Nonliturgical Spirituality

Liturgical spiritually was anathema to some elements in Protestant Christianity.

The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, Seren Kierkegaard, wrote: 'what Pascal says about Christianity is entirely true, the truest words ever spoken about Christianity, that it is a society of men who, with the help of a few sacraments, exempt themselves from the duty of loving God' (Plekon 1992:221). George Fox, founder of Quakerism, and Pascal's contemporary, used sacramental language, but did not believe that there was any warrant in Scripture, where the word Sacrament is not found, for the ordinances of the Church: Jesus' saying at the Last Supper, 'This is my body', is metaphorical, like 'I am the true vine'—a not infrequent Puritan contention. The phrase 'as oft as you take it' does not mean 'you must take it always'. His protest is against the observance of an outward, formal act, which may make no apparent difference to living.

For after yee have eaten in remembrance of his death then yee must come into his death & die with him if yee will live with him as ye Apostles did: & yt is a neerer & a further state to be in ye fellowshippe with him in his death, then to take bread and wine in rembrans of his death.

There is here both the desire for immediacy of communion with Christ and ethical concern (Nuttall 1947:100-1).

The Society of Friends, as the Quakers came to be called, do not worship with a liturgy but by silent waiting upon God. This is seen, not as a prelude to mystic union, but rather to the guidance of the Spirit who will give them the words to speak. Quaker devotional writing has been powerful. Examples include John Woolman's Journal from eighteenth-century America and the work of Rendel Harris (1852-1941), the textual scholar. In one of his many spiritual writings, Union with God, he imagines himself being asked, 'Why don't you say that religion means being baptised, taking the Lord's Supper, saying the Ten Commandments and reading your Bible? Well, because this is not the way the New Testament sees it' (Harris 1913:32). The writings of Thomas R.Kelly (1893-1941) still bring refreshment and relief from 'the vagaries of ritualism' or 'the dull institutionalism' of much Christianity as they expound in language of great beauty the eternal truths of the inner life and the peace that passes understanding. Even so, there has in recent years been a two-way traffic between Quakers and Roman Catholicism, finding common ground in the contemplative rather than the liturgical tradition of prayer.

Some seventeenth-century extremists were totally against 'stinted forms' and opposed congregational singing of psalms or hymns or the use of prayers (even the Lord's Prayer) composed in advance as being a denial of the Holy Spirit, whose inspiration must be an immediate and present reality. John Bunyan was not one of the most radical sectarians, but liturgy provokes his most sarcastic invective. He sneers at those who have:

both the Manner and Matter of their Prayers at their finger-ends; setting such a Prayer for such a day, and that twenty years before it comes. One for Christmass, another for Easter and six dayes after that. They have also bounded how many syllables must be said in every one of them at their public Exercises. For each Saint's day also, they have them ready for the generations yet unborn to say. They can tell you also when you shall kneel, when you should stand, when you should abide in your seats, when you should go up into the Chancel, and what you should do when you come there. All which the Apostles came short of, as not being able to compose so profound a matter.

(Greaves 1976:247-8).

Bunyan believes that liturgy is the enemy of spirituality. 'Spirit' is the operative word. He fears that religious duties and obligations may be fulfilled in a 'legal spirit', so that faith becomes a business transaction (a covenant of works) rather than a personal relationship of grace, so that the 'spirit' in the sense of the inward disposition, the Holy Spirit taking possession of the whole being, is of no concern provided the rules are kept and the bargain honoured. He was too well aware of quarrels over liturgy, not least the bitter controversies among his own people over Baptism. It must not be forgotten that the English liturgy in Bunyan's day and for long afterwards was an instrument of political oppression. It represented a Church by law established so that those who could not conform to its use were victims of social and political discrimination. It represented a governing hierarchy, and though it helped to maintain the good order of the State, it denied what many believed was the rightful freedom of Christians, as well as in their view being dubiously faithful to Christ and to Scripture.

Spirituality may be the great critic of imposed and authorized forms of worship, yet it influences liturgy; so that it may be said that today's liturgy is yesterday's spirituality. For good or ill, and for many kinds of social, cultural and intellectual reasons, ways of praying develop which, in due course and often subtly, come to affect the form or, more commonly, the actual practice of liturgy. Only perhaps in modern Western mainstream Churches has liturgy become responsive to changes of mood and outlook. Readiness to change liturgy in this way is a recent and significant development.

Liturgy has also, however, had the great virtue of being a preservative of truths of the Christian faith which may lie buried within it until their hour has come. The Tractarians of early nineteenth-century Anglicanism believed that there was a Catholicism in the Prayer Book communion rite which had been obscured by the bias in church life and practice towards Protestantism, but which a Catholic emphasis on reverence and ceremonial could recover. Their successors, the Anglo-Catholics, were not content with that rite and incorporated into it prayers from other (chiefly Roman Catholic) sources, to make up for its deficiencies. Liturgy cannot remain intact if it does not express the spirituality of those who use it.

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