Liturgy Matters

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck

IMG_9309Part of our identity as Anglicans is the recognition that there is a connection between what we do in worship and what we believe.The Latin phrase that gives credibility to this is “lex orandi, lex credendi” which can be translated “as we pray, so we believe”. What we do in prayer, in worship, shapes what we believe. And ideally, what we do in worship and what we believe effects how we relate to our fellow human beings and what we do in the world.

The Introduction to the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer puts it this way: Liturgy describes the people of God. Liturgy expresses who we believe we are in the presence of God. Liturgy reveals the God whom we worship. Liturgy reflects our mission.

Now there is plenty to say about liturgy in general and about the Advocate’s liturgy in particular. Plenty to say about how we are a “re-traditioning” congregation. But for the sake of this reflection on Liturgy Matters, I want us to consider two aspects of liturgical expression: 1) what it says about God as both immanent and transcendent. 2) what it says about individual persons coming together to become the People of God, the Body of Christ. And I want to do that by seeing how these two themes are particularly made manifest here at the Advocate — how these themes weave and twist in and around each other throughout our liturgy.


I have a book called Liturgy and Architecture, in which the author points out that you can tell a lot about what a congregation believes by walking into their worship space. What is front and center?The pulpit? Suggests the centrality of the preaching of the Word. The Altar? Suggests the centrality of the Eucharist. The Cross? Suggests the centrality of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice.

Here at the Advocate, we made the decision early on that we would not rent worship space in a conventional Christian church. We probably could have — especially given that we felt called initially to meet for worship on Sunday afternoon rather than Sunday morning. There is no doubt that we could have looked for, and found,a small protestant church around here with pews, pulpit, communion table and organ. But we believed we had a call to consider liturgy and worship anew. And we didn’t want the architecture and furniture to inhibit us. So for five years we rented worship space in a synagogue. And for 6 years we rented space in a Unity Center of Peace.

IMG_9305Just as a gander of a church’s furnishings can tell you a lot about what the worshippers believe, so does the shape and design of the worship space itself. If the worshippers believe that God is transcendent — out there, up there, away from here — Church architecture draws you up and out and away. The big Gothic Cathedrals, and their imitations, being the prime examples of that. And sure enough, if you spend a lot of time worshipping in a church that has Gothic architecture, you begin to believe more fully that God is out there.

On the other hand, for those who believe that God is immanent — here among us — Church architecture is round or square, drawing the community together, experiencing God in our midst. The Quaker meetinghouses with benches facing each other certainly give this sense. And sure enough, if you spend a lot of time worshipping in a circle, you begin to believe more fully that God is here among us.. One of the hallmarks of liturgical reform in the second half of the 20th century was moving the altar away from the east wall of the worship space. For about a thousand years, altars were placed against the east wall, so that a priest would celebrate the Eucharist with his [sic] back to the people. God was out there, up there. Liturgical renewal revealed that in the early church, the priest faced the people, helping all to experience God among us.

Of course God is both immanent and transcendent — here among us, and way beyond us too. And good liturgy will help us to know and experience both realities. By now you are probably already discerning that the current liturgy and liturgical space of the Advocate tends to point us more towards the immanence of God — God being among us.And we have to work a bit to experience the transcendence of God — God beyond us.

Similarly, there is a balance to be struck between our identity of our selves as individuals, with our own needs, passions, interests, and our identity of our selves as a part of the people of God, the Body of Christ. As Americans in the early 21st century, we tend to have a pretty clear sense of our selves as individuals. We need to work a bit to develop our identity as a people, as one Body with many parts.

Take for example, the “people’s prelude”. Rather than hearing an organ play when you come to the church, you hear people talking. We come together from our individual lives to our life together as a people. And the tension, or the balance, between those two identities begins. Each of us is brings a unique part of the world and a unique expression of the holy into our midst. We bring our concerns, our needs, our gifts, our blessings. We meet one another, we speak and we listen, we take things in. We are reminded that God is in this place, among us. We are here to be and to become, both individuals and a body together.

The bell tolls. It is a bowl actually, a Tibetan singing bowl. Does this make us New Age or Buddhist? No. For us, the rich, deep, lingering tone is used to calls us beyond ourselves. It is our first clue that we are here to worship a God who is not just among us, but beyond us too. Transcendent. Now if the tone helps to make us mindful of the Buddhists of the world, and the plight of the people of Tibet, I think God is fine with that.

Following welcome and introductions, a bit of God among us, and also a manifestation of Christian hospitality (we want first timers to know what’s going on here, and we all can use a reminder…) we move to silence — preparing ourselves in heart and mind to worship God together. That word “together” is important here. Each of us is worshipping God, yes. But rather than worshipping God in our own pew, facing forward, without distraction, we are very much worshipping God together in this place. Hopefully we will each find ways to worship God personally and individually elsewhere at other times. But here… Here we sit facing each other. In fact just about everything we do here, we do facing each other.It’s hard to ignore each other when we face each other. After while, we may actually connect facing each other with what we believe about God and about faith — The way we are distracted by each other can be holy. We are meant to be aware of each other. Being mindful of the other, bumping up against the other, with a small “o”,can serve to make us mindful of the Holy One, with a capital “O”, in whose image we all were created. Being mindful of the other, bumping up against the other, can serve to make us mindful that we are one body, even though we have many different parts. It is good to take the time in silence to prepare ourselves, individually, in heart and mind, to worship God together, as the people of God.


After the silence, we open the Binders to pray and sing together. Binders? What’s with the binders? That’s simple. Well, actually the creation and maintenance of the binders from season to season is not simple. But the reasoning behind them is. It’s not a matter of money — by the time we make all the copies and get all the copyright permission, the binders aren’t really any less expensive that a Prayer Book and Hymnal. And it’s not about the convenience…. It’s just as easy to put books on a cart and wheel them into the closet, as it is binders.

But we use binders because we want to be able to have all that we need in one book — songs and prayers, so that people don’t have to be juggling. It’s a matter of hospitality again. We also want to be able to explore different liturgical resources from around the Anglican Communion for both song and prayer — with the bishop’s permission of course — thereby becoming more attuned to the larger Body of Christ of which we are a part. So season by season, we try different prayers — all with the same elements and order that our sisters and brothers are using throughout the Anglican Communion — and through using those prayers, we experience a connection with Anglicans from New Zealand to Kenya to Iona to the USA. And we use prayers and Psalm translations with language that is a little more gender inclusive — another act of hospitality.We open our binders, and then there is that unusual procession of ours –that procession in which the immanence and transcendence of God are made known. The cross and Gospel are carried through the congregation. Woven in and among and between us all. The cross — the Advocate cross — commissioned by a member of the launching congregation and crafted by a local artist specifically for us and for our liturgy — combines a Celtic Cross with a Christus Rex, or Christ the King. The cross itself is Celtic, with the circle suggesting the eternal, endless nature of God’s love, and also, I believe, the comprehensive nature of Truth, the truth is in the whole (with a w). And Jesus makes it known.

The image of Jesus on our cross is inspired by African images of Jesus — Christ is risen, yet still connected to the cross, and dressed in simple loin cloth — not dressed in the robes of a King. The arms of Jesus are extended in invitation and welcome. Ideally, the cross is carried high in procession. Calling our gaze upward. If we take our noses out of the books for a moment and gaze at that cross, the effect is powerful. And yes, the procession bumps into us. It inconveniences us. That’s important, too. We make way for Jesus. Jesus is among us.

During the Gospel procession, we are invited to touch, kiss or bow to the Gospel as it goes by. This touching of the book is not Episcopalian practice. It’s Jewish. (Only Jews do it with the Torah, not the Gospel.) But again, it calls us to see and know, to honor and adore, something beyond ourselves, a truth that is eternal. And we are mindful that sometimes that truth is easier to hear than others.

Now, every Anglican liturgy includes prayers of intercession, and in the Book of Common Prayer they are called the Prayers of the People. At the Advocate, we take this nomenclature seriously. We are the People of God, the Body of Christ. Which means, yet again, that we are individual members who have come together to be part of one Body. So we encourage the people of the congregation to share their intercessions, through which we learn the concerns that our sisters and our brothers yearn to offer before God, we learn what prayers they offer out of a spiritual discipline. And we pray with them, joining our prayers to theirs. We may not always like what someone else prays. We may even judge it. But God does not put limits on our prayers and neither should we.At the same time, the Prayers of the people are not just the prayers of the individuals. they are the prayers of the people. So as we offer our prayers, we do it mindful of the community gathered around.This isn’t the time for us to self-indulge and engage with God at length and in detail about all the things that anger or hurt us. It is a time to pray individually together, as the people of God. And through the prayers we are further shaped into the People of God, the Body of Christ.

Same thing with our singing. We don’t do much solo singing in our liturgy, and we don’t have a choir. Rather, as with the prayers, we sing individually together. We sing together — with unamplified instruments and a cappella as much as possible. But also ideally in parts, so that differences are made manifest. Here again, we can be mindful of the presence of others, and of ourselves as part of the body, the whole, as we actually hear the voices of those around us, and as we contribute our voice too. During communion we sing simple, repetitive songs, so we can set our books aside and sing prayerfully and mindfully together as we receive the sacrament of Christ’s Body and become the Body of Christ anew. And singing together also serves to help us anticipate the heavenly banquet, where our voices will join with those of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven for all eternity.

Now, while the official liturgy ends with the dismissal, and we are sent out in peace and in power to do the work God has given us to do, first we have a bridge. We extend the Eucharist as we break bread together and experience the Body of Christ through food and fellowship in this space. Each of us — or most of us — take turns contributing to the food. And the fellowship, which draws us closer together, gives us a vivid experience of ourselves as the Body– a gathering of individuals, shaped into the Body of Christ. This is an essential part of our life together, and I am ever grateful for the hands that prepare the food week by week and those that clean the dishes!

And while our life together concludes with dishes being stacked and the books and things of our worship being stored back in the closet, we go forth from with the symbols and the rites and experiences of this place, this liturgy, within us and among us. We go forth closer to one another and to God who is both close at hand and beyond all knowing. We go forth renewed in our knowledge that we are more than our individual selves — We are the people of God, the Body of Christ, the Church. We go forth more aware of the comforts and the challenges before us, but empowered and equipped to do what we are called to do in the week, the season, ahead. We go forth, in peace and in power, to be Christ’s hands and heart in this world.