“What makes a good liturgy?” The question overwhelmed me when our professor first asked us to think about and discuss the question in class. I had no idea. I knew that there was no perfect liturgy that could be applied to every church because liturgy is based in tradition and different faith communities have different traditions. I have a fondness for Anglican liturgy, but I can’t expect every church in the world to adopt it – or even that it would be best for every church.
I approach the question somewhat differently now, not thinking of it as a set structure or set of traditions that can be applied to every church. Instead of finding the ‘perfect liturgy’, I think a good question to ask is: What practices aid in the collective memory of a particular faith community? What helps a community to remember the story of God and God’s people and connects it to the larger church body both past and present?
I’m not a big fan of a free-for-all liturgy which consists of what individuals have cobbled together that’s meaningful to them personally. Why? Because it neglects the communal aspect of liturgy. I may love the Book of Common Prayer, but if I read a prayer from that book in church and no one else knows that it’s connected to a larger story and tradition, it’s nothing more than a nice prayer to them (I speak from personal experience).
However, I think that liturgists need to consider also the particular needs of a community and how God has worked in it. For example, everyone would acknowledge that remembering the stories of the Bible are important – Scripture is (among other things) the witness to how God has worked in history both through Israel and Jesus (Israel’s messiah and the indwelling presence of God). However, as anyone who has studied any church history knows, there are many traditions that have developed post-scripture (the creeds, for example), which help to draw together faith communities and remember the story of God. History is still happening. The Book of Common prayer has a particular history and I love the Anglican tradition. It makes me feel connected to the larger church body. The structure of the Anglican liturgy helps me to remember.
However, God is still working in history. These are new times and the church is making new memories of how God has worked in their community in the present day. We must always remember as a church that we, too, have been “brought out of Egypt”, that God’s acts in the past are also for those who live today. Yet it makes me wonder if there is a place for building on the old liturgies and adding elements to the service which include contemporary events and ways that God has acted in a particular community. For example, a church influenced by the tragedies of 9/11 might benefit from communal lamentation based in the laments of the Hebrew Bible, perhaps praying collectively Psalms of lament. However, that community might also benefit by writing their own prayers (perhaps even based in the pattern of OT laments) which spring from the circumstances of the present day.
Liturgy, like creativity and scholarship, is always moving. Even churches which don’t think they have traditions actually do – they just might not be very old or well-thought out traditions. We must think carefully about how we embrace old traditions and what we do with them. We must remember to remember well and consider what practices (old and new) can help us connect to the past and present works of God in the life of the world.