The Liturgy



taken from the Preface to the Book of Common Worship

Worship is at the very heart of the church’s life. All that the church is and does is rooted in its worship. The community of faith, gathered in response to God’s call, is formed in its worship. Worship is the principal influence that shapes our faith, and is the most visible way we express the faith.

In worship, through Word and Sacrament, the church is sustained by the presence of Christ. Joined in worship to the One who is the source of its life, the church is empowered to serve God in the world.

Because of the centrality of worship in the church’s life, the continuing reform of worship is of primary importance in maintaining the integrity of the people of God. In an age dominated by individualism and secularism, it is particularly important to embrace forms of worship that are firmly rooted in the faith and foster a strong communal sense of being united with God, with the community of faith in every time and place, and with a broken world in need of God’s healing touch. In other words, the concern for the reform of worship is, above everything else, a concern for the renewal of the church.

This conviction has informed every stage of the development of the Presbyterian Church (USA) edition of the Book of Common Worship, the fifth service book to be published in this century to serve American Presbyterians. As with each of its four predecessors, the Book of Common Worship was prepared with the intention of seeking a liturgical expression that is faithful to the tradition of the church catholic, truly reformed, rooted in scripture, and related to life.

The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the place that liturgy and the use of a service book has within the Reformed tradition, and to describe aspects of this book that will contribute to its usefulness in shaping worship in Presbyterian congregations.

The Service Book and the Directory for Worship

American Presbyterians have both a directory for worship and a service book. There is often a confusion over the distinction between the two, and over the role of each. A Directory for Worship is a part of the constitution of the church and thus has the authority of church law. It provides the theology that undergirds worship, and includes appropriate directions for worship. It sets forth the standards and the norms for the ordering of worship. It does not have fixed orders of worship or liturgical texts.

The church’s service book, on the other hand, provides orders and texts for worship. It is in harmony with the directory and is approved for voluntary use.

Where both a directory and a service book coexist, as in those churches served by our current service book, it sets forth, in orders of services and in liturgical texts, the theology and norms described in the directory. Service books have a longer history in the Reformed tradition than directories, and most churches in the Reformed community do not have directories but do have service books.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Reformed churches in the sixteenth century used service books. Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin all prepared worship forms for use in the congregations. John Knox, following Calvin, prepared The Forme of Prayers and subsequently a service book, the Book of Common Order, for use in Scotland. Liturgical forms were in general use in Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, Holland, England, and Scotland.

However, the Reformation in England and Scotland after the death of Thomas Cranmer was formed in a very different context from that on the continent, where entire political entities were Reformed. The Reformed were thus able to prepare their own service books without interference. In England and Scotland those seeking to carry the reform from the continent had the difficult task of reforming within a state church hostile to Genevan-inspired reform.

Even after the Scottish kirk was reformed under John Knox, it continued to endure English political and religious pressures, resulting in bitter conflict with the English crown.  As the contending party in a state church, the Puritans were vulnerable. The liberty of the church to order its life and worship in harmony with the Word of God was threatened. The Puritans felt under attack by both church and nation. It was in worship that the conflict raged.

The Puritans’ struggle for liberty put them in direct conflict with those who had power to legislate the content of the service book and to require its use. Initially, the Puritan conflict was not about opposition to the propriety and use of a service book. The Puritans proposed their own service books. Rather, the conflict was about a service book that was being imposed upon the Puritans that did not reflect their concerns.

The struggle ultimately drove the Puritans to join forces with the separatists. As a result, both the English Puritans and the Scots were forced into a more radical liturgical position than that of the reform on the continent, which did not have to face such issues. Whereas the Reformers were in a position to reform the forms of worship, the political and ecclesiastical situation compelled the Puritans, for the sake of liberty, to reject the forms thrust upon them.

It was in this context that the Westminster Directory for the Publique Worship of God, devoid of liturgical text, was created in 1644, under the influence of Puritans and separatists. This directory was destined to play the dominant role in shaping the worship of American Presbyterians.

It was at this moment in history that Puritans and Scots settled in the New World. They were the Nucleus that initially shaped American Presbyterianism. Puritan views thus dominated the way the church took root in American soil. Opposition to service books continued even though the Puritans were no longer engaged in a struggle for liberty. The agenda remained, even though the context had changed. American Presbyterians soon forgot why they opposed service books. What began as a struggle for liberty turned into a new legalism.

In keeping with their Puritan legacy, Presbyterians who settled in the New World chose to be served by a directory for worship rather than a service book. Colonial Presbyterians had the 1644 Westminster Directory available to them until, in 1788, the Westminster Directory was revised for use in the United States and subsequently adopted by the first General Assembly.  Two generations after the first General Assembly, things began to change.

The Nineteenth Century

In the middle of the nineteenth century a movement emerged among American Presbyterians and other Reformed churches that sought to restore a liturgical tradition that was both Reformed and catholic, and thus to recover the values associated with use of a service book.

Individuals began to write service books for use by Presbyterians. Toward the end of the century, demand for such resources prompted the publishing house of the northern Presbyterians to produce collections of liturgical forms.

But it was the southern General Assembly that first extended official sanction to liturgical forms. In 1894 a directory for worship was adopted for use in the southern church that contained liturgical formulas, and liturgies for marriages and funerals were appended to it. Nine years later, the northern General Assembly was ready to respond positively to overtures calling for a book of services.

Book of Common Worship—1906, 1932, 1946

In 1903, in response to the growing expression of need for worship forms, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (northern) approved overtures calling for the preparation of a book of services. The result was that the first Book of Common Worship was published in 1906. In approving this book, the church embraced the growing concern for the reform of Presbyterian worship. Although American Presbyterians had a directory for worship to guide them in liturgical matters, the approval of a service book gave official recognition to the value of liturgical orders and texts in shaping worship.

The 1906 book was therefore a significant milepost in the reform of Presbyterian worship. It included orders with liturgical texts for both morning and evening Lord’s Day worship. It provided for celebrating Holy Communion, and included an exemplary Eucharistic prayer (in this book called “great thanksgiving”). Texts were provided for some festivals and seasons of the liturgical calendar. There were orders and liturgical texts for Baptism and for Confirmation of Baptismal Vows. A treasury of prayer, with family prayers, was included, as well as a selective Psalter and a collection of ancient hymns and canticles. Congregational participation was encouraged with the provision of responses and unison prayers. This service book included prayers drawn from a wide range within the church catholic and from across many centuries.

By 1928, the book began to appear dated. Responding to popular demand, the General Assembly appointed a committee to revise the Book of Common Worship. The revised edition appeared in 1932. This edition was an expanded version of the 1906 book. Texts for additional festivals and seasons were added. A rudimentary lectionary was included. It is significant that the southern General Assembly approved it for use by its congregations.

Nine years later the northern General Assembly established a permanent committee on the revision of the Book of Common Worship to monitor the liturgical needs of the church and to periodically propose revisions. This underscores the importance that the Office of the General Assembly gave to the service book at that time.

A thoroughgoing revision of the Book of Common Worship resulted in a new edition being published in 1946. Those who prepared this book had the advantage of increasing ecumenical liturgical scholarship and of more knowledge about the worship of the Reformers. This edition of the service book provided for still greater congregational participation. It contained expanded resources for Sunday morning and Sunday evening worship and for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The reading of scripture in worship was given emphasis by the addition of a complete two-year lectionary from the Church of Scotland’s Book of Common Order, published in 1940. The liturgical year also received increased emphasis, with prayers included from the service books of other churches.

The Worshipbook—1970

In 1955 the northern General Assembly called for another revision. As the committee appointed to revise the Book of Common Worship began its work, it was confronted with the great disparity between the Directory for Worship and the Book of Common Worship. The committee reported back to the assembly that it could not proceed until a new directory was adopted to replace the existing one, which for the northern church had remained virtually unchanged since its adoption nearly one hundred and seventy years earlier.

The southern Presbyterians joined with the northern church to produce the new service book but decided to prepare their own directory. Also joining the project was the United Presbyterian Church in North America, which in 1947 had published a book entitled The Manual for Worship, which included general guidelines for worship with some orders and liturgical texts. Before the new service book was completed, the United Presbyterian Church in North America had merged with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church also joined in the project to produce the new service book. The Cumberland Presbyterians later engaged in preparing a new Directory for Worship, which was approved by their General Assembly in 1984. Other Reformed churches participated in early phases of the development of a new Book of Common Worship.

Work resumed on a revised Book of Common Worship when in 1961 the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and in 1963 the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., adopted new directories.  The committee distributed two trial use pieces prior to publication: one in 1964, another in 1966. In 1970 the service book was published with the title The Worshipbook—Services. Two years later it was published as part of The Worshipbook—Services and Hymns.

The contributions of The Worshipbook are noteworthy. As the first of a wave of new service books among American denominations, it broke new ground. It departed from Elizabethan English and began the search for a suitable contemporary style of language appropriate for the worship of God. It set forth with clarity that the norm of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day is a service of the Word and Sacrament. Although six years earlier the committee had proposed a new lectionary, it recognized that the lectionary then being completed by the Roman Catholic Church was superior to the lectionary it had prepared. The committee therefore modified the Roman lectionary for use by Presbyterians and included it in the final publication of The Worshipbook. Other denominations also made revisions of the Roman lectionary.

But with all of its contributions, The Worshipbook was vulnerable. Following Vatican Council II there was a great resurgence of liturgical reform that continues unabated in virtually every branch of the church. Service book revision was begun by every church that had a service book. Presbyterians began to recognize the need to go beyond The Worshipbook. It was therefore no surprise that a new service book was soon called for.

Book of Common Worship—1993

In 1980 the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. approved an overture from the Presbytery of the Cascades calling for “a new book of services for corporate worship.” In adopting the overture, the General Assembly expressed the fervent hope that the new book would be “an instrument for the renewal of the church at its life-giving center.”

Immediately the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church approved participation in the project.  The process leading to a new service book called for the publication of trial-use resources prior to the finalization of the service book itself. Between 1984 and 1992 seven trial-use resources were published, each including proposed text for a portion of the service book. The trial-use volumes were published under the series title: Supplemental Liturgical Resources.

Each volume was prepared by a task force chosen for the task. From fifty to one hundred congregations were invited to review testing drafts of each of these resources prior to its approval for publication.

Suggestions received from these evaluations greatly contributed to the preparation of the final drafts, and thus to their usefulness in the church. Following the publication of each volume, evaluations and suggestions were received. These responses, based on their use, were carefully considered and were a valuable aid in revising the liturgical texts for inclusion in this book. In revised form the liturgical texts of the seven trial-use resources are included in this book.

During the course of the development of this service book, the reunion in 1983 of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) occurred. This resulted in the preparation of a new Directory for Worship. In the years that followed reunion, until the adoption of the new Directory for Worship in 1989, the preparation of the directory and the development of the service book followed parallel tracks. Because the work was concurrent, there was a creative exchange between the two tasks. Each influenced the other. Appearing four years after the adoption of the Directory, the final Book of Common Worship is consistent with the provisions of the Directory.

Ecumenical Convergence

The reform of worship in our time is the fruit of a movement that is now over one hundred and fifty years old. Beginning early in the nineteenth century the liturgical movement emerged as a force for the renewal of the Christian faith. While its early expressions tended toward romanticism, it matured into a vital force for renewal. It is now a major force directed toward the renewal of the Christian faith, both in its life together in worship and in its engagement in the world as a sign of the reign of God. While the movement started outside church bureaucracies and ecclesiastical councils, the churches have now embraced the central convictions of the movement. The liturgical reforms set in motion by Vatican II are the primary example.

During the past fifty years the Christian churches throughout the world have seen a reformation in worship unequaled in any other century. While styles vary between traditions, the shape of the liturgy among the various Christian traditions is witnessing a remarkable convergence. An example of such a convergence is the work of the World Council of Churches in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry and its related documents.

The preparation of the 1993 edition of the Book of Common Worship has had the advantage of the continuing liturgical work in all branches of the Christian church, and it reflects these emerging areas of convergence.

We are beginning to recognize that our true unity begins at the baptismal font. Baptism is now recognized as fundamental to the life of faith, forming Christians in faith and service. The centrality of the scripture read and proclaimed is being recovered due in large measure to the use of the lectionary. Since the publication of a lectionary that is embraced in whole or in part by a variety of traditions, we are recognizing our unity as we gather as one around the Word. We also share a common liturgical calendar. In celebrating the festivals and seasons, we find a certain unity as together we draw our life from the saving events of God in history.

We are moving toward unity at the table, as we are beginning to recognize that in belief and practice there is more that unites us in the Eucharist than divides us. The Eucharist is increasingly recognized as central to the liturgy on the Lord’s Day, and there is a steady movement toward weekly celebration. The continuing barriers that separate us from one another at the table stand in grievous contrast to the growing sense of unity we understand in our baptism, and as we hear the Word.

We are learning that unity at the font, pulpit, and table is the true road to healing the brokenness of Christ’s church. It is important to recognize that as Christians we share much of our history in common with other parts of the church. While the sixteenth-century reforms and events of later centuries are very important in shaping the particular way we worship, we share in common with other Christians fifteen centuries of pre-Reformation history.

Churches are beginning to recognize that the context in which we are called to witness to the gospel today is increasingly a missionary situation. This awareness is causing churches in a variety of traditions to go back to the sources, to find their roots in scripture and in the formative period of the church’s life. As we are reawakened to our common origins, liturgical reform results. It is in this search for renewal, which we share in common with other traditions, that convergence begins to take shape. In a variety of ways this book reflects this increasing convergence.

The ecumenical contributions to the Book of Common Worship include the revised Common Lectionary and liturgical texts prepared by ecumenical consultations. It should be no surprise that the book draws freely from various portions of the body of Christ, given the commitment that the Reformed tradition has to the ecumenical movement. The book seeks to rise above sectarian limitations in embodying the prayer of the church ecumenical.

Reformed and Catholic

The current Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church is offered to the church as a resource that is fully Reformed and truly catholic. In being Reformed, it embodies dominant characteristics of worship within the Reformed tradition. An important characteristic of worship in the Reformed tradition is that it centers on God rather than ourselves and our feelings. Our attention is drawn to the majesty and glory of the triune God, who created all things and by whose power all things are sustained, who was revealed in Jesus Christ raised from the dead to rule over all things, and who is at work as the giver of life in and among us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The focus of the forms in this book is fully theocentric.

True to the Reformed tradition, the current book is thoroughly biblical, expressing the faith proclaimed in scripture. Its texts are rooted in the story of God’s calling and redeeming a people in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and of God’s sending them in the power of the Holy Spirit to minister in the world. Liturgical texts make much use of biblical language and metaphor. The centrality of the proclamation of the Word through the reading of scripture and preaching is preserved.

This service book also honors the Reformed conviction that God is acting in history. God is not only the creator of all things, but rules over all things, and is involved in the affairs of the world to the end that the purposes of God may be embraced in all creation. In a variety of ways, the orders and forms contained in these pages underscore that liturgy and life, worship and mission belong together. The book therefore seeks to be in touch with the concerns of our times. Its prayers focus on the living issues in the world that confront us as we seek to be faithful disciples.

As stated above, this book honors the blend of freedom within form that characterizes Presbyterian worship. True freedom does not do away with form. On the contrary, form enables freedom to be truly free. Without structure, freedom can degenerate into license. The liturgical directions throughout the book are carefully worded to give direction without being mandatory.

While it is thoroughly Reformed, this book, like its predecessors, is also an expression of worship that is fully catholic. Indeed one could say that we are not truly Reformed unless we are truly catholic. This book is an expression of the church catholic, both in the faith that it expresses and in the liturgical practice it provides.

As with the sixteenth-century Reformers, the forms in this book are rooted in the earliest liturgical traditions that have characterized Christian worship throughout history. In keeping with the directories for worship, this book, like its 1970 predecessor, sets forth the Service for the Lord’s Day as a service of Word and Sacrament. The variety of Eucharistic prayers in the current book should serve the church well as it moves toward recognizing the centrality of the Lord’s Supper in its worship.

The celebrations of days and seasons that are provided for in these pages are those that have been at the heart of the way Christians keep time, centering most especially on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In being catholic, the book is universal in scope. It is informed by the way Christians have worshiped since earliest times, and so it reflects the growing convergence in liturgical theology and practice that characterizes our time.

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