Philip Jenkins


However much Episcopalians may differ in their opinions, they share a common liturgy.


But what is a liturgy, and why do we have it? Why is it so central to the church’s life? Why, in short, is knowing something about the liturgy so central to understanding the church itself?




In its origins, the Greek word leitourgia meant “people’s work,” better translated as something like “public service” or “public duty.”


Today, the word “liturgy” is used in two senses. Generally, it means following a set form of words, actions and rituals, as opposed to a free-form, open-ended kind of worship. This does not mean that non-liturgical churches are totally disorganized – they often plan their services according to familiar patterns and models. But they do not follow the precise sequence of texts, passages, actions, etc, which they regard as too formal and constricting. Often, a liturgy includes not just precise words but words that have become somewhat old-fashioned, and there is a temptation to modernize them to make them more understandable.


Specifically, the word also refers to THE liturgy, namely the particular service that culminates in the Eucharist or Holy Communion. As in many churches, the Episcopal liturgy includes various parts that together form a logical sequence and a unified whole, like a symphony. These include for instance such set-pieces as the Kyrie Eleison, the Gloria, the Creed, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).




Two answers come to mind.


One is that, whatever we think in the US, liturgical churches are overwhelmingly the Christian norm today, never mind in the historic past. Once we take account of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans, that could be 65-70 percent of all Christians worldwide. (The proportion in the past would have been much higher).


Second, “liturgy” broadly defined is essential to understanding the roots of Western culture! This accounts for a huge amount of western art before 1400 or so. The main reason or educational systems developed was the need for literate people to copy music books, gospel books, sacramentaries, lectionaries, service books etc.




Liturgy takes us out and it puts us in

It takes us out of the regular world and tries to re-enact and return to a sacred moment or sacred time. It is a way of putting us in touch with a particular reality, of converging and conforming our world with the supernatural.


Paths cross here.


Liturgy explains why we are here but also places us somewhere else.


Liturgy uses particular forms of language.

Language speaks us. When we speak in certain ways, it puts us in certain frames of mind. Proper form and language are used to consecrate time. Formality is especially appropriate to solemn things.


Liturgy makes many one

The liturgy organizes and moves people through a common sense of participation, of shared action. It unites us and makes us a common body. We say and do things in the same way, we hear the same things and express agreement to them. It is communal action. It is Common (ie communal) Prayer.


Liturgy uses action to declare and reinforce common belief

The old phrase says lex orandi, lex credendi, "the law of prayer is the law of belief" -roughly, show me how you worship and I’ll know what you believe. Not just in its verbal statements, a Eucharist proclaims the Church’s basic teachings through what the participants say and do. Every moment, it teaches the idea of Incarnation.


Liturgy is a complex performance

Do note the theatrical word “performance!”

Note also how, as in any theatrical performance, there are cues to move to different phases - some moments and events signify beginnings and endings, calling you to be on stage. Like any play, too, there are ups and downs, an ascent to a climax and then a return to something like normal.


In a Eucharist particularly, we share different actions and experiences appropriate to different phases of the event. And there are two very clearly distinct portions. In the first part, we meet, we pray for mercy, we glorify God. In the second, we participate in a story. You should be able to see the clear division between the stages, the “acts.”


Liturgy tells stories in ways that make us live them

People make sense of the world through story-telling.


We tell stories in different ways, sometimes through words but also through action.


Ritual and behavior can be ways of telling a story.


A liturgy like the Christian Eucharist also tells a story, but it’s not just a single story. It is trying to tell us a story and educate us.


Liturgy is the church’s memory


Liturgy unites material and spiritual

Liturgy is a classic example of the sacramental, in that it uses many different kinds of material symbol and object to carry spiritual truths.


Liturgy unites mind and senses

It is not just rational and book-centered. It uses physical beauty as a means of presenting and reinforcing truth. Note how the readings are integrated into the larger “performance”, with its moods and lessons.


Liturgy consecrates time – or else, time consecrates liturgy

Liturgical actions depend wholly on the cycles of the church year. Participating in liturgy means we share in this cycle, we join its beginnings and share the route to its end. Much of this journey involves non-literate means, including colors and lights.


That unity crosses boundaries of time and space

The fact that liturgy is fixed means that anywhere you go, you will hear the same words and the same patterns. Services are not “dealer’s choice” and they don’t depend on the whims of particular leaders. When you hear a liturgy today, you are doing essentially the same thing that countless others were doing a hundred or a thousand years ago.


Liturgy creates community with past and present, proclaiming a link with past and future. We see this for example when we use ancient terms like Kyrie Eleison.


Liturgy unites the worlds

It breaks down divisions between natural and supernatural. At the Sanctus, humans celebrate with angels.


Liturgy allows earth to become heaven

The Bible repeatedly describes liturgical actions, on earth and in heaven, at God’s court. We see this especially in books like Isaiah and Revelation. In turn, those scriptural passages have had a huge impact on the actual practice and language of earthly churches.