George and Penny both decided to grow a very rare and precious flower. George took his seed and generously sprinkled it about his garden. He then hoped for the best. Penny however decided that the best thing to do was build a greenhouse to protect her seedlings. This took time and effort, and she had to think very carefully about where to build it and how best to build it. George and Penny both grew a good crop of the flowers but Penny’s care and foresight paid off – she won the Mrs Miggins prize for rare and precious flowers three years running.
If a gardener wants a delicate plant to thrive it is common for them to place some sort of structure around it. The structure has to be big enough or flexible enough not to stunt the plants' growth, but the right structure and shape will give definite benefits. This is what liturgy can do.
Words and Shapes
When people talk about liturgy there is often an assumption that they are talking about words. In fact liturgy isn’t about words although they are part of it; liturgy is mostly about shape and structure. A typical worship service will have a number of elements, such as welcome, repentance, thanksgiving, the word, maybe communion and then a sending out. These elements are clearly visible in the Chirch of England's Common Worship, the Methodist Service Book and the URC Worship Book.
The church has used many of these shapes and elements for two thousand years and plenty predate the Christian church itself, tracing their origins to Jewish roots. It seems unlikely that the early church would not have used such liturgical forms; the New Testament itself is full of liturgy, especially the book of Revelation. When we use our inheritance of liturgy we are connecting with that tradition in a powerful way.
Liturgical worship has a number of advantages over freeform prayer. Liturgy
is far more inclusive of those who don’t enjoy standing out and speaking;
everyone who can read or remember words can take part in spoken liturgy, with
the prayers being available in large print and Braille for those who require
them. The spoken liturgy is also accompanied by actions that can be seen and
done by those who cannot hear or understand the language being used, enabling
them to follow and take a fuller part in the worship.
As well as being accessible to a range of people liturgy seems to go down very well with a range of ages and backgrounds. It is a form of worship that is extra cultural, is clearly part of the Christian tradition and has a degree of otherness - it is not something we do in everyday life. In my experience young people are exceptionally open to using liturgy, and keen to write and shape their own.
The shape of liturgy isn’t just found in its structure and order; it can also be seen in the physical actions that flow through an act of worship. We join together in standing up, kneeling, bowing, turning, raising hands, crossing and dancing; if you videoed a liturgical act of worship and played it back at high speed you might think you were watching contemporary dance!
The following list of actions is no means exhaustive or prescriptive, but is aimed as an introduction to using our bodies in worship. It is quite possible to overdo manual actions, although at the end of the day it is an individual’s choice if they participate.
Crossing yourself is one of the most straightforward actions. The shape of a cross is made by touching your forehead, your torso then each shoulder. It can be used at many points in an act of worship; At the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit as well as statements forgiveness and blessing. It can also be made when entering and leaving a church building. It is a wonderfully simple visual and physical prayer that can be used throughout the day in a variety of ways, as a prayer for protection or as a thanksgiving.
In many churches today people raise their hands palms up during worship, but traditionally it has been a position of prayer rather than of worship. It signifies inclusiveness with the arms wide open as well as openness to receive with the hands closer in.
It may be strange to think of pausing as an action, but stopping all sound and standing or sitting still is a stark contrast to our hectic lifestyles. It is worthwhile explaining to people what the pause is and how long it will be, often 30 seconds is a good figure. We can get uncomfortable and shuffle very easily! A shorter pause or ‘Selah’ is often used in the reading of the psalms or in other prayers. This pause should only last a couple of seconds imagine counting to three in your head before moving onto the next line. This pause will soon become second nature.
There is a certain solemnity to bowing! In many cultures it is a sign of honour and respect, and many people make a short bow at the name of Jesus Christ within prayers. A deeper bow is made by many to the Altar Table, when they enter a church, this is a way of honouring and remembering the sacramental mystery that happens there; in many churches you are also facing east towards the holy land itself. A third time people bow is to each other as ministers, you could finish a service by all bowing to each other, it is a way of saying that you value the ministry of he others. Finally, whilst sitting bowing our heads can be useful to indicate the confession part of the service.
Standing is another simple action. It indicates full attention and awareness as well as respect. Any change in position marks a change in the liturgy, moving from kneeling to standing after saying sorry to God can convey a sense of freedom and joy at our and forgiveness.
Most people are familiar with kneeling as a way of praying. One alternative is to pray as Muslims do, prostrating themselves repeatedly. There is a high probability that this was one of the ways the early Christians prayed.
Turning towards someone or a thing suggests we are paying attention, or about to interact with that person or thing. In many churches people stand for the gospel reading and turn towards the gospel, which may be read from the centre of the church. This symbolises the centrality of the Gospel in the church and in our lives. By turning east when we recite the creed we are looking towards the place where these events took place rather than towards each other. By turning towards each other or a minister we symbolise that we are about interact in a special way.
Circling is really just an extension of turning. However when we stand close in a circle we can link arms. A circle is two arches; it is a structure of strength and protection. It brings the idea of God surrounding us in the eternal dance of the trinity. Circling can be very inward, which is okay, but for certain prayers you may want to circle facing outwards, symbolising the unity of the church going out into the world.
Lighting or extinguishing a candle or lamp is another simple action. Lighting a candle can define the start of a prayer or meditation, as well as symbolising the light of Christ. Moving lights can redefine the focus of a gathering. Putting the light out can bring prayers to an end, but also can symbolise death and loss in a powerful way
Lifting something up brings peoples attention to it in a powerful way, It is both a symbol of offering to God and a way of expressing that an item is, or symbolises something very special.
If people are not used to spoken and physical liturgy it may be worthwhile explaining what is going to be happening. When saying liturgy together there is an ideal volume and pace, there is nothing more disconcerting than one person speaking far louder and at a different speed to everyone else! One trick is to encourage people to speak with a volume so they can still here those either side of them. In liturgy that uses a call and response there is no need for the calls, indicated in this book by ‘Guide’, to be said by one person. A group of people could say this part, or different people can say that part in different parts of the gathering. However it is important to have someone at each point that can set the pace, especially where short ‘Selah’ pauses are used.
Once people get use to the liturgy the actions and pauses cease to be ‘rules’ and instead become rhythm. Reaching the point of rhythm is far more important than enforcing a strict structure on the gathering. If you feel one particular section of the liturgy or one action isn’t working at all, disregard it. For example I have found that in certain circumstances standing from sitting on the floor produces more creaking and stumbling than a sense of specialness!
There are a number of ways of giving people the liturgy. Some liturgies have very simple forms that can be explained beforehand and no written material is needed. Using an overhead projector has the disadvantage that someone has to attend to it throughout the gathering - it becomes an immediate focus of attention. Service sheets may tie up peoples hands, but they have the advantage that instructions and explanations can be placed on the sheet rather than having to be spoken at every service. Over time if you reuse parts of the liturgy people will learn it, and only be dependent on service sheets for new parts of the liturgy.
I once asked a group of young people what they looked for in liturgy for a monthly gathering, the answer boiled down to this; for some things to stay the same and for other things to change. With liturgy familiarity need not breed contempt, but without some change it can breed boredom! The prescriptiveness of liturgy may seem at odds with the openness of the other worship forms described in this book, but they counterbalance well.
Just like the flowers in a greenhouse.