What We Say We Believe, We Do
Part I in A Series of Articles on our Liturgical Heritage
ANGLICAN WORSHIP is rich with expression and meaning. The liturgical year, beginning with Advent and continuing through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost, is filled with opportunities for theological expression and emphases. Particular aspects of our worship change according to the theological themes of the church year. For example, in the penitential season of Lent the General Confession begins our service, whereas in festive seasons like Christmas and Easter, the service opens with the Gloria in Excelsis, or some other song of praise. For those who are new to our tradition, or those who are not so new, these shifts in emphasis can be a tad disarming. Sometimes it seems as if a change in tone comes just when we are settled into a worship routine and perfectly comfortable with the way things are. And, of course, that is the reason why the church year calls us to make changes, so that we can remember the depth and breadth of the story of our Lord’s life, from the joy of the Nativity to the pathos of his Death, the exhilaration of his Resurrection, and his Gift of the Spirit to the Apostles at Pentecost.
When English reformers faced the task of reforming the Church in the 16th century, unlike the Continental reformers, they retained the historic worship of the church that had developed over the centuries. Indeed, those elements of worship that people often describe as “Roman Catholic,” (vestments, procession, chanting, for example) are as firmly rooted in the traditions of Canterbury as of Rome. At the time of the reformation liturgical texts were quickly translated into the English language, along with the Bible, so that worshipers could understand and participate in the worship of the church. The Great Litany, for example, traditionally chanted in procession to begin the season of Lent, was considered so central to the worship of the church that it was the first liturgical text to be translated into English.
At certain times of the year there is a certain “drama” to our worship, especially when the liturgy involves our senses by the use of incense or chant. Consequently, people often speak of their “experience” of worship, and rightly so. We have all had meaningful, even memorable experiences of worship, some in the good sense, some in the not so good. But primarily worship is not about experience at all. Christians are commanded to worship God, and worship, like love, is an experience that cannot be commanded. Feelings, good or bad, may accompany worship but worship itself is not a “feeling,” but rather an act. When we gather together to worship God we come to perform the act of worship, joining we believe, with angels and archangels, to proclaim the goodness and majesty of God and to take our part in the life of God as those who have been grafted into the Body of Christ through baptism. That is precisely why worship is called “service.”