the words, gestures, and rituals are learned from watching and doing, and the part they play in the liturgy is not questioned. Worship looks more like a dialogue than a monologue—there is give and take between assembly and presider as all join in liturgical celebration before God.
By contrast, many in my tribe are fearful of repetition. While many of us now say “thanks be to God” or “also with you,” as a matter of course, there is still resistance among most to having anything like a prayerbook in the pews. “Ritual” too often is heard as “rote,” and I’m embarrassed to admit in this blog that there are plenty of Protestants who protest some new liturgical action because it’s “too Catholic.” Unfortunately, this kind of prejudice and fear keeps us from discovering the depth and richness of liturgy—how what’s been called “the work of the people” can be a labor of love.
In my last blog post I mentioned that “form and freedom” is an important concept to Presbyterians. Many of us do value the four-fold pattern and use ecumenical prayer forms. But too much form scares us in a way that too much freedom does not, and congregations tend to bristle if they discover that prayers are being repeated. Too often this leaves worship planners and leaders kneeling at the altar of novelty, desperately seeking fresh words every week.
Perhaps there are some Catholics out there who see themselves at the other end of this dilemma. Can the “work of the people” feel more like labor than love? Is there any basis to Protestant fears of repetition? Does ritual become rote? Do you ever yearn for freedom the way I yearn for form?
I should conclude these thoughts by saying that, in fact, many Presbyterians have embraced a more embodied, sacramental, and participatory way of worshiping. We have learned from the late, blessed Robert Hovda, that the presider, collaborating with other leaders as well as with the assembly, “facilitates, discreetly yields the focus to the one who is operating at a particular moment, guides, prompts when necessary, leads the congregation in attending to the action” (Strong, Loving and Wise, 17). We’re learning to extend our hands in blessing and say “the peace of Christ be with you,” instead of “How ‘bout those Mets?” And we continue to pray, especially in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, for the unity of the church.