March 20, 2003

The Reformers on Worship

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

Another quotation from James Jordan‘s The Sociology of the Church:

The Bible taught the early church how to worship, but in the later Middle Ages, great corruptions set in. The Protestant Reformers were primarily interested in the restoration of worship, rightly perceiving it as the center of the Kingdom. After all, when God called Israel out of Egypt it was not first and foremost to establish a theocratic nation, but to engage in a third-day worship festival. Unfortunately, within a hundred years, the liturgical dreams of the Reformers were mostly in shambles.The Reformers wanted three things. First, they wanted a return to Biblical regulation of worship. Almost immediately, however, this concern was sidetracked by a minimalist approach. The rule, “we should do in worship only what is actually commanded in Scripture,” was taken in an increasingly restrictive sense. The Reformers had realized that God’s “commands” are found in Scripture in “precept, principle, and example.” Their heirs tended to exchange this wholistic openness to the Word of God for a quest for “explicit commands.” Instead of reading the Bible to see the patterns presented there for our imitation, there was an attempt to find the bare minimum of what is actually “commanded” in the New Testament. The book of Revelation, which shows how worship is conducted in heaven (“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”), was ignored. Anabaptist minimalism soon overwhelmed the Reformed churches.

Second, the Reformers wanted a return to Old Catholic forms, as they understood them. A reading of the liturgies they wrote shows this. Though all of the Reformers tended to over-react against anything that reminded them of Italo-Papal imperial oppression, they were not so “anti-catholic” as to reject the early church. Soon, however, sectarian reaction against anything that “smacks of Rome” overwhelmed their concern.

Third, the Reformers wanted participation in worship from the whole priesthood of all believers. They wrote dialogue liturgies in which the people had many things to say and sing. They had their congregations singing, for instance, the creeds, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. Soon, however, the strength of the Medieval devotional tradition reasserted itself —┬áthe “low mass” tradition in which the people only sat and watched and listened, while the minister did everything. This Medieval tradition was the essence of the Puritan view of worship. In worship, the Puritans departed from the desires of the Protestant Reformers.

It is important to understand that although the Puritans did uphold the theology of the Reformers, they rejected the Reformers’ views on worship at some crucial points. After the Puritan Revolution failed and Charles II came to the English throne, there was a conference at Savoy between Puritan Presbyterian churchmen and the newly restored Anglican bishops. It is very interesting to note what the Presbyterians proposed. They wanted “to omit ‘the repetitions and responsals of the clerk and people, and the alternate reading of Psalms and Hymns, which cause a confused murmur in the congregation’: ‘the minister being appointed for the people in all Public Services appertaining to God; and the Holy Scriptures … intimating the people’s part in public prayer to be only with silence and reverence to attend thereunto and to declare their consent in the close, by saying Amen.’ In other words, no dialogue, no responsive readings, no congregational praying of the Lord’s Prayer or any other prayer. The Anglican bishops replied that “alternate reading and repetitions and responsals are far better than a long tedious prayer.” They also noted that “if the people may take part in Hopkins’ why not David’s psalms, or in a litany?” In other words, if it is all right to sing metrical paraphrases of the psalms, why is it wrong to read responsively the very words of Scripture?

Originally the Puritan movement had not been opposed to prayerbook worship, but in time the combination of state persecution with the continuing strength of the Medieval quietist tradition led the Puritans into wholehearted opposition to congregational participation in worship (pp. 28-30).

Posted by John Barach @ 11:15 am | Discuss (0)

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