That Thing You Do - Right Worship

January 27, 2018 Length: 12:06

Father Stephen Freeman argues that the near-unchanging shape of the Liturgy is part of the "givenness" of our lives. Like many other things in the Orthodox faith, it imparts a stability. Learning to embrace this is important.

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In my Anglican years, I watched the introduction of a new prayer book. I went through trial periods of different books, eventually settling on one in the mid ‘70s. Among its most notable features was variety. In a certain manner, it brought under one roof that one most obvious feature of modern Christianity: There were options. Our culture has an understanding that ideas, thoughts and sentiments are what matters; how they are embodied is considered to be largely a matter of private choice—perhaps a lifestyle preference. Confronted with radical differences in worship practice, a modern American Christian would most likely respond, “Does it really matter?” This stands in stark contrast to an ancient understanding of liturgy. Strange perhaps to us, but perhaps the most heated debate between East and West during the time of the Great Schism was over whether the bread of the Eucharist was to be leavened or unleavened. Sometimes it even overshadowed the debate about the filioque in the Creed. Modern sensibilities recoil at such a debate and again want to shout, “What does it matter?”

Our modern protest assumes that we are the master of our thoughts. Actions and words are fungible, changeable, evidence only of style. We believe that substance is a matter of thought and intent. This philosophy is geared towards allowing us to ignore the words and actions of others. In a world of variety and multicultural complexity, such a strategy is understandable. However, it tends to value the private and the notional at the expense of the public and common experience. We imagine that our inner thoughts are what matter and that those thoughts are the product of our own choices, but this is simply not the case.

Psychological studies have long shown evidence for what is termed “confirmation bias,” meaning we tend to find proof of what we already think. We might also say that you will tend to think like you live: your actions determine your choices to a great extent, long before anything that we describe as reason comes into play. The Church has long known this and enshrined it in a formula. It is, in Latin, lex orandi, lex credendi, that is, “the law of praying is the law of believing.” In simple terms, we believe what we pray—and not just what we pray, but what we pray publicly, that is, the Liturgy.

Historically this referred to the fact that Church doctrine agreed with the Church’s liturgical life, and its liturgical life agreed with its doctrine. It can be taken prescriptively, that the one should mirror the other. I also take it, however, to be a principle: that whatever you do in your praying will eventually determine your believing. I think that because this is true, we are wired that way. It is worthwhile to look at a Church service, and, apart from the words, ask, “What does this action mean?” There is always a meta-message that is far deeper and more important than the words you say and the songs you sing.

The modern options in liturgical life, which are found throughout the contemporary denominations, have a hidden, and, perhaps, unintended message. Their constantly changing structures suggest that what matters is what you think, what you feel, what you believe in that interior sense, but what you do in church is pretty much immaterial, a matter of preference and style. Indeed, many moderns believe that this is the great advantage of denominations: everybody can “do church” in the manner that they like. What you do is, eventually, what you think—no matter what you say.

Just a sidebar here, an observation: You cannot say, for example that children matter and then exclude them from baptism and the cup of Communion, much less isolate them and remove them from the public liturgy of the Church. Their exclusion is a teaching regarding the full humanity of children, no matter what you mean it to say. There is a connection, whether we want to admit it or not, between the repudiation of infant baptism and the repudiation of the humanity of a child in the womb. Adulthood is not a requirement of the Kingdom of God.

This is a crucial matter. Any time there is some component of worship that “doesn’t matter,” the whole liturgy will begin to not matter. The modern thought that we hear expressed sometimes, “I don’t need to go to church to worship God,” simply says that all sense of a eucharistic life is gone. The notion that some part of life, much less some part of worship, doesn’t matter is already an embracement of secularism. Secularism holds that the world somehow exists apart from God, and God only cares what we think or feel; intention and sentiment are what is essential. All that sort of thinking can yield is a split of our lives, a bifurcation, a rupture in the fundamental unity of our being. It is a disintegration of the spiritual life. In the end, what you do will win. The modern secularization of Christianity, and then the heart, will be an inevitable result.

If there is one saving feature of Orthodox Christianity, it would be its failure to alter its liturgy in a significant manner for the bulk of its history. Anyone who says that what you see in an Orthodox service today is the unchanged liturgy of the early Church is either exaggerating or mistaken. Much of what we see is unchanged, but centuries have added things here and there, and those additions were intended. When doctrines have been expressed in a definitive manner, for example, they generally gain a place within the worship life of the Church. The Nicene Creed is perhaps the most outstanding example; that is not in the liturgy of the Church until after Nicaea.

As I study the history of Orthodoxy, it is primarily the liturgical life of the Church that remains a constant. Periodic corruption even within the hierarchy, or cultural captivity and other failures are quite notable in Orthodox history. Indeed, very little in our history can be singled out as an outstanding feature of stability and faithfulness. But corrupt characters and cultural hegemonies come and go. Various religious fads and fashions have passed through. That it is possible to speak of an “Orthodox phronema,” that is, an Orthodox mind, is perhaps solely due to the stability of our liturgical life.

The fact that most of Orthodoxy spent the better part of the 20th century stagnated under various Communist regimes, suffering terribly, may have preserved many things in the course of that century. For many Orthodox, mere survival was the greatest concern of their time. There are some who wring their hands over the controversies and failures that surrounded the recent council in Crete. I am not one of those who worries about it, mostly because I had very low expectations. St. Gregory the Theologian, who took early leave from the Second Ecumenical Council, said: “I have never seen a council produce anything but anger and rancor.” He said that about one of the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church.

The 20th century was the great century of change throughout most of Christendom. The Catholic Church, so monolithic for so many centuries, went through radical changes. Most all Christian groups went through it. The fact that Orthodoxy didn’t was largely because we couldn’t. Just as we battle with things we think should change today, getting us all on a single calendar or solving the overlapping jurisdictions, and those kinds of problems—we have a hard time coming to an agreement about such things; we certainly have a hard time agreeing to make changes. And, as frustrating as that is, it also means that we’re not able to accomplish the kinds of changes that others have that, in many ways, have destroyed their faith. God has preserved us, sometimes by our own incompetence—glory to his name!

But the same participants who argue and scheme about various things eventually, in Orthodoxy, return to the liturgy that faithfully bathes them in the unchanging truth of the faith. The prayers of the Church produce saints. No decisions, made anywhere at any level, have such an effective power.

Orthodoxia is sometimes translated as “right worship.” This is proper and goes to the point of our lives. It was said by many Jews in Hitler’s camps, “We did not keep the Sabbath; the Sabbath kept us.” The same can be said regarding Orthodox worship in the life of the Church. The Church proper is the Church gathered in liturgy. The liturgy preserves us, teaches us, shapes us.
The whole of our life, ideally, becomes a liturgy, and, as such, is rightly lived. We were created to make Eucharist of all things, to give thanks. We are not the masters of our existence; we are its servants. Glory to God.