The importance of worship and liturgy in the modern world

Episode 4 of the Way of Love podcast from the Episcopal Church and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was released this week. In it, Bishop Curry draws a distinction between community/corporate “worship” and individual “prayer.” He especially emphasized the powerful effect that community worship can have for our individual spiritual lives.

For example, he described how in many liturgical church settings we see the types of things that are “alien” to our contemporary world and context. Who makes a fuss these days out of eating some bread and drinking some wine? Who dresses up in funny costumes to say some ancient words?

I’ll add that liturgy is an especially attractive option for many young people in the world today. In liturgical worship settings, the leader has a little bit of control over what is done and said (especially in interpreting the doctrine and textual reading during the sermon/homily), but otherwise the liturgical texts and rituals are what they are and often are similar (while not identical) to those performed by other Christians going back centuries. This allows for each individual to listen for the personalized inspiration/message that God has to speak to them through the same liturgical experience that everyone is participating in. It allows them to personalize the experience to themselves without the strong pressure to conform to a wide swath of orthodox doctrinal interpretations and/or metaphysical truth claims.

Liturgy and ritual can be especially profound for people who are not literalists in their theological worldviews: what types of powerful symbolic and metaphorical realities and truths can God convey to us through a somewhat arbitrary set of scripts and bodily motions that have adapted and changed to historical contexts over thousands of years?

I’ll share one quick example from my own life. The confession liturgy from the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer is as follows:

Most merciful God, 
we confess that we have sinned against you 
in thought, word, and deed, 
by what we have done, 
and by what we have left undone. 
We have not loved you with our whole heart; 
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. 
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, 
have mercy on us and forgive us; 
that we may delight in your will, 
and walk in your ways, 
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Link

For a time this liturgical prayer was off-putting to me. I was raised in a conservative religious community that put a lot of emphasis on sin, worthiness, repentance, and forgiveness, with sin often being defined behaviorally and legalistically. So words like “sin,” “forgive,” “confess” to this day still trigger emotional associations with guilt and shame.

Over the last several years I have come to understand this liturgical prayer in a different way. In it, we confess that we’ve “sinned” by doing what? By not loving God with our whole heart and not loving our neighbors as ourselves. That’s it. Full stop. The two great commandments.

Instead of an occasion for guilt and shame, this liturgical ritual reminds me on a daily basis that my most important priorities for the day are to love God and love those around me, an affirmative reminder of grace and love.

Episode 4 of the Way of Love podcast can be found here: https://wayoflove.episcopalchurch.org/

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