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Liturgy and theology

18 January 2011

Dr. Derek Olsen is quickly becoming one of my favorite web presences out there. I’ve been using his St. Bede’s Breviary for a while now for the Daily Office when I’m on the go. He’s recently been blogging on one of my mentors’, the Rev’d Dr. Richard Pfaff, new book The Liturgy in Medieval England: A History, specifically the section on the most famous medieval English liturgical tradition, the Sarum Use. He also makes regular contributions to the Daily Episcopalian on the Episcopal Café.

In his post from today, Olsen grapples with something I have been struggling with since coming to the Diocese of Massachusetts: Communion without Baptism. Putting aside the fact that this practice is canonically illegal, I’m concerned that this practice is focused only upon the leg of Reason and discards Tradition and Scripture, the other two fundamental pillars of Anglican thought. But most of all, I’m extremely concerned about how this practice alters our sacramental theology, and the huge possibility that it will render Baptism meaningless.

Olsen writes:

The place where we have to begin, of course, is with the very basics—why does this matter at all? As far as most Episcopalians are concerned this isn’t about changing our official teachings, it’s just about a liturgical detail. And if it’s just about a liturgical detail, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is this: liturgical changes shouldn’t be brushed off so easily. Too many in our church—too many clergy as well as lay leaders—treat liturgy and theology as two different things. And the truth is that they’re not. Liturgy and theology are two sides of the same coin. And for this discussion to make sense, for people to know why it matters, this is where you’ve got to start.

What Olsen is saying here is nothing new. This is the classical Anglican principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, “the law of prayer is the law of belief”. This is why we are not a dogmatic or a confessional church. The book we look to in order to interpret Scripture, Tradition, and Reason’s voices is not the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, or the Westminster Confession of Faith, or Luther’s Catechism, or to the Niagara Conference’s The Fundamentals. We look instead to the Book of Common Prayer, the book that contains the words we say in prayer. If you ask an Anglican what they believe, they should point to the BCP on their bookshelf.

Olsen continues:

One fundamental truth that we know is that actions speak louder than words. If you want to know what people believe, you have to look at what they do. We just finished an election cycle, right? And each election is a new reminder: if you want to know what a politician believes you have to ignore their pronouncements, pomposity, and pandering and look at their legislation. Just so with the church: if you want to know what a congregation believes, look at their liturgy. Liturgy is not some kind of neutral, non-theological entity. Instead the two are bound so tightly that they cannot be separated. They are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the best definition for liturgy that I’ve been able to come up with is this: Liturgy is the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology. What we do, shows what we believe. As I’m so fond of saying, we don’t do a solemn high mass because we like it, we do it because it’s what we believe. We don’t wear chasubles and dalmatics and tunicles and swing around incense because it’s fun (although it is…), we do it because each of these elements contributes to a greater understand of what our worship is, the one to whom it is directed, and the part we play in that relationship. We do it because it means something.


So—liturgy is the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology. The corollary to this, is that liturgical changes signal theological changes. When we alter something in the liturgy, when we change something about our sacramental practice, we have made a theological change. It isn’t necessarily a very big change, but a change has been made, and our beliefs are represented differently now 1) whether we know it or not—and 2) whether we intend it or not.

If, because we look to the BCP for our statements of belief, we begin to tinker with what we say or what we do in our corporate prayer, we necessarily change what we believe. The two go hand in hand. To paraphrase what a former professor, Dr. Ruel Tyson, would say: You can no more divorce the rhetoric of religion from its ritual than you can separate a man’s actions from his thoughts. This is why the BCP 1979 caused (and continues to cause) such an uproar. This is why adopting a new hymnal is a topic of delicate discussion. What seems like simple “updating” of liturgical practice has huge implications in the very theology that inspired it.

We should tread lightly and think closely about what we do in sacred spaces. The future of our faith depends upon it.

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