Icon (Close Menu)

Liturgy doesn’t ‘mean’ anything: It is something

Modern Christians have different kinds of relationships with the ceremony of liturgy.

My sense is that for engaged Roman Catholics who were raised in the church, the ceremony and the text are not conceived as two separate items but simply as one integrated whole (whether they think about this consciously is a whole different question). When there are debates about the way the liturgy is conducted, the conversation has more to do with how to think about tradition, how to evaluate the developments after Vatican II, how to have an “organic” relationship to the liturgy of former days, and so on.

For evangelicals and other sorts of Protestants who come to a robustly liturgical form of Christianity, the whole liturgical rite is subjected to investigation, as well as each piece individually: text, ceremony, vestments, etc. That investigation takes a particularly peculiar shape when an evangelical approaches Anglicanism. For unlike the Roman Missal for Catholics and the official liturgical books for the different Eastern rites, contemporary Anglican prayer books and the whole prayer book tradition are (relatively speaking) almost devoid of any required ceremony.

In the Preface to the first Prayer Book of 1549, Cranmer acknowledged that “of necessity there must be some rules” regarding the worship of God in the church. “Therefore,” he explains, “certain rules are here set forth, which, as they be few in number; so they be plain and easy to be understood.”

The venerable Anglican liturgist Marion Hatchett began his brief Manual of Ceremonial for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer with these rather terrifying words:

Though the Book of Common Prayer is a book of “rites and ceremonies,” with the exception of the essential actions of the sacraments, there are few authoritative directions for ceremonial actions. The minister is not a magician but a liturgical functionary, left free to determine what ceremonies might be most appropriate in particular circumstances and with particular rites or texts.

I say “terrifying” because the lack of required ceremony places a profound and unparalleled burden on the Anglican priest, not carried by priests of other sacramental traditions. If the priest has not been well formed — not just in the nature of the various prayer book rites, but also in the tradition of Western ceremony and of the various Anglican approaches — the likelihood that the priest will make fitting decisions that are recognizable to the tradition is quite small indeed.

A few things are necessary if the priest is going to make “ritually coherent” ceremonial decisions, by which I mean ceremonial decisions that are in deep conformity with the liturgy. First is a proper sense that ceremony must have a natural and real relationship to the text. Second is a deep clarity about what we are doing in this or that rite. For the Eucharist in particular, the priest must answer properly the following question: What is it that the Church does when it gathers on the Lord’s Day to celebrate the sacred mysteries of the Lord’s Body and Blood?

The third truth a priest needs to understand is this: how ceremony works.

There is a temptation that seems especially alluring to former free-church evangelicals like me. A very common question for the former evangelical is some variation of “What does this or that ceremony or action mean?” Such a question assumes that ceremonial actions express a truth in the way that a creedal phrase has a straightforward meaning, such as “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

One might ask, “What is the meaning of the two candles on the altar?” And one answer might be: “The two natures of Christ.”

Here, ceremony is seen as a way to articulate particular doctrines or facts. After all, lex orandi, lex credendi, right? Both the Western and Eastern traditions have their own versions of this approach. For example, a long tradition of liturgical commentaries interprets the eucharistic liturgy as a strict allegory of the life of Christ (e.g., putting the bread and wine on the altar is the placement of Jesus’ dead body in the tomb; calling down the Holy Spirit on the bread/wine is the resurrection of Jesus).

Strangely, an entirely different approach to ceremony is often joined to this “dogmatic” approach to ceremony. It is just as misguided. Here, ceremony is seen through the lens of aesthetics. In this approach, more candles are lighted at late-night Compline because it makes the atmosphere more “mystical.”

This approach to ceremony is similar to choosing certain worship songs in order to evoke a particular emotional response in the worshiper. Ceremony is picked and chosen according to its pragmatic usefulness. If a ceremony is thought not to “work,” or if particular ceremonial gestures, vestments, or movements are not easily “understood” by those who are present, they can simply be discarded.

Both the allegorical and the pragmatic approaches to liturgy are misguided. Alexander Schmemann wrote a blistering essay on the former, “Symbols and Symbolism in the Byzantine Liturgy,” in which he critiqued the “allegorical” tradition in the strongest possible way. The “allegorical” interpretation may be pious and spiritually fruitful for some. But the liturgy cannot “mean” the things claimed by the allegorical reading.

Why? Because these interpretations bear no natural relationship either to the text of the rite or the ceremony. The allegorical interpretation is imposed on the rite. In fact, the only way one could learn of this meaning is to be initiated into the secret mysteries. The “allegory only” approach is to treat the liturgy as a gnostic secret whose meaning is only available to the initiated insiders.

This way of viewing the liturgy dabbles in half-truths. There is a long tradition, in East and West, of keeping the full explanation of the Church’s worship life until after one has been formed in Scripture and basic doctrine and after one has received the Sacrament of Initiation in the baptismal waters. But a good rule is that a thoughtful, theologically-formed layperson should be able to intuit and reason their way to the purpose of liturgical ceremony. The allegorical approach destroys this possibility for it creates a false hierarchy, those with secret knowledge standing at the top. Such a notion is foreign to Christianity.

The “aesthetic” or “pragmatic” approach is equally as dangerous, but for quite different reasons that may be easier to guess. The aesthetic approach leads with one person’s supposition of what they think other people will find beautiful and/or transcendent. But notice here that the consideration begins from a posture that is completely detached from the liturgy itself (similar to the allegorical approach). It takes beauty, a mean for achieving the liturgy’s primary purpose — the disclosure of the mystery of Christ — and turns it into an end. A priest’s instincts might be well-formed and fitting, but there is nothing to prevent an unintended effect: a supposedly “aesthetic” ceremony that generates revulsion.

The pragmatic approach also displaces the liturgy’s primary purpose with something even more vague. Creating an accessible service in order to grow one’s parish might be the most virtuous of these purposes. But here, the error is to mistake the central act of adoration for an evangelistic tool. It’s like asking a train to pull a barge: it simply wasn’t designed with that end in mind. Get a tugboat: go talk to somebody, rather than assuming an accessible liturgy will do all the work for you.

The Eucharist will have evangelistic effects, to be sure: the gathered Spouse of Christ will most certainly “go in procession round [his] altar, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving and recounting all [his] wonderful deeds” (Ps. 26:6-7). And I would add, we should do everything possible not to make the eucharistic liturgy unnecessarily burdensome (e.g. using a well-constructed bulletin that gives the worshipper everything they need to know, rather than sending folks to flip hither and yon through the 1979 BCP).

The degree to which the “pragmatic” approach has infected Anglican discussion of the sacraments should be obvious: We’re already to the point of debating whether baptism is a barrier to the Eucharist that should be appointed for demolition.

In contrast to such approaches, liturgical rites disclose “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints” (Col. 1:26). Particular aspects of liturgical rites usually disclose certain aspects of that mystery in a unique way: baptism discloses certain shades of this mystery, confession another. The Eucharist also discloses its own particular constellation of the reality of the mystery.

Thus, when we come to think about the meaning of ceremonial, we would be on much better footing if we kept the following things in mind.

First, as I said above, we must be clear about what we are doing in this or that rite. If, in the Eucharist, we think that the primary thing we’re having is a communal meal with some extra infusions of grace thrown in for good measure, our ceremonial decisions will reflect this misconstrual.

The Eucharist is also never a reenactment of something. The Eucharist isn’t simply a sacrament or a memorial of the Last Supper. Rather, the Eucharist is a sacrament of the mystery of Jesus Christ, which reached its apex in the Paschal Mystery, where we see the most perfect worship ever offered to the Father in Jesus himself. Jesus allows us to join him liturgically and sacramentally in the Paschal Mystery through the Eucharist.

Second, there must be a full embrace of the fundamental relationship between the spoken words and the ceremony. These must fit together like the left-hand and right-hand parts in Bach’s Inventions for piano. As W.H. Frere said in Principles of Religious Ceremony (p. 11), “there are no ‘mere’ externals,” just as the text of a liturgical rite devoid of any ceremonial is not liturgy: it’s simply the public reading of a text.

Third, the nature of the liturgy is that it “speaks” not just by way of the spoken voice but also by bodily gesture, movement, architectural structure, visual image, fragrance, music, taste, and silence. In other words, there is no such thing as “word-only” liturgy. Even the barest Protestant liturgy partakes of ceremony: ceremony here is different, not absent.

Fourth, the nature of liturgy is such that its mode of “speech” is much closer to poetry and art than to the precision of dogmatic language. It cannot mean in any simple way.

Fifth, liturgy is about the disclosure of the mystery of Jesus Christ, which means that its “meaning” can never be exhausted. The sentence “Baptism means x,” will at best be a partial truth. It’s like thinking that the sentences “The rising of the sun means x” or “Marital sex means x” make much sense.

Sixth, (following Frere again) we would do well to recall that the origin of ceremony can differ.

  • Some ceremony sprang from a strictly practical need. The clergy and other ministers must get into the church and up to the altar. The procession is the way this happens decently and in order. In the West, this follows some basic rules: the cross leads; the order of persons is from the lower rank at the beginning to the highest rank at the end, and so forth.
  • Other sorts of ceremony serve to interpret or disclose the text. Thus, the priest’s gesture of opening and extending the hands while saying “The Lord be with you” simply allows the meaning of the text to be spoken with and through the body. People naturally intuit the real relationship between word and gesture and know that the ceremony simply “speaks” the text in a different register or with an added dimension.
  • A third sort of ceremony (what Frere calls “spiritual” ceremony) is introduced in order to further disclose the nature of this or that part of the liturgy. For example, the addition of the triple signs of the Cross over the forehead, lips, and breast before the reading of the Gospel (a non-verbal expression of hope that the Living Word would infuse one’s mind, speech, and desires) adds something that is not explicit in the liturgy but definitely serves to deepen and enrich what is liturgically explicit without in any way distracting or obscuring it. Other sorts of “spiritual” ceremonies allow for actions that were originally practical to disclose some aspect of the glory of the mystery of Christ. So, for example, the practical act of the priest’s hands being washed just before the eucharistic prayer (especially practical after having handled a thurible) is later joined to a recitation of Psalm 26, thus allowing the washing to serve as a non-verbal prayer of the priest that God would offer cleansing from sin so that “I may go in procession round thine altar, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving (eucharistia) and recounting all thy wonderful deeds.”

Seventh and finally, a point related to the relative lack of required Anglican ceremony. The principle that I teach my students is this: To the extent that it fits with the texts of the BCP tradition, Western ceremonial is the basis or foundation from which Anglican ceremony should be drawn. Unless we believe that we have a fundamentally different eucharistic theology than the Catholic West (I do not believe this), this is the most decent and orderly way to undertake decision-making.

A corollary to this principle is that we do not steal or interpolate ceremony willy-nilly from other rites (e.g. Byzantine or various Eastern rites). When we do this, the decision has moved into the realm of preference and desire. Of such decisions, there is no end.

These few principles allow, I hope, a more fruitful posture from which we can meditate on the nature of Christian liturgy, particularly the critical fact that ceremony is not some extra option that we introduce because we like it or we think it “works.” Ceremony allows us to pray not only with our lips but with our whole selves: souls and bodies.

Tomorrow, I’ll post a “thought experiment” on how this applies to the question of where to place baptism at the Easter Vigil.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

The Weight of the BCP at General Convention

This year’s General Convention will consider a second reading of a revision to Article X of the Constitution. It would be very unwise for General Convention to pass this revision.

Nothing Is Stronger Than the Church

Last month, I was on holiday with my wife in Crete. The weather hadn’t been great — it...

Blessings and Meetings, Part Two

Based on a paper I read at the All Souls Club in London on June 5. In part one,...

Blessings and Meetings, Part One

Based on a paper I read at the All Souls Club in London on June 5. This article grew...