One of the most prominent differences between Anglicanism and other Protestant traditions is the liturgy. We hold to a way of worship that is rooted not in the whims and wiles of the local congregation, but in the wisdom of the historic Church. Although a great many local variances can be found in different times throughout history and places across the globe, the liturgical tradition puts into action a set of principles and practices regarding corporate worship. In conversation with visitors and members of other traditions, therefore, one of the biggest questions we can be asked (and which we need to know how to answer) is “what is liturgy?”
From a Greek verb and noun that appears several times in the New Testament, liturgy means “public work” or “work of the people.” That second quote is the more popular definition offered, but it can be misleading with the connotation that it’s the work by the congregation specifically. There are examples in the Epistles of St. Paul of “liturgy” or “ministry” being carried out by individuals on behalf of others. Although the context does not concern worship directly, it is illustrative of the reality that congregational worship does not always necessarily take place at the initiative of the congregation. Some aspects of worship are individuals-driven, other aspects are representative (or led by particular ministers on others’ behalf).
All corporate worship is by definition liturgical. And our tradition is cognizant of that. Something that comes up here and there today is the offering of multiple worship services according to different styles. This is not inherently wrong, but something that is a very bad idea for an Anglican Church is to label certain services as “liturgical” and others as something else like “modern” or “contemporary.” No, all worship services are liturgical. To attribute the term “liturgical” as a label only for certain things we do is to turn the very nature of worship on its head.
Instead, we need to understand what it means for our worship to be specifically and properly liturgical. Here’s a quick and easy answer that will help you and anyone else clarify your understanding:
The book of common prayer is our liturgy.
Putting our answer of Anglican worship in this way can be a valuable reorientation of common assumptions.
- It gets you away from thinking of liturgy as a style, which is the worst mistake that I’ve come across in conversation with other Christians. Liturgical worship is not merely a flavor of Christian tradition, it is a set of biblical and theological principles in concrete ritual order and action that can be (and is) written down in a book for all to use.
- It gets you away from thinking of liturgy as the order of service, which is also a very common mistake but at least is closer to the truth. There is a sense in which “the liturgy” does refer to the ordering and contents of a particular worship service. But in its fullest sense, liturgy is bigger than that.
- It gets you thinking about liturgy as everything. The liturgy includes the Daily Offices, the Communion on Sundays and Holy Days, the Calendar, Baptisms, Burials or Funerals, Marriages, everything. The entire Christian life, as enacted and celebrated in worship, is the Church’s liturgy. And the genius of Anglicanism, historically, has been that we’ve tied that together into one single book that’s accessible to anyone who can read.
In short, liturgy is the church’s life together. It’s what we do when we’re together. When Anglicans gather for worship, the Prayer Book is the expression (and rule) of how we go about it. To eschew the Prayer Book in favor of the Roman Mass, other Protestant worship books, extemporaneous prayer and praise, or any other tradition, is to surrender that which makes us Anglican. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn and borrow from other traditions at all. But if we reach for those materials more instinctively or frequently than we reach for the Prayer Book, our “Anglican-ness” is not in good shape.