But what I've been dwelling on the last several days is a little different. It seems to me that worship -- as an act, as well as its associated furnishings and so on -- is in many religions assumed to be an earthly re-enactment of a heavenly original. Our ritual is not merely made up for effect: it's an imitation, a parable, a performance in time of something eternal. By our participation -- by our copying what has been revealed -- we allow its power to flow into us (and through us, to the world beyond), and we are caught up in some measure into the reality we stretch to encompass.
I think all of my friends from the liturgical Churches would agree with that: Roman Catholics; Eastern Orthodox; Anglicans; even Lutherans. Each of them is intensely concerned with the pattern of their worship. The Orthodox, especially, with the altar within the iconostasis, bringing the bread of heaven out to the people, then returning it to the inner sanctuary, seem especially to be acting out what they perceive to be the eternal pattern of the Gospel. And all the liturgical Churches care very deeply about the Eucharist.
On the other hand, there are plenty of Churches that take a very utilitarian view of worship. They organize their liturgies as if they were attending a public rally or a rock concert or a self-help group (depending upon their favorite cultural models). Back in the day, they organized them on the revival model. In that model, worship was about preaching for a decision, leading up to an invitation and the conversion experience of sinners. In other words, it wasn't just about God (and what happens within you when you meet God); it was about You (and getting you to want to come to him).
I've worshiped both ways. The true Via Media -- pace my Anglican friends -- is Methodism, which is both liturgical and free at the same time. And what I've noticed is that both kinds of worship have certain problems.
The problem with liturgigeekery is that people get obsessed with formulas. Having once fixed upon a particular expression or order of things, they freeze it in place and become Rottweilers attacking anyone who might suggest that their way of worship is not Pure and Unalterable. Some of them become, well, cranks. On the other hand, the problem with doin' yer own thang is that it just gets sloppy -- or manipulative. And even though there is a pattern in the evangelical, low-church way of worship, any bozo can take a detour and make a hash of whatever he's doing, just because "the Spirit was movin' in him." Baloney.
When I was in seminary, I learned the pattern of a Great Thanksgiving. This enabled me to be spontaneous in prayer before the altar. The words I chose on a given occasion might be made up on the spot, but always, I was following a pattern and using formulas that fit together to do it well. This freedom to follow the pattern spontaneously was a new thing back then. It wasn't meant to replace printed prayers in the Hymnal; rather, it was meant to enrich our worship life. I still do this from time to time -- and do it, I dare say, as well as it can be done. But many of my colleagues abused their freedom. People started praying any which way at the altar, and offering the bread and wine in all sorts of ways, and many of them didn't even know they were supposed to be following a pattern, let alone what went in it. The result is the mishmash one finds all too often in ecumenical retreats. Nowadays, the UMC is prodding us all to "do it by the book," because we've shown that, without guidance, a lot of us are going to do some awful communions. And what is true of communion is true of the rest of worship, and how it is performed.
On which side do I fall? If I have to err, on which side is it less grievous to err? I don't know. But this I do know: there is a pattern, because there is an original. The tradition handed down to us is not just made up at our convenience. And while, I'm not much of a musty crusty, in love with all things that are just OLD, neither am I an ADHD worship leader, addicted to fads.
Even when I'm making it up, I'm following a PATTERN: because the pattern is a copy of something important, something that communicates more than my words or the music or whatever. And people who get used to that pattern are by it brought into the presence of Christ, where his Spirit can get next to them, without the distractions of always trying to figure out what is expected of one.
In the continuum between Formless and Fossilized, put me down for a disciplined freedom in leading worship.