What’s Liturgy?


September 22, 2014 by Worship, Community, Formation

To begin with, you think liturgy is the words you say in church.   Then someone tells you that the word means ‘the work of the people’.   From Greek roots, I gather.

‘-urgy’ is not a commonly used suffix, but there’s a helpful parallel in the word ‘metallurgy’.   This means, not the work of metal, but the working of metal. I think of liturgy as being the working of people – the shaping and forming of them, through regular habits of worship and prayer.

But given how poorly most lay people understand the worship they engage with, it’s probably not enough for this generation to say, ‘sit back and be worked, like metal’. Unlike metal, people learn from taking part in creating an activity as well as from receiving it. Including lay people in planned worship is one step: I have learnt to pray better by leading intercessions; I have learnt to understand Paul better by having to read him aloud to others in church. But it can’t end there: I also need to learn how to shape myself by shaping liturgy itself.  And so do others.

When priests and church leaders grasp these two things – the likely meaning of liturgy, and the complexity of the people who must be worked – perhaps they can become more purposeful about their role in involving people. The priestly role is developmental as well as presidential. They should remember that there is always a mini-eschaton (end-time) coming up for their community – namely, the next interregnum, a time when in many churches lay people absolutely do have to shape their own worship, or at least govern it.

If liturgy is the working of the people, that working may happen not just during worship, but in any preparation for, or reflection on, worship. And if people are to learn to do that, priests need to learn how to ‘work the people’ in other ways and at other times than during parish services. They are faced with this challenge: how do you bring a group of lay people together to prepare worship in a way that isn’t just a bun-fight about everyone’s individual preferences? There are ways, not even very difficult ways to do it, but a bit of ‘hierurgy’ (working of the priesthood) might be called for to prepare them for that important task!

This isn’t an idle fantasy or a nice add-on: the liturgy is the most important thing the church community does – more than keeping the roof on, more than visiting the sick – because it’s the only unique offer of the church; the only thing that no-one else can do and only we can do. Stanley Hauerwas says (I recollect, not having the book in my house) in Resident Aliens, that the people get the priest they deserve, and the priest gets the people s/he deserves. In other words, it’s a joint effort and we have to present to each other the expectation that they other will be focussed on God.

5 thoughts on “What’s Liturgy?

  1. […] liturgy is the working of the people, and in terms of shaping people each of those four elements is as […]

  2. […] you believe that liturgy is the working of the people, then you come to see most problems liturgically.  I certainly do.    People are hugely social, […]

  3. brgeem says:

    And, as many of the Fathers – and Mothers – of the Church have pointed out, one way of ‘working’ is to sit and listen.

  4. […] On another site, we are reminded […]

  5. Liturgy says:


    You may be interested, I have referred to your post here: http://liturgy.co.nz/liturgy-work-for-the-people



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