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Low Church Liturgy

This is a long quote, but it’s good.

“I was converted within a Low Church tradition, where the building’s walls are stark, the music simple, the prayers clumsy and direct, made up as you pray them. I have only ever belonged to that tradition. And so early on I picked up the tradition’s historic suspicion of High Church, where God is approached through a sometimes elaborate system of symbol and ritual–robes and candles and prayer books and lectionaries–and almost everything is scripted.

That scripting is liturgy.

Yet overtime I began to realize that the Low Church is just as bound by liturgy as any church, and maybe more so because we think we’re not. The Low Church enshrines–makes a liturgy of–austerity, spontaneity, informality. And we have our unwritten but nonetheless rigorously observed codes and protocols. We love our traditions, even our rigmarole, every bit as much as the next guy, only ours is earthy, rustic, folksy.

So I changed my mind about liturgy. It certainly can become dull and rote, but so can anything–water polo, rose gardening, kite flying, even lovemaking. Even fly-fishing. Just as often, though, maybe more so, liturgy can enrich these things. At its best, liturgy comprises the gestures by which we honor transcendent reality. It helps us give concrete expression to deepest convictions. It gives us choreography for things unseen and allows us to brush heaven among the shades of earth.

Our most significant relationships and events have a liturgical shape to them. They have rites of passage. Birthdays and homecomings, graduations and good-byes, Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, birth and death and marriage: all are marked by words and actions, songs and symbols, customs and traditions that enact them and complete them. And all these things also provide us with a means of entering them. What is a birthday without a cake, at least one candle burning on it, and a huddle of well-wishers, wearing clownish hats, singing in their ragged, hoary voices?

What is a birthday without liturgy?

What liturgy accomplishes is nothing short of astonishing: It breaks open the transcendent within the ordinary and the everyday. It lets us glimpse the deeper reality–the timeless things, the universal ones, the things above–within this particular instance of it.”

Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 8-9. (my emphasis added)

Of course, having a birthday cake is not absolutely necessary to celebrate a person’s birthday. Neither do sparkling candles, nicely wrapped presents, switching off the lights, a crowd singing “Happy Birthday to you”, the blowing of the candle, the making of a wish, the symbolic act of cutting the first slice of the cake, and hugs and greetings that follow. Perhaps someone would emphasize that the most important thing on a birthday is to be grateful. Just let that person give a long thanksgiving speech and eliminate everything else unnecessary. Well, that will do, but I wouldn’t want that kind of birthday parties. Would you?

I think non-liturgical worship services having an excruciatingly long sermon and overly descriptive announcements that take longer than corporate prayer time…… are just as dull as that.

“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God.
It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness,
nourishment of mind by His truth,
purifying of imagination by His beauty,
opening of the heart to His love,
and submission of will to His purpose.
And all this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of human expressions of which we are capable.”

William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1942–44)

Posted in Anglican, Church, Posts in English, Worship.

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2 Responses

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  1. Rob Haskell says

    Hi Anson – Just an observation that strikes me as I read this quote. The terminology of high and low church seems a bit prejudicial here. If you just talk about “high church” it sounds ok. But as soon as you compare high to low, it sounds a bit off, especially if you describe low church like Buchanan does: “where the building’s walls are stark, the music simple, the prayers clumsy and direct, made up as you pray them.” Simple, lower class people whose simplicity may have more to do with lack of imagination and education than a considered theological position? Maybe I’m making too much of it, but it’s just how it strikes me. A bit classist, I guess. But i agree that “low” church has its ironic rituals.

    • Anson says

      Hi Rob, thanks for your comment. Yeah, I agree Buchanan’s wordings might have painted things with a broad brush.

      But first of all, as an evangelical, I do consider myself pretty much a “low church” guy, as the term is originally used to label folks with evangelical convictions in the early eighteenth century Church of England. It is not referring to lower class people, but those who hold a “low view” of the doctrine of the church or the sacraments.

      I’m just a “low church” evangelical slowly learning to appreciate the traditions and liturgies that offer much sacramental value and meaning to worship life.

      I find this article pretty helpful in clarifying the terms: