Is Liturgy Biblical?

We’re thinking about liturgy and whether it has any enduring value in a church which has, at least in part, rejected it in favour of singing songs. One of the big questions which I’m asked from time to time is whether liturgy is ‘biblical’. Lurking behind this question is the suggestion that if it isn’t, if it is merely a human invention, then we shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

Firstly I point out that data projectors aren’t biblical, but we don’t seem to feel that they are a problem. But underneath this is a much deeper and far more complex truth. In order to understand it we’ll have to take a trip back to childhood, and then beyond that to the 15th century.

So here are some pieces of liturgy – see if you can complete the responses:

‘What big teeth you’ve got, Grandma …’

‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and …’

‘Who’s been sleeping in my …’

‘Cheer up, Cinderella, you shall …’

You get the idea. The fact is that even in our post-book culture we imbibe little bits of ‘liturgy’ with our mothers’ milk, and they stay with us, woven into the fabric of our memories. Different editions of children’s books may tell the stories slightly differently, but those little ‘punch lines’ are eternal and unchangeable, and it is those which we remember. If that is how we work, how much more would that have been the case for pre-book cultures.

The fact that when we think ‘liturgy’ we think ‘book’ is due to an event in history which shaped our world more than just about anything else. Somewhere around 1450 (the exact date is disputed) Gutenberg invented the printing press, and this simple piece of technology changed the world, about as radically as information technology has changed it in my lifetime. Before that the technology available for producing books was called ‘monks’, which meant that books were expensive and rare. Producing books took years, not least because the monks would insist on doing little coloured doodles in the margins instead of just getting on with the job. You used books to store stuff you already knew in safe keeping. But now things were different – you could produce hundreds of copies very cheaply and quickly. The role of books changed: they were now where you found out stuff you didn’t already know.

The church was quick to use this technology: Archbishop Thomas Cranmer set every parish a copy of the new Prayer Book with the instruction that from Pentecost 1549 only these liturgies were to be used in English parishes, thus establishing the Reformation and Protestantism in the land. But how different this approach from that of the Early Church. With its Jewish liturgical heritage early Christianity would have functioned much more like the nursery rhymes above, with short, pithy and highly memorable words which everyone would have known by heart.

So to the question ‘Why is there no liturgy in the Bible?’ the answer is that it is full of the stuff! We have fixed acclamations, often in a foreign language: Amen, Alleluia, Maranatha, Abba. There are doxologies and blessings: 1 Tim 1:17, Rom 11:33-36, hymns: Eph 5:14, 1 Tim 3:16, and creeds: Rom 10:9, 1 Cor 8:6, 15:3-5. There are also physical gestures and postures: 1 Tim 2:8, 1 Cor 16:20, Ax 21:5, and there are festivals: 1 Cor 16:8. These are just a selection of the ways in which liturgical worship would have been part of the Early Church. Basically if you look in the New Testament for bit set out as poetry rather than prose, the chances are you’ve got a liturgical text which would have been well known in the church. Early Church worship was liturgical worship.

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