The Promise and Perils of Liturgical Change

By Meyers, Ruth A. | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Promise and Perils of Liturgical Change


Meyers, Ruth A., Anglican Theological Review


It may seem odd to offer an essay on liturgical change in honor of James Griffiss. In The Anglica Vision, he described himself as a "conservative person" who missed "some of the comforts and security of the Episcopal Church I once knew."1 For Jim, worship was a place that offered some of that comfort and security. As a visiting professor at Seabury-Westem Theological Seminary, he worshiped regularly with the community, and during his last years, after suffering a stroke, the Sacrament (as he referred to it) was an important source of sustenance. When I brought him the Sacrament, the responses that came most naturally to him were the more traditional forms, the Rite I language familiar to him from his formation with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

But Jim also understood well that worship is about far more than comfort and security. At the conclusion of his chapter on Anglican worship, he described his own journey in the Episcopal Church:

I began by being attracted to the ritual of worship-"the smells and bells" as we used to say. As I have gone on I have found much more. I have found the sacramental life of worship in which my personal life has been shaped by entering into the Christian story and having God transform my life.2

Moreover, Jim realized that the sacramental life was not only about personal transformation, but also about the formation of a sacramental community. In that community, we are drawn into relationship with God who lias been made known to us in Christ, and we participate in God's redemptive love. Thus worship, particularly the sacraments oi baptism and eucharist, enables us to experience and understand more deeply the reality of the Incarnation as God present with us now.

Not only did Jim understand the power of worship to transform us as individuals and as community, he also recognized the significance of liturgical change. In The Anglican Vision, he asserted, "I think it would be true to say that we in the Episcopal Church are becoming better able to understand ourselves as a sacramental and incamational community through our worship because of the 1979 Book of Commom Prayer."3 While not himself at the forefront of liturgical renewal, he could appreciate the results oi the twentieth-century liturgical movement, which drew upon the riches of ti-adition while also responding to the situation of the church in the modem world. Furthermore, Jim recognized that a tension between continuity and change is characteristic of Anglicanism. From our origins in sixteenth-century England, he explained, we have claimed "continuity with the past, even while making changes in response to a new theological, political, and cultural situation."4

This essay explores both the power of liturgy to shape worshiping communities and the interplay between continuity and change in congregations whose worship is pushing beyond the bounds of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It is offered in gratitude for the life and witness of James E. Griffiss, who knew well the transformative power of liturgy.

The Liturgical Movement and the 1979 Prayer BooA:

In a number of ways, the fruits of the liturgical movement are evident in the worship patterns and practices of many congregations. "Active participation of all the faithful" was a catch phrase of the liturgical movement. In the Episcopal Church we talked a lot about worship its "the work of the people," and we changed our practices, and eventually our ritual texts in the Book of Common Prayer, to embody that reality more fully. The centrality of the eucharist was another key principle of the liturgical movement, and this, too, is part of the 1979 Prayer Book and more oi a lived reality in the Episcopal Church.

However, other aspects of the liturgical movement have not been as fully realized. At its best, the liturgical movement was concerned not so much with the technical details of doing liturgy the right way, but with the vital connection between liturgy and life, liturgy and justice.

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