“You Know What to Do:” Liturgy as a Labor of Love

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.

4 comments

  1. Kimberly as a Catholic lay woman with an MDiv, who is a Board Certified Chaplain, two thoughts:

    1). Many Protestant brethren do not appreciate the blessing of having virtually a prayer for everything. Even if lay people are “not allowed” to use them, they can be used as springboards to create personalized rituals (what i do for each wake i preside at). Nor do many understand the grace of memnonic prayer. When you are buried in mourning, the most you can often do is repeat a Catholoc psalmody response or a Protestant call and response. I had a snarky Protestant call me out for using that during a Protestant wake; when i asked if he had yet had a close relative die and he said no, i told him i thought he would understand when he had no words or strength to pray (cf. the Spirit prays for us). He grudgingly allowed that, when i told him i had been with the family since they arrived in the ER, that i knew this was where they were, and that we had planned the ritual together.
    2). As a female Catholic who has done prison ministry for women who have been abused, assaulted and raped; all of our prayers are injuriously patriarchal, which is not healing for this population or all women. We do exist and we do volumes of unnamed and unrecognized ministry; and we are every bit as imago Dei as men. We too should be affirmed in prayers and rituals. This was affirmed by a Protestant classmate who was left speechless after being present for my breast cancer laying on of the hands blessing ritual (said he would never have thought of it).

    And as a BCC, i almost always use contextual, extemporaneous bedside prayer. It lifts up the patient/family’s pain, and their joy at that is my blessing.

    1. May I please amplify this with a personal anecdote about wakes/funerals? I don’t think mine will be all that unusual.

      My late parents had several children who lived into adulthood. Five were present at their funerals 3 years ago this week (mother, died age 90), and six months ago (father, just a few weeks shy of 93). All but one of said children have been “unchurched” for many years, in some cases decades.

      That said, when the ritual prayers of the vigil and funeral came back to all in each case, and as I led family prayers at the gravesite visitations after burial (family is normally present at committal, but not burial, at huge national military cemeteries – we’d be in the way of their process for handling dozens of daily interments). It was like watching a balloon become lighter-than-air. Moreover, it was comforting to all to have these prayers in our bones for rituals that were not in our bones. Some of the family even got hang of part of the prayer “Eternal rest grant unto her/him, O Lord, et cet.” which is not a prayer they’d heard much of before (not many of them had attended a ton of Catholic funerals/vigils in whcih they expected to participate much), but the old but disused habit of acquiring a prayer came back to life, albeit briefly.

      There’s are very solid reasons we have rote phrases for grief: because the rote-ness conveys that words are insufficient to the occasion. When one tries to be authentic and specific, it’s a high-wire act.

  2. This Lutheran, who was formed in pre-Vatican II Polish-American Roman Catholicism, is getting tired of trying to convince my brothers in the pastoral Office that liturgy is foundational to our sacramental theology. Too often the larger parishes have thrown out most of the liturgy, have their Pastor preside in street clothes (and often not very nice clothes to be “cool”) and do not utilize the traditional gestures that make the saints in the pews engage in receiving the grace of God.

    Now that I am retired, but still serving vacancies and assisting in parishes needing me, I have to learn to adapt to the current stage that my church is going through. I agree to serve parishes where I can at least vest in alb, cincture, and stole….a chasuble is just “too Catholic” and I withhold vesting in one until I have established a pastoral relationship with the parish. It is painful to watch the Great Tradition disappear, even as we celebrate the 500 year anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses on repentance and indulgences.

    Oh, that we would find a way to return to the liturgical heritage that is catholic and evangelical…..perhaps in my lifetime, but not likely.

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