The question arose in the comments to one of my posts (The difficulty of the ‘high-church’ evangelical) some weeks ago as to what my ‘perfect’ worship service would look like. This is an interesting question, and probably unanswerable. Half in jest, I am tempted to say, ‘1662’, but, then, maybe not…
Nonetheless, there are some elements that I would like to see for a regular Sunday morning service:
- Regular communion. Preferably weekly or biweekly. I grew up with weekly, but in Toronto biweekly worked well with BCP 1959/62 Morning Prayer the other weeks.
- Lots of Bible. Whether Communion or not, read out at least two, if not three or four, passages of Scripture. They don’t need to all be the text preached on. The Bible just needs to be proclaimed to us as a people and assimilated into our hearts. The regular reading aloud of the Word before the congregation helps that. It is an ancient component of Christian worship.
- Psalms. Sung, preferably. A cappella if possible. I’m not joking. The Psalms were Israel’s hymn book/prayer book. These are the prayers and hymns of Jesus’ worship life. Make them those of your church as well.
- Liturgy. For some, the perfect church service is obviously 1662 or the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom or the Roman Mass. For many, and for the sort of Protestants I have in mind, pure, undiluted liturgy may be too much. Worship is about giving glory to God. If you are distracted by the printed words or the incense or the procession with candles, you aren’t glorifying God. There is a place for out-and-out high liturgy, but I don’t think it’s necessary all the time, nor preferable.
What I’m thinking of is something basic and structured, especially for the Communion. I think a regular service of Holy Communion is not only to include the words of institution from the Last Supper but is best done with a liturgy that ties in traditional liturgy running from ‘Lift up your hearts’ to the receiving of the elements — words that have been in use since the late 100s in Hippolytus.
Responsive/antiphonal readings/prayers are also part of my preferred service — litanies, for example. And a set-piece confession can provide us with theologically precise words to express our sorrow and the lowly state of the human soul before Almighty God.
- Confession — a time of silence to offer a private confession, whether accompanied by liturgy or not, is worthwhile. Obviously, we are to confess every time we sin in real life, but this sort of communal activity in public helps teach us and remind us what to do in private. It is a healthy part of public worship not only to revel in God’s glory together but to look into the depths of our murky hearts as well.
- Old and new. The Christian faith has produced hundreds — nay, thousands — of hymns over the centuries. Churches ignore the treasure house of hymns to their peril. If your church is going to be using contemporary worship, I recommend adding at least two hymns into the mix each Sunday. Alongside the latest hits from Stuart Townend or Matt Redman, sing also the old hits from Prudentius, Charles Wesley, or J M Neale.
As regards the new, while I prefer classic hymns, I do not disparage all new music. I simply urge discretion — why sing something simply because it’s new and popular? Is it poetically, theologically, and/or musically worth singing? While people approach the Lord’s Table for Communion is a good time to sing new songs, I have found.
- Sermon. Sermons are good. In a service such as this, where we are worshipping God, praying, confessing sin, receiving Eucharist, reading Scripture, and so forth, I don’t think the sermon needs to be big and long and even the central or most important aspect. I think people should be encouraged to get into the meat of Scripture in smaller Bible studies during the week, not in long, lecture-style sermons on Sunday. Preach from one or more of the given texts, clock in at 20-25 min (which is long for Anglicans!).
- Other trappings? I like candles. I admit it up front. Sometimes I like incense, too. The presence of beauty in the worship space is important to me. If I were to blend traditional and low-evangelical worship styles, I’d go for candles at least. Robes preferably, maybe even copes and chasubles on occasion. The latter two, I think, should only appear on super-special feasts, though. :)
That is to say: My ideal worship service is liturgically structured with words and truths grounded in Scripture and tradition but with a flexibility of certain pieces of content — new songs and hymns are to be used with wisdom, similarly new litanies for the prayers of the people.
One final element is the occasional liturgical sermon. Every once in a while, have a sermon that helps explain why and what is going on in the worship service. Or preach a sermon that investigates the biblical basis for some of the popular words and phrases in the prayers and songs. Or investigate the theological foundations for the sacraments. Run a series on the Creed(s). This sort of preaching will help keep the liturgy from becoming a dead beast performed by rote.
The question should always be about the end goal of worship, of the showing to God His worth, the praising of Him, the offering Him thanksgiving, and the beseeching Him of our prayers. As the BCP puts it:
…we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.
Do our worship and liturgical practices encourage this? That is the great question.