Traditional liturgy, through its ceremony and ability to effect a sense of the transcendent, opens the human heart and mind not only to truth, but to other realms of being. If liturgy accomplishes this, so does literature, for what does a good story or a good drama accomplish, but to take us for a time to another world—a parallel reality that sheds light on our own reality?

It sometimes troubles me to read the writings of expert liturgiologists—both the ones who are relevant and up to date and the ones who are devoted to more traditional forms of worship. There are two tendencies that irritate. The first is theoretical. The second is practical.

First, it seems that both sides in the “liturgy wars” are driven by opposing ideologies. The liturgy has become a battleground for bigger conflicts. The mantra lex orandi lex credendi (what is prayed is what is believed) is repeated and affirmed, and the practice proves the point. Two essentially opposing understandings of the whole identity and mission of the church are exemplified by the architecture, music, catechesis, and liturgical style. The two perspectives can be summed up as “man centered” or “God centered.”

In the first, the identity and mission of the church is for the building up of the people of God. Everything follows from that: the priest must face the people. The liturgy must be in the vernacular. The buildings must be egalitarian, warm, and welcoming. The homilies must be instructional, therapeutic, and useful. The music should be accessible and participatory. In other words, it should be singable, enjoyable, and inspiring. The fellowship of the believers and their good work in the world is the objective and purpose of it all. God is there as a kind of benevolent senior partner—a kindly Grandpa who presides proudly at Thanksgiving dinner with a smile, a hug, and a nostalgic tear of gratitude in his eye.

In the second, the identity and mission of the church is the dutiful adoration of Almighty God and the offering of the eternal sacrifice which includes the sacrifice of ourselves in loving service. The priest faces God, not the people. His homily is strictly doctrinal and ethical, outlining the teachings of the church. If it is dull in delivery, erudite, theological and opaque, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the truth was proclaimed. Neither does it matter if the words of the liturgy are not understood by the people. Indeed, if the language is archaic and incomprehensible it adds to the mystery. The architecture must reflect the truth that the church is the temple—the dwelling place of God and the place of the holy sacrifice. The people are mere supplicants. Likewise, the music and iconography must be sublime, transcendent—taking the  worshipper to the very threshold of heaven where the Immortal Invisible God Only Wise reigns in timeless majesty.

The two opposing armies then begin to put into place the liturgy that fits their perspective. Everything from architecture to the hymnals and how the “cry room” is used must conform to the theory. This practical aspect often turns into a kind of legalism in which certain practices, particular music, and devotions are adhered to not for their intrinsic worth one way or the other, but included simply because it is “what we do” or excluded because that’s “what they do.” The opposing sides face off and condemn or embrace certain practices out of ideological legalism.

Ever since I came across it as a student my life has been guided by the aphorism by the Anglican writer F.D. Maurice that “a man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.” In other words, if we can see the best of all things we will soon have the best of all things. As a parish priest I wonder why the proper worship of Almighty God should not also be accessible, practical, and help to build up the people of God. Surely both are not only possible, but preferable? It is, then, a question of priorities. Our Lord commands us to love our neighbor, but he commands us to love the Lord our God first.

Perhaps the way to establish a truce in the liturgy wars is to therefore not only agree that the worship of God is the first priority and that the edification of the people flows from that, but also to look at the fundamental chemistry of worship. What I am pondering is difficult to articulate because it is beyond articulation. I am digging at what might be termed “the essential language of worship” and below that the essential language of religion in general.

When I say “language” I am not referring to the actual verbal language of the liturgy. In this respect I don’t give two hoots about whether the language of the liturgy is Latin, Greek, Old Slavonic, Elizabethan English, Aramaic, Coptic, or Modern American. The debates about “sacred language” or “the dignified language of worship” are all well and good, but I’m referring to another language which is below, behind, and above the verbal forms of communication we use.

The non-verbal language of liturgy is also the most basic language of literature. The true language of drama and story is not the particular dialect of verbal communication that is used. That is merely a vehicle for another kind of communication. The non-verbal communication is one of emotion conveyed through symbol and sign, interpersonal relationships, the hidden providence of plot lines, the “character arc” and the crisis of problem and solution. In other words, the participation in the story and drama through hearing, watching, and emotional engagement is the essential language of literature and the essential language of liturgy.

The verbal language is simply the method whereby the individual conducts a transaction with the non verbal. In the essential transaction of both literature and liturgy the mind and the heart are engaged and action is motivated by something more than mere words.

What constitutes this “non verbal language” of literature and liturgy? The words are part of a larger action—the drama, if you like, of liturgy. Within that action, symbols and signs operate non verbally. Relationships between people operate non verbally. The thrust and adventure of the plot line and the resolution of conflict all operate non verbally, but there is more. It is no coincidence that drama first developed within the context of religious ritual. The great myths were enacted. The interaction of gods and men were played out on the stage. The primitive drama was ceremonial, ritualistic, and arcane.

The ritualistic and ceremonial enactment sparked an engagement with symbols, signs, and archetypes on the chthonic and mythic levels of shared human experience, and all of this took place on a level of consciousness which might be called sub-linguistic. At the same time, the rituals of religion opened the individual to higher planes of consciousness which might be termed supra linguistic. Liturgy and literature therefore allowed the participant to plunge into the depths of humanity’s soul while also empowering the ascent to higher realms of reality.

Traditional forms of liturgy with the emphasis on ritual and ceremony engage the participants most effectively in this non verbal communication with the ineffable.

This came home to me some months ago when viewing the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle. Crowds were gathered to participate in a liturgical action that was highly dramatic and literary. Before us in a castle was the warrior prince in his military uniform and his bride was the common “Cinderella” plucked from obscurity to become a princess. The Queen and “King” were there, and if you follow royal soap operas Camilla the Duchess of Cornwall had been cast as the wicked stepmother, and the press had conveniently and unkindly pressed Prince Andrew’s daughters into the role of the “ugly sisters.” As Archbishop Runcie said at the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, “this is the stuff that fairy tales are made of.”

As such, the crowds connected with the truths of fairy tales in a similar way that they connect with hearing or seeing a fairy tale. Truths which might be stated in a discursive way like “the sacredness of marriage” or “the magnificence of royalty” or “the humble being lifted high” or “the sacrifices and blessings of love.”

The transaction was not only literary, it was liturgical. It was through participation in the liturgy that the crowd—indeed the whole world—experienced something greater than themselves, and they did so without thinking it through. Their participation and enthusiasm was simple, ordinary, and yet the connections with deeper truths were powerful and real even if they were unconscious.

Traditional liturgy involves us in this same kind of interaction with the non-verbal every week and every day. If liturgy is to be relevant, then this is very relevant and practical indeed. To put it simply, traditional worship, through its ceremony and ability to effect a sense of the transcendent, opens the human heart and mind not only to truth, but to other realms of being.

If liturgy accomplishes this, so does literature, for what does a good story or a good drama accomplish, but to take us for a time to another world—a parallel reality that sheds light on our own reality? Understanding this, it is time perhaps to take this more literary approach to liturgy and to understand that divine worship is much more like a good play or novel than it is a pep rally, a therapy session, or a family get together.

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Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Bishop Serving the Divine Liturgy” (1770) by Ivan Ivanovich Belsky (1719-1799), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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