The Styles Of Protestant Worship

For most people, Protestantism is encountered primarily through the regular acts of worship of its churches. Protestantism is most regularly experienced and encountered as a living reality through its Sunday worship and its marriages, baptisms, and funerals. Any account of how Protestantism manifests itself must therefore include description and analysis of Protestant worship.

Yet this is not the easiest of tasks, mainly because of the astonishing variety of forms of worship now encountered within Protestant worship. This diversity is evident even within Protestant denominations, such as Anglicanism. Anglican congregations that worship in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, influenced by the Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century, generally have the eucharist (often referred to as the "mass") at the heart of their worship. The eucharist is typically celebrated with elaborate rituals and settings reminiscent of Catholicism prior to the Second Vatican Council, by priests who are often sumptuously attired in stoles and chasubles. The order of worship follows a fixed liturgy, with set prayers for each Sunday and seasonal variations for Advent, Christmas, and so forth.

Anglican congregations that worship in the evangelical tradition, in marked contrast, tend to focus on the reading and preaching of the word of God, and their ministers (note the terminology) either wear the clerical robes specified during the Elizabethan era or abandon robes altogether in favor of suits. The eucharist (usually referred to as the "Lord's Supper") is generally seen as an occasional event that serves as a reminder of the death of Christ. The worship is often informal, without any set liturgy.

While there is an astonishing diversity of worship forms within classical Protestantism, three features almost invariably lie at their heart: the use of the vernacular, the public reading of scripture, and a sermon or homily based on that text.17 These features may be characteristic of Protestantism; however, they are no longer distinctive. Since the Second Vatican Council, the structure of Catholic worship has become much more similar to that of its Protestant counterparts, especially Lutherans and Anglicans. The mass is no longer said in Latin, scripture is more extensively read, and sermons are more biblical.

There are, of course, significant differences within Protestantism over all these matters, particularly since the emergence of Pentecostal-ism, with its highly distinctive, nontraditional worship styles. Some Protestant congregations follow a lectionary, which allocates set biblical readings for each Sunday of the year; others choose to work through specific books of the Bible, generally chosen by the clergy—the practice developed by Calvin and known as lectio continua.

Some historical controversies may help illuminate some Protestant concerns about worship. Without doubt, the most contentious issue to divide Protestantism was whether prayer and worship should be extempore and informal or follow a set form. This debate lay behind the famous "Troubles of Frankfurt" of 1554. During the troubled reign of Mary Tudor, many English Protestants fled to the safety of European cities, including Frankfurt. They began to meet regularly for worship. But how were they to worship?

A major disagreement erupted over whether the congregation should use the 1552 prayer book, drawn up by Thomas Cranmer during the reign of Edward VI. John Knox, then serving as one of the pastors of the church, refused to use the prayer book and wrote to Calvin for advice.18 From that letter, it is possible to work out the points of contention: the minister being required to wear a surplice; the use of appointed lessons, prescribed prayers, and fasts; the inclusion of high feasts and holidays; and the use of the sign of the cross in baptism. Some English Protestants, including Richard Cox, wanted "Protestantism with an English face"; others, including Knox and William Whittingham (who was later responsible for the Geneva Bible), believed that the prayer book both limited Protestant freedom to worship and included practices of highly questionable provenance. Knox hinted darkly that it appeared to include some material that was little more than superstitious.

In its place, Knox proposed a form of common worship to be used by the English congregation at Geneva. This was adopted, with some modifications, when Knox moved to Scotland. Although this form of worship is often referred to as a "liturgy," it is more a directory, stipulating the overall shape that worship should take. The order of worship for the weekly service on the Lord's day was determined to be: an opening congregational prayer for confession of sin; the congregational singing of a psalm; a prayer before the sermon; the sermon itself, along with the biblical passage on which it was based; a prayer for the church; the congregational singing of a second psalm; and the minister pronouncing a blessing (taken from scripture) upon the congregation.

So what role did the laity play in worship? In recent years, growing attention has been paid to the practice in early Protestant churches of involving the laity in worship through "prophesying."19 This is generally interpreted as an attempt to involve the laity in public worship so as to affirm the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" in the face of the rise of a new professional class of preachers and ministers, which seemed to pose a threat to the fundamental principles of Protestantism. Although lay involvement appears to have been common in some churches during the 1550s, in the end these "prophesyings" were brought to an end because they were regarded as disruptive and unhelpful. They have reemerged, however, in recent years in Pentecostalism, which is committed to the all-important notion of the "prophethood of all believers."

We have already hinted at the importance of preaching for Protestant worship. Since it plays such an important role in maintaining Protestant identity, it merits much more detailed discussion.

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