Scenario 2: General Liturgical Cluelessness
This scenario doesn’t describe any particular “flavor” of evangelical/Reformed church I’ve observed so much as it describes a characteristic common to many churches which are not from a long liturgical tradition (such as the Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.) but who are trying to “do liturgy”: a general cluelessness.
Cluelessness is no respecter of persons. A high-toned “brass and class” church may display cluelessness, as may a much less well-heeled congregation.
Some of the examples I mentioned last time fall into the category of cluelessness, such as singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” on the First Sunday of Advent. But I’ve seen much more egregious cluelessness. We were visiting a church of our denomination several years ago. Either the church practiced weekly Communion or it just happened to be a Communion Sunday–I can’t remember which. At any rate, the pastor of this church, who had been in the ministry a long time and should have known better, proceeded to do Communion backwards. In other words, he took the cup, had a prayer, and distributed it, then took the bread, had a prayer for it, and distributed it. My wife and I did not take Communion that day. That is the only time since I’ve been a communing Christian that I refrained from taking Communion. Sometimes people discuss what constitutes a valid celebration of the Sacrament. Doing it “according to our Lord’s institution and command,” as the Book of Common Prayer says, is not negotiable. I don’t know what was more troubling, the veteran Presbyterian minister who thought nothing of doing Communion backwards, or the worshipers in that service who apparently thought nothing of it either.
Part of the reason for general cluelessness is that none of the conservative Reformed seminaries teach very much in the way of the history of Christian worship. My own worship class in seminary consisted of several amusing anecdotes and the reading of a book on worship published by Moody Press. Not exactly the heavy-hitting stuff. We were taught to take offense if someone referred to a baptism as a christening or if someone referred to the Communion Table as an altar. (I don’t freak out at either one of those things, by the way.) For everything else, we were pretty much on our own. We did not read Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy or even Bard Thompson’s Liturgies of the Western Church. No time was spent with Knox’s Common Order or Calvin’s Form of Church Prayers, works that one would think should be must-reads in a worship class at a Presbyterian seminary. Indeed, I would not be surprised if most of my classmates to this day are unaware that Knox and Calvin even wrote liturgies.
Another type of cluelessness is the “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” cluelessness. Some people in our circles read John Frame’s two lightweight paperbacks on worship and then think they know everything they need to know about worship, which is a little like reading the menu board at McDonald’s and thinking you know everything that can be known about food. James Jordan has done much to introduce a number of conservative Reformed types to liturgical worship, but I believe he would agree that were he the only author one has read on the subject, one would not have a thorough enough understanding of liturgical worship to plan and execute such worship. Going in guns-a-blazing with scant education on the subject is sure to produce great heaps of liturgical cluelessness.
One such example is the current rash of closing the service by singing the Doxology (Thomas Ken’s “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” which is actually a Doxology, not “the” Doxology). This idea was suggested in one of Frame’s books, and apparently a lot of people thought it was a cool thing to do. Liturgically, it couldn’t be more awkward and clunky in that position. This Doxology has a long history in Reformed worship as an opener of the service, and an almost-equally-as-long history of being sung at the presentation of the offering. At the end of worship, it cannot help but seem tacked-on and out of place: an afterthought.
Another example: not calling things what they are. Like the church that calls a responsive reading a “Collect.” Don’t use the term “Collect” just because you think it makes your bulletin look “High Church,” especially if you have no idea what a Collect is. The same is true of calling every piece of sung music an “anthem” because you think it looks churchier. If one person is singing, it’s a solo. If two are singing, it’s a duet. An anthem is a choral piece. (But I guess calling a solo an “anthem” is better than labeling it “special music,” as if the singer has been marked down.) A closing prayer is not a benediction: it’s a closing prayer. If you’re not going to pronounce a benediction, don’t list “Benediction” in the order of worship. If you’re going to say a closing prayer instead, then list it as “Closing Prayer.” Call stuff what it is. If you don’t know what something is called, look it up.
“Liturgical” worship that is put together in a haphazard, Frankenstein manner is troubling. At the very heart of the Christian theology of worship is that God deserves our highest praise. Just cobbling something together, with no real guiding philosophy or understanding of how the various elements function, seems to miss the point of Christian worship altogether. Given the vast number of good, reliable sources of information on the history and theology of Christian worship out there, there is no excuse for cluelessness on the part of those who plan worship.