Will the Neo-Liturgical Movement Save Evangelicalism?

Ascension Liturgy at Decani Monastery, Serbia

Eric Hyde at OnceDeliveredFaith asks, Will the Neo-Liturgical Movement Save Evangelicalism? He writes:

There is a neo-liturgical conference happening in Tulsa, Oklahoma this June featuring a group called Praxis, a collection of evangelical theologians, pastors, authors, and artists whose focus is to “reclaim the historical church’s priority on liturgy, art and sacred space into the modern day evangelical context”

For those who are unaware, there is a strong push in some evangelical circles today to lay claim to the liturgical life and infuse many of its elements into evangelical practice, which is often wholly bereft of such influences; influences regularly shunned as the folly of ‘dead religion,’ or worse, viewed as the devilish corruption of the ancient faith.

Hyde quotes some Evangelical leaders, including Glenn Packiam, the Evangelical pastor who has recently been ordained in the Anglican tradition, and hopes to bridge ancient and modern traditions. Hyde’s take on this movement is good, and you should go read it.

There’s one more aspect, though, that I think needs to be part of the conversation. Liturgy isn’t a library we can browse in search of elements to incorporate into our own (non-traditional) tradition.

Studies show that low blood cholesterol is associated with a healthier heart. We can take that one factor in isolation and add a cholesterol-lowering drug to our sedentary lifestyle, and the result may be a slight net improvement. But the reason low cholesterol and heart health go together is that low cholesterol is one measurable aspect of a healthy life where a person eats well, is active and social and mentally healthy. Adding a drug to my sedentary, overeating, isolated, Facebook-addicted lifestyle is not going to replicate those results.

I don’t mean to discourage anyone. Liturgical practices can certainly be an improvement over the theatrical show that passes for worship in megachurches, and I’m happy to see some evangelicals becoming less allergic to liturgical elements.

But (at least in Orthodoxy) liturgy emerges as one integral aspect of a whole life in community. Our vestments, litanies, psalmody and eucharistic service are part of an organic whole that includes a rule of fasting, annual and weekly cycles, a calendar of saints, a lectionary, iconography, architectural constraints, and reliance at all times on a literal hierarchy. Liturgy is ecclesial — that means it arises from and supports The Church. Liturgy is one of the most important parts of transmitting and receiving the Tradition that is the life of The Church.

There are remarkably few choices for an Orthodox liturgist. I spend a lot of time learning and teaching some specific families of melodies, rehearsing with the choir the arrangements I’ve chosen (stylistic questions) and researching how this commemoration and that fasting season interact in light of the date of Pascha (typikon questions.) But I do not ever have to decide which Liturgy we’ll celebrate, or what role the deacon and acolytes will have, or what Gospel we will read, or how we will administer Communion. That’s all already been decided, many centuries ago.

So for us there isn’t any eclectic or transgressive aspect to it; we simply learn how the services are to be done, and we serve the services as we have received the typikon.

In my last months as an Evangelical pastor, I wanted to integrate some liturgical elements into our free-church services. But in that position, looking at liturgy from the outside, there’s nothing but options. A staggeringly huge range of options – I’ve seen Benedictines do this, and Orthodox do that, and I like this prayer from the ancient Irish Mass and this Coptic hymn… The end result winds up being so eclectic that it’s completely individual. For Protestants that’s not a bad thing – a highly personalized mix of traditions from different ages and cultures sounds like a selling point :-) But from here within a settled liturgical tradition, it looks like a cult-of-personality exercise in pride and self-will There’s no aspect of submission or discipleship in it, it’s just self-expression. And if you’ve begun to see worship as something that should shape you, not as something that expresses you, then personalized liturgy is problematic.

So for Evangelicals trying on liturgical elements – Yay! Go for it! I think it could be a very healthy step back into the less-crazy, more historically-connected worship that was common even in Protestant America just a century ago.

But, uprooted from ecclesial Christianity of any kind, I’m not convinced liturgy can flourish, or that it will have much effect.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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