(A Scene of Profound Theological Reflection)
It’s often observed that the word liturgy, which we think of as “worship” or “a religious service”, originates in two Greek words, laos (people) and eras (work), and that the word liturgy thus means something like “the work of the people”, although the nuances can be argued.
As an Anglican Christian, I appreciate that our prayer is common, meaning that there is clearly defined role for the people, who, with the priest or minister, come together to give praise and thanksgiving to God. In this regard, our liturgies are formative, in that thanks to our shared roles as clergy and people, we are taught and shaped by our worship.
At the end of his chapter on “Moral Communication” in his book, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, the Anglican theological Oliver O’Donovan finishes his discussion of the role of the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount with a meditation on the importance of the first person pronoun in our liturgy. O’Donovan’s insight that prayer should feature “we” rather than “I” helps me to explain a slight discomfort that I have sometimes felt in attending some evangelical protestant religious services. This discomfort (and this is not meant as a criticism of evangelical forms of worship so much as an awareness of a difference) arises from the sense that the worship leader or pastor’s experience of faith and belief is normative, for example, in whatever ad lib explanation of communion is offered before the action itself, so that the congregation is left as best they can to map their own experience to what they hear expressed.
At the very centre of this text of moral teaching (Mt 6:1-18) there is the teaching of a prayer – not only how to pray, that is, but what to pray. Precise words are prescribed. If we have understood the relation of prayer to moral thought, we shall not be surprised at this. That such words should be open to private and public elaboration (economical elaboration, if we take Jesus’ warning seriously!), that they should generate noble liturgies and passionate private intercessions may be taken as a matter of course. Yet the words are not merely an outline, a set of heads of advice or agenda items. They are themselves a possession of irreplaceable importance in forming the “we”, the community of moral practice (italics mine). That is why they should be placed – the bare text without embroidery or expansion – at the core of every Christian liturgy.
The conception of worship as magnified personal self-expression, a large-screen projection of the “i”, obstructs the formation of the community by depriving lay members of the congregation of their proper ownership of the words of prayer. If the primary material for common reflection, replacing hymns and prayers that can be learned, possessed, and used by every worshipper, comes to be the spontaneous feelings of the minister and the autobiographies of selected model Christians, there is no room for the interaction of community and individual to develop. The model “I” overwhelms the (genuinely) personal contribution of the worshipper with a fake personality, imposing sentiments, moods, narratives, and reactions even to the minister, who affects them at the price of forcing his or her real personality into a straitjacket, trying to be the one and single and embracing personality that will serve for all.
In traditional liturgies the occasional appearance of the first-person singular (in baptism and at the recitation of the creed) points to the Holy Spirit’s grafting of the believer into the community. Yet its comparatively restricted liturgical presence and its total absence from the prayer Jesus taught, where the first-person is always plural, points to the common identity built up by prescribed prayer, the “we” within each and every “I” can realize itself. The formal and predictable character of liturgy, giving us a purchase on the common “we”, enables us to accomplish a personal self-offering together with all others who are gathered for worship. The liturgical consideration of the “we” is one aspect of what should be meant by that pregnant, if elusive phrase, “ecclesial density”.