Theology & Spirituality

When liturgy Is Not “The Liturgy”

“Liturgy” has become an increasingly pervasive buzzword in Evangelical circles. Books like James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit and Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life have resonated with Evangelicals, inspiring a cascade effect of articles about liturgy. If you type the word “liturgy” into some popular Evangelical websites, you get pieces like “#OccupyWallStreet: A Liturgy,” “Buying Used: A Life-Shaping Liturgy,” “The Quiet Liturgy of Fred Rogers,” and many more. A clear example of the Evangelical embrace of liturgy is the book Every Moment Holy which includes liturgies for changing diapers, beginning a book, welcoming a new pet, drinking morning coffee, and the loss of electricity among others. My point is not to make a judgment call about the relative merit of each of these articles and “liturgies,” but rather to pause and consider this expanded use of the word “liturgy” within the Evangelical context—and perhaps offer a corrective. 

First, a distinction must be made. The Liturgy, as understood by Catholic traditions (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism) is distinct from the way the word “liturgy” is employed in Evangelical parlance. The Liturgy refers to the common ceremonies that Christians have received from the Apostles. In spite of differences that developed as traditions evolved and matured, there is still a coherent and identifiable sacramental core to these rites: Baptism and the Eucharist, along with the other sacraments, convey actual grace in an objective manner. This is true because the form of these rites assumes the Church and its apostolic succession. In his beautiful book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages, Peter Kwasniewski articulately states the fact that “any liturgy whatsoever celebrated by the Church today rests upon and has its meaning from the liturgical tradition that preceded it” (130).  The Liturgy is not something that’s been invented by the Church, but rather is something delivered to her as a part of the apostolic deposit of faith. 

To better understand the Evangelical appropriation of the term, it is helpful to consider Smith’s more academic work—Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. The book does not limit the concept of liturgy to ecclesiastical services but includes anything and everything that is “formative”: practices, rituals, routines, and habits (26). If we give people a good liturgy, Smith hypothesizes, they will be taught to love the True, Good, and Beautiful. He calls this a “hearts and minds” strategy, as opposed to the post-Cartesian world’s bias towards the cerebral. 

I have little complaint with Smith’s thesis. In fact, there’s much to be learned from his writing, and his sacramentally-infused perspective adds a richness that many Evangelicals—with an implicit prejudice against Catholicism—wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Further, Smith retrieves an anthropology influenced by St. Augustine in a way that helps contemporary Christians better push back against the effects of the Enlightenment.

But have evangelicals appropriated Smith’s work rightly? Are there not pneumatological and ecclesiological considerations that must be accounted for? 

Evangelicals have a theology of the Holy Spirit that often emphasizes the individual’s relationship with the Holy Spirit. This is not entirely wrong, but it does tend to downplay the communal, ecclesial dimension of the Christian life. The “Johannine Pentecost” (John 20:19-23) points to this when Jesus breathes on the Disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The ecclesial context of the Christian life is further evident in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” The individual finds his significance in light of the whole. As a result, the Church is the primary place where the Spirit is discerned. This is not to say the Third Person of the Trinity is inaccessible to the individual, but that the individual has access through the Church: in the proclamation of the Gospel and participation in the Sacraments. In effect, the barrier between ecclesiology and pneumatology has to be collapsed for us to see clearly: the Church is how the Spirit is known and the Spirit is at work in the Church. This is why the creeds and liturgies of the Church matter: they are products of the Spirit’s empowerment. 

When everything becomes a “liturgy,” nothing is a liturgy. While I have no problem with people praying while they enjoy their morning coffee, to “liturgize” the experience seems an attempt at synthesizing the aesthetic of Instagram stories and “premiocrity” with a thin veneer of Christian tradition. In fact, the Evangelical industrial complex is largely syncretistic with the ideology of big box stores and coffee shops. This is not what the historic Church has meant by the use of the term “liturgy.” 

Historically, liturgy has centered around the sacraments, particularly Baptism and the Eucharist. The problem with an overly-expansive definition of liturgy is that it fails to properly understand and deploy Prosper of Aquitane’s adage: lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of belief). In her liturgies, the Church has preserved the deposit of faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The liturgy we participate in as the Church is our theology; systematic theology can never be divorced from liturgical theology. In contrast, when individuals fashion custom liturgies, the Church relinquishes her control of theology and the individual inhabits merely their own creation. This is not to say there is no room for liturgical revision—or even the creation of new liturgies—but those developments must occur within the context of the broader Church rather than the individual life. If one participates in non-Catholic liturgies, it is inevitable that they will embrace non-Catholic theology. 

A final problem with the proliferation of “liturgies” is that self-constructed liturgies broadly fail to distinguish between natural and supernatural virtues. According to Aquinas, virtue is generally habitual, something which orders us to an end. However, the theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) are distinct from cardinal virtues (Prudence, Courage, Temperance, and Justice). The difference, for Thomas, lies in the teleology of the theological virtues which is aimed at the “ultimate end of things, God Himself, insofar as He exceeds our reason’s cognition.”  Moral virtues, by contrast, can exist independently of the theological virtues. Many of the great pagan thinkers in history, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, were people of great moral virtue even though they may have lacked the theological virtues. This is because the moral virtues are inculcated through habit; if you want to develop temperance, try fasting. Further, the moral virtues do have a valid function, because they reveal that the rational human being is oriented towards the highest Good. However, one cannot evoke through habit the theological virtues necessary to access God because those virtues must be infused into the person by the Holy Ghost. The liturgy of the Church (and the corresponding growth in theological virtues) is a pneumatological phenomenon, while moral virtues are developed through good habits. 

This suggests an even sharper critique: the Evangelical appropriation of the liturgical risks Pelagianism. Instead of simply acknowledging a good habit as a good habit, the Evangelical tendency to make it a “liturgical experience” risks making the newly created “liturgy” a place where grace becomes merited. Liturgies of “buying used” or “drinking morning coffee” are attempts to create meaning, rather than efforts to discern a meaning already present. Of course, there is a sense in which everything is spiritual, but the line of influence is crucially reversed: it is because of the liturgical principle out of which we live, where we recognize that God offers us grace in the Mass, that we are freed from the need to construct our own liturgies. We begin to see the objective grace around us because of the Liturgy, not because of our own constructions. 

In short, sustainable living and coffee are imbued with their own goodnesses. By “liturgizing” those things, we end up degrading the Liturgy by bringing God into the natural realm, rather than allowing him to bring us into the supernatural glory of the Mass which flows from Christ’s sacrifice for us. 

The nascent emphasis on liturgy in Evangelical circles is commendable because it represents the rediscovery of a virtue ethic. This is an important anthropological contribution. However, while it is good, it is not the Sacramental best. When one understands the true nature of the Church, one adjusts their framework by which “liturgy” is understood: liturgy is not something created but received. Therefore, it cannot be divorced from its ecclesial context.

Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team and is working on his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their dog. He co-hosts The Sacramentalists Podcast.

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