I like words.
I like reading other people’s words, diving deeply into books and stories that bring a whole new world to life inside my mind. Putting just the right combination of words together can unearth amazing insights, powerful challenges that move me to agree or disagree, or just enjoy the moment.
And so I find it surprising to have realised in recent years, that despite enjoying words, I find a great deal of disconnect when it comes to words in Christian worship.
I’ve grown up as part of the Uniting Church, and now work within it. One of the common forms of regular worship in the Uniting Church is a full written liturgy – where the leader/minister speaks, and there’s a pre-determined response to be read by the congregation. Sometimes it is confession, sometimes praise, sometimes prayer, sometimes lament. The whole service is printed, or projected and I simply follow along. I might be wrong, but it seems that the full written liturgy is even more common now than it was in my childhood – or maybe I was too busy not paying attention back then to notice what was going on.
Even the songs are scripted parts of the service, the words lovingly crafted, music prepared, all of us singing in unison.
So why? Why don’t I like liturgies that are rich, carefully prepared and in which there are wonderful words that paint pictures and tell stories? Why don’t I like liturgies in which I identify with the whole church in every time and place by sharing in common responses, in which I respond with my neighbour in the next pew with words of solidarity and common commitment?
As best I can tell, the answer is that in the liturgy, the words are not my words. The commitments are not my commitments. The confessions are not my confessions. The prayers are not my prayers.
They are other peoples thoughts, expressions, words and I find myself parroting them. Sometimes mindlessly, I’ll read from the service sheet, no idea what the words mean to the one who wrote them or what I’m saying aloud.
It’s far more a critique of my capacity to take the words, internalise them, agree and then participate, but it’s still there, this discomfort with other people’s words.
What’s the alternative? For me, for my capacity to encounter and respond to God in the gathered community of faith (surely the purpose of worship?) I need to be invited to bring my own words, bring my own experience, my own story. And I need to hear the story, the words, the experience of my neighbour as she encounters and responds to God….so I can agree, or disagree, support or encourage.
I need to be in a community that recognises that even though the words of the service might be shaped around thankfulness and gratitude, some of us might that day be experiencing broken-ness and pain. Or on days when we’ve predetermined to lament and cry-out, there might be some among us who are in the midst of a rich praise-worthy moment, a time of celebration that could be shared.
That sounds messy even as I write it. And it would be. it sounds like it limits the size of a gathering. And it would. It sounds like some people would be uncomfortable and laid bare. And they would.
The full written liturgy….feels like it stifles and binds my community, and me. It calls for a pre-determined response to and encounter with God. It points to Jesus…but stops me from responding to him.
Why? Maybe I’m a self-absorbed Gen X, wanting to tear down traditions and remake them in my own image. Maybe I’m not getting the point of sharing words with those sitting around me. Maybe I misunderstand worship entirely. All of these are possible, even probable.
Whatever the cause…the outcome remains. I don’t like full liturgy.
And that makes worship difficult when that’s what is on offer.