What is Liturgy — Part 2: Liturgy Narrowly Defined   4 comments

Liturgy is not the Same as Order of Service

When most people think of liturgy, what they’re really thinking about is the order in which things are done in a worship service. The short-hand term for this is “order of service.”  This was the subject of the previous blog in this series on liturgy.

All orders of service are useful. They have a logic that’s important to know. I’ll discuss this logic in later blogs. But, for now, and for the discussion in these blogs on liturgy, I am using the term “liturgy” to name something different from an order of service.

Liturgy is communal

One person cannot do a liturgy for the same reason that one hand cannot clap. It takes two hands to clap, and it takes two or more people before one can “do” a liturgy. In other words, liturgy is communal.

But, there’s more than mere numbers involved here. It is possible to have a great number of people assembled in one place without a liturgy “happening” or “being done” by them.  Two more things are required besides numbers.

First, all the participants in a liturgy must be doing the same thing. Second, all the participants in a liturgy must be doing that same thing together. It’s important to distinguish between these two things when trying to understand liturgy. Let’s conduct a thought experiment from the realm of dancing.

Liturgy and Dancing are Alike

Can a single person dance? Of course.

Can two or more people dance? Again, the answer is obviously “yes.” But, to say “yes” overlooks something significant about dancing when it’s a group of people doing it. So, let’s imagine several different kinds of dancing that can take place when a group of people are dancing.

Individuals dancing individually: This is the sort of activity you’ll observe at parties, school dances, holiday gatherings where a dance band is featured, and so forth. The dance floor may hold dozens of people at the same time. Every person on the floor will be dancing. But, the only thing shared by these people is time, venue, and activity.

This is quite a lot of things shared, of course. But, consider: the activity of each person is no different (or not significantly different) than what it would be if he were alone in his bedroom, dancing to the music pouring out of the iPod stuffed into his ears. And (back to the dance floor), though the dance floor at the party is composed of couples (mostly), each member of the couple is still dancing to his or her own notions of the moves, rhythms, and embellishments that are deemed by that dancer alone to be appropriate, desireable, and expressive. The “partner” is actually nothing more than an audience of one. “Let’s watch each other dance while each of us is doing his own dance” pretty well describes what goes on out there on the dance floor.

Individuals dancing in pairs: with this kind of activity we  move a thousand leagues toward something that is truly comparable to liturgy. And, what we consider now is something like you see on a ballroom dance floor, where everyone is dancing in pairs (as before) but now they are doing specific dances: foxtrot, walz, polka, quick-step, tango, samba, rhumba, or pasa doble.

Think, for a moment, about how these ballroom dances differ from the “everyone doing his own thing” sort of dancing described previoiusly. When individuals are dancing ballroom dances together in pairs, they dance to prescribed and predetermind steps, using specified rhythms, movements of the feet, often movements of the arms, and specified postures toward the partner.

And, here is a fascinating paradox: while ballroom dances – compared with individual free-style dancing – has far less “freedom,” it is usually a lot more fun to do and certainly a lot more fun to watch.

It is NOT true that the pre-specified features of a ballroom dance detract from the beauty of the dance. Moreover, when a couple are dancing a walz, we no longer have two dancers dancing at the same time. No, we have a couple dancing together. And those two individuals, dancing as a couple, create a “dancing entity” that is more than the mere addition of the parts. A couple may be two people, but a couple dancing is more than two people dancing. The individual dancers are still “there.” They are still distinguishable, but the individual dancer is no longer dancing – or perceived as dancing – as an pure individual. He and she are parts of a whole greater than the mere sum of them.

Perhaps it is ice-dancing that affords the greatest range of possibilities for a couple to unite as a pair in dance. To see what I mean, revisit Torvill and Dean’s unsurpassed ice-dance to Ravel’s Bolero at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

So, what’s the next stage in this thought experiment? We’ve considered individuals dancing as individuals, individuals dancing together in pairs; what’s next?

Individuals all doing a single dance together: here we no longer have couples considered only as couples. Certainly, this kind of dancing is not the “every one doing his own thing” sort of dancing. No, in this sort of dancing, more than one, more than two are dancing the same dance.

Sometimes these sorts of dances are very simple, and the best example is any of the so-called “line dances.” These dances are composed of lines of dancers or pairs of lines, which the Wikipedia describes as “dancers facing each other, or a line formed into a circle, or the line follows around the dance floor. The dancers may hold hands with their neighbors, or use an arm-on-shoulder hold, or hold their neighbor’s belts.”

These sorts of dances are quite old, originating in folk dancing at community festivals and celebrations. English Country Dance is an old version that is still done today. More commonly known are square dancing, or contra dancing. Cowboy-style line dancing includes things like the cotton-eyed joe, boot-scootin’ boogie, and tumbleweed. Here’s a You-tube video of a large group of people doing one form of line dance that combines both Irish and Cowboy elements:

Here’s an example of four couples doing a folk dance called  the Brandy Frotte.

And, here is one more You-tube video showing amateur dancers having fun with what is called contra dancing:

The most elaborate form of group dancing is the ballet. What’s important for us to consider here is this: a ballet (e.g. Swan Lake) is a very complex “liturgy” that organizes and directs many dancers and also a full orchestra at the same time.

Liturgy and an Orchestral Performance Are Alike

May an individual play music? Of course. May more than one play at the same time? Doh.

But, as we saw in dancing, so also in instrumental performance of music. A string quartet is NOT simply four musicians playing music at the same time. A band is NOT simply 30 or 50 or 150 musicians playing the same number of individual musical performances at the same time.

No, a band or an orchestra is a thing. It’s a thing comprised of many individuals, but the individuals are not nearly so important or prominent as what they create when unified.  That u nity is is larger than the individual selves added together.  And, what this thing (which we call a band or an orchestra) does is to play a piece of music called a march or a symphony. Even if a concert hall performance features one intrument in a highly “visible” role – say, for example, a Rachmaninov piano concerto – the pianist’s virtuosity is embedded in a matrix composed of himself and the rest of the orchestra. If we were to hear only the piano part of a Rachmaninov piano concerto, it would sound unbelievably weird. We would not be hearing the concerto at all, of course. The concerto is something we hear ONLY when the piano and the many-membered orchestra are all playing together as prescribed in the musical score.

What, then, is a liturgy?

The “plans” or “rules” or “steps” are what constitute a corporate dance. The technical name for all these things is the choreography. The orchestral or band score are what constitute a performance by a group of musicians. A choral score is the sum of all the vocal parts – words and notes – that welds a group of individual singers into a choir or choral ensemble.

And, so, what is a liturgy? It is all the prescribed actions and words that weld a group of individual worshipers into a single worshiping body, which as a body offers worship to God.

When is liturgy “happening?”

With the above notion of liturgy, it is now easy to identify when and how liturgy is happening in a worship service.

Worship where singing is the only liturgy: In the church of my cradle faith, only one thing was liturgical: the congregational singing.

How so? Well, when hymn singing is happening in a worship service everyone is singing the same song. Everyone is singing the same words, to the same tune, at the same time. The stanzas and music lines in the hymnbook are what weld all the hymn singers into a body which as a body sings the hymn. No one who hears the song pays any attention to any individual singer; what any listener hears is the group. In fact, if you CAN hear a single singer in the crowd of singers, it’s likely distracting. A singer in a congregation who “pokes out” of the crowd is like a single member of a marching band who hops up and down while everyone else keeps in step.

Worship where everything is liturgy: On the other end of the liturgical spectrum are Christians whose entire worship service is a liturgy. It has an order – that is, there are a sequence of parts, and the sequence has its own “logic” and meaning. But more than just an order, a worship service that is entirely liturgical has “parts” which every person present “plays” at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way.

The worship service that is completely liturgical is like an orchestral score, or the choreography of a complex ballet. A worship liturgy is likely less complicated, because the “actors” or “performers” in the liturgy are fewer. Sometimes they are no more numerous than “The Officiant” and “The Congregation.” There may be other minor “actors” or “performers” such as an acolyte, or someone who collects alms, or musicians (an organist, or pianist, or choir members).

Still, a completely liturgical service has a place for everybody present, and everybody has a part to play as he participates in the liturgy.

To sum up: a liturgy is a script of actions and words, assigned to individuals assembled for worship, so that they are unified by their actions and words into a body which offers worship God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot packed into this definition of liturgy, and it will be unpacked in stages in later blogs. Stay tuned.


Posted October 14, 2010 by Fr. Bill in Liturgy, Prayerbook Worship and Life, Proper piety

4 responses to “What is Liturgy — Part 2: Liturgy Narrowly Defined

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  1. Fr. Bill, what a terrific explanation of liturgical worship. Thanks to the Torvill & Dean clip, I have a fresh idea and appreciation for liturgy.

  2. Hey Dad – could you post a big, fat, obvious link to “What is liturgy – Part 1” at the top of this post? Thanks!!

  3. Will do, Genevitchka, on the next post on this topic. Another way to get there is to click on the tag “Liturgy” on the very last line of the blog post — the line beginning “Posted [date] by Fr. Bill [list of tags]

  4. Excellent and helpful post, Bill. I really enjoyed this.

    When I click on “liturgy” as you mentioned to Geneva to do, it takes me not to your particular posts but to a WordPress site of posts on liturgy from all over the WordPress community. You may have chosen the wrong kind of tag for these posts?



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