This last year has brought much change to my life. In May of 2016, I graduated from Belmont University and moved out of a Nashville apartment for the last time. In June, my high school sweetheart and I were able to tie the knot after four years of a long-distance relationship. We moved to a new city in July, and began seminary in August. These last twelve months, I have been blessed with the opportunity to learn how to be an adult, a husband, and a graduate student—all simultaneously. Easily, this has been the best year of my life. But there have been growing pains: late-night writing sessions, heated arguments over whether or not there are enough dishes in the dishwasher to justify running it, and days where I have been too afraid to look at my credit card statement. There have been days in which I have questioned whether I will be able to finish my Masters with my faith and my sanity intact. Sometimes, the uncertainty of life can be paralyzing.
There is, however, another change I have made this year that has been immensely helpful in providing some stability to my life; last October, my wife and I were received into the Anglican Church. There are many reasons we chose to change our denominational affiliation—many of which I will be exploring in future posts—but one of the most important to us is that Anglicanism is a particularly beautiful expression of Christianity with a profound liturgical tradition.
This was a step in a radically different direction for me. Having grown up a Southern Baptist, I was distrustful of those who took part in repetitive rituals and read their prayers off a page. I could not understand why people would want anything extrabiblical in their worship services, or why they wore strange clothes and lit incense. Surely, I thought, the natural end of these practices is rigid legalism.
But when I got my hands on a Book of Common Prayer and began to study the content of the different liturgies, what I found is that they are almost completely comprised of biblical materials. Consider the Invitatory, which begins the service of Morning Prayer:
Officiant: O Lord, open our lips;
People: And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Officiant: O God, make speed to save us;
People: O Lord, make haste to help us.
Officiant: Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
People: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Officiant: Praise the Lord.
People: The Lord's name be praised.
With the exception of the Gloria Patri (“Glory to the Father…”), these prayers are entirely lifted from Scripture, and we will find that this is the story for all the rest of the service. We pray the words of Scripture. We sing psalms. We read three more biblical passages and close with communal prayers, many of which also find their origins in Scripture. This is a tradition that has taken seriously a commitment to live by the Word of God.
Though some may consider the repetition of a liturgical tradition to be a stumbling block, I find it immensely freeing and engaging. Not only does the liturgy ground the Church in a dependable rhythm of worship and a reliance upon Scripture for the content of that worship, but it also, in a sense, changes with those who participate in it. I mean by this that it presents itself in fresh ways to those who need to hear a certain section more than others in a particular moment of their story.
When I am convinced that my sin is too powerful for God to overcome, I need to pay closer attention to the confession, absolution, and comfortable words. When I find myself harboring bitterness towards Christians with whom I have theological disagreements, the prayer for unity calls me to repentance. When I feel far from God, partaking in the Eucharist takes on special meaning, as I move into closer and closer communion with Jesus Christ. The liturgy—like God himself—is able to speak to us in context, and by doing so minister to our souls’ most pressing needs. It must be multifaceted, complex, and beautiful, because that is what God is. That is also what we are.
In a world that keeps me guessing, I find comfort in the dependability of repetition. In a culture that saturates us with “content” but often leaves us feeling empty, I am nourished by the services of the Word and sacrament. And now, in a time of great change, I am personally ministered to by a liturgy that speaks the truths my soul most needs to hear.
Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God.