A friend at church recently passed along chapter twelve of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Until Justice and Peace Embrace.” It is entitled, “The Tragedy of Liturgy in Protestantism.” It had such a pleasant, Hartian ring to it I couldn’t resist. With plenty to otherwise unpack, I was particularly struck by the following:
“When one looks at the actions that constitute the liturgy of the church, one sees that they comprise two different directions, two different orientations. Some are actions directed toward us: God addresses us and we are the recipients. There are the actions of proclamation, central to which are of course the reading of the Scriptures and the preaching of the sermon. But there are also actions directed toward God: We address God and God is the recipient. These are the actions of worship in the true sense. The Christian liturgy is an interchange between actions of proclamation and the actions of worship.
“Even a brief glance at the history of the Christian liturgy makes clear how difficult it has been for the church to hold these two directions in balance. The Roman and Orthodox traditions have historically found it difficult to give due weight to the dimension of God’s addressing us in judgment and grace—in short, to proclamation. The Protestant tradition has historically found it difficult to give due weight to the dimension of our addressing God in love and devotion—in short, to worship. Of course no liturgy has ever been entirely one or the other. Yet liturgies do differ profoundly in their emphases; and the tragedy of liturgy in Protestantism—and particularly in the Reformed tradition—is that the worship dimension is suppressed, sometimes radically so. The liturgy is no longer ‘Eucharistic,’ and a fundamental dimension of the life of the church and of the existence of the Christian is thereby stunted.
“…What naturally results from the diminution of the worship dimension in liturgy is that incredible starkness so characteristic of much of Protestant liturgy and its setting. So little of the multifaceted richness of our humanity is here manifest! So many renunciations! Here words rule all. What also results from the suppression of the worship dimension of liturgy is seriousness, a sobriety, an absence of joy that is contrary to the spirit of the divine rest and the people’s liberation that we are intended to echo. When proclamation overwhelms worship in the liturgy, then I think we must expect joy to be diminished.”
Wolterstorff puts into words here an impression I have always had myself yet unable to articulate. I think he begins to help make the distinction between simple worship and simplistic worship.
Simplicity is surely something coveted in the Reformed tradition, and for good reason. But is simplicity really the same as simplistic, stripped down and bare? When did we get it into our collective, Protestant heads that liturgy had to make the choice between proclamation and worship, with the former winning out? How did we get to that place where we see the liturgy as subservient to proclamation, with all that precedes the sermon to be a rising action to it and all that follows a gentle denouement? Is the sermon really the climax?
It has been said in another place that a perspective more in keeping with confessional Protestantism is to see the “sermon as center and the sacrament as climax.” That may not follow conventional literary structure, but Protestantism has never seemed a very Modern phenomenon to me.
When I have visited Reformed or Presbyterian churches with what I consider exquisite Reformed liturgies that also include the regular means of grace called the Lord’s Table (Christ Reformed, Auburn Road Presbyterian, Redeemer Presbyterian), I have always found them to be at once simple and yet quite rich—not simplistic, stark or bleak. The Gospel seems both purely preached and administered. The liturgy in these places are intensely dialogical, the worshipers jealous to do the work of the service and not leaving any aspect of it to any cordoned off group or individual; its regard properly sober yet balanced with expectant hope and joy. They all seem to grasp what it means to balance proclamation and worship in Reformed liturgy. This seems over against so much of those who claim even the faintest ancestry to Reformed Protestantism which impress as bare-bones. It is the difference between three-to-five songs and a lecture and integral liturgy. The former is antiseptic, clinical and mechanical; the latter is organic, primal and seminal.
I am sure causes as to this relative inability to balance proclamation and worship are quite fraught, with the bamboozling of Revivalism serving no small role as culprit. But I have seen that it can be done in Reformed and Presbyterian circles, despite whatever lies in our history that militates against it. Not only should praise go to these churchly and properly confessional and Protestant expressions which prove that proclamation and worship can characterize in an age so dead set against it, but also should onus be felt by those too lazy or otherwise unmoved—and I daresay irresponsible—to recognize what duty therein lies for any bold enough to claim a confessional Protestantism.