Our secular age gives us little access to a vision of wholeness. Our fragmentation masks from us the import of the human story. In our time it is difficult to find genuine open community. There are few tribes of people who trust one another enough to deal openly with the question of what is important in life. (New communities are appearing now, but often they are not open. Rigidly defined by narrow allegiances, they themselves participate in and perpetuate division in the world.) Our secular age has abandoned, demeaned or trivialized human rituals through which one once gained access to the whole. This situation also makes the development of new worship forms awkward and vexing. We have been parted from ourselves by rejecting ancient and humane customs and institutions. We have blasphemed the process which created new forms of Ordering. Simply because an institution—the presidency, the church, communion—has been abused, used hypocritically, deeply stained in many cases—is no reason to abandon it. The fact that love and friendship have been betrayed (which is very much the Passion story) does not require us to renounce these values (a discovery named Easter). Nor are past failures any excuse for refusing to fashion new rites and institutions.
Nevertheless, we are beginning to appreciate ritual. Ritual is done by custom, rote or habit. Much of our lives depends on ritual: tying our shoes, brushing our teeth. If we had to learn how to drive a car each time we got behind the wheel, life would be intolerable. Some ritual is needed in much of what we do. Ritual frees us to use the vehicle to go somewhere. But ritual alone is a blank book. Liturgy (the work of the people) fills the book with meaning. A prayer that appears a superstitious ritual to an observer may be to the participant a profound act of spiritual awakening.
If worship is the reconnection, the integration of experience, then it is possible only if there are real fragments needing unification. The very alienation of our age gives us the opportunity for empowering liturgy. Our corporate worship seeks to embrace and connect individual resources and priorities. So “evil” and “alienation” cannot be excluded as we move toward the whole. It is the tension between the actual and the ideal which not only wants resolution through worship but which inspires it in the first place.
Because our lives are varied and few of us are at identical places in our cognitive and emotional development, public worship must be large enough to address different ages, classes, conditions, and concerns. The liturgy must embody all organs of the human adventure, with all its directions and contrasts. Such liturgy reorders our differences in the large view and makes them whole. Liturgy appealing only to the "traditionalists," or the iconoclasts, or the, successful or the visitors, is a liturgy without the dimension and integrity which stretches, restores and renews our lives. Only a very large liturgy can speak to all of us. If we are to grow religiously, we need worlds of vision beyond those we know now. If parts of the liturgy fail to speak to us at one point in our lives, it may mean there are worthy things yet to behold. Only a very large liturgy can speak to us for a lifetime.
While spontaneity is possible and desirable, public worship enables rich and durable forms of worship to emerge, just as a symphony is developed. Many liturgical forms epitomize the history and possibilities of human interaction. Some of these forms are no longer suitable but many have been unnecessarily neglected and deserve renewal. The smells, vestments, motions, phrases, sounds and houses of worship themselves can convey and further the ordering of awareness, the design of fitness and fullness, the reconnections of genuine faith. The liturgy, with its psychological order and theological sequence, is the central means through which individual participants discover their parts in the human enterprise, and by which the church itself finds and expresses its corporate identity.
But liturgy is more than an instrument of the individual and the church. The self and the world, spirit and politics, intersect in liturgy. Through liturgy we change the world by changing ourselves. Worship brings it all together. Through liturgy we involve ourselves in the larger society with greater vision and effect. In worship we freely touch the changing world with access to the experiences of the past and the present with the imagination and invention of a people honestly sharing their personal religious pilgrimages together in tribal celebration, in centering, in ordering.
If worship involves the intimate, the intense and the ultimate, then worship is to the church as sex is to marriage. Like the sexuality of marriage, worship cannot be its only activity or its exclusive basis, or it has no real life in the world. Yet the worship of the church, again like sexuality in marriage, is the essential sacrament defining and enlivening other personal, social, economic and political sides of the institution's life. Further, like sexuality in prostitution, dead forms of worship are detached rather than intimate, shallow rather than intense, and trivial rather than ultimate. Moreover, a church without worship is like a platonic marriage, meeting special needs of a few but for most failing to command the interest, energy, imagination and commitment of a rich relationship. The obvious alternative to regular worship with a community of faith is to remain single (unchurched).
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Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.
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