Are you new to the Anglican tradition and curious why we have a liturgical form of worship? Anglicans share a common faith and liturgical form of worship that unites us through our creeds, worship, and prayer. Common doesn’t mean something that is ordinary; rather, it means something that is shared in common together with others. Common is the root of the word “community” and refers to something we do or share together.
When attending worship at an Anglican church, you will recognize a liturgy that uses common words and symbols such as the Lord’s Prayer, confession of sin, Scripture readings, and the Lord’s Supper. Anglicans are united around historic forms of liturgical worship and prayer that help shape our faith. Perhaps one of the most unique features of Anglican liturgical worship is found in the Book of Common Prayer, which is an ancient prayer book that that was complied by Archbishop Thomas Crammer during the Reformation in England.
Eighteenth Evangelist John Wesley once said, “There is no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breaths more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England.” The enduring legacy of the Book of Common Prayer is that it is scripturally based, doctrinally sound, and thoroughly gospel-centered.
So what is liturgy?
The word liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which means “the work of people.” Today, the word “liturgy” generally means a set form of words, actions, and rituals done in worship as opposed to more informal free-form worship. In a way, every church has a liturgy no matter how structured their worship service may seem.
The purpose of liturgy is to unit the body of believers in the essential work of the people, which is to worship the One True God. The liturgical worship service culminates in the Eucharist or Holy Communion. In many ways, the liturgy provides needed vitamins that are missing in many evangelical worship services.
There are several reasons why I believe that liturgy is an important and vital part of our Anglican faith and heritage.
First, Anglican liturgy is God-Centered vs. Me-centered. So much of contemporary Christian worship is me-centered and focuses on how I feel, etc. Liturgy frees us from worshipping ourselves and keeps the focus on the Triune God. Real worship is about God not us. I have met many other younger evangelicals who are longing for a faith that wasn’t started yesterday and is not driven by fads and personalities.
Secondly, Anglican liturgy is communal and is meant to involve everyone in the worship service. Liturgy keeps us from being spectators and consumers by helping engage in the worship of God with others. The Book of Common Prayer was originally designed to unite the people in worship through a common prayer where both the minister and the people prayed together. Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said, “The fundamental purpose of celebrating common prayer is this: to help the Church as a whole to pray together daily in a reflective and structured way.” This stands in contrast to our radically individualistic world.
Thirdly, Anglican liturgy sanctifies time and space. The liturgy follows the Christian calendar, which calls us out of our town time and reminds us that we belong to eternity. The Anglican liturgy revolves around the seasons of the Church Year. The early church began to remember the various themes of the gospel of Jesus Christ by celebrating different seasons of the Christian year. The Church Year involves an annual cycle of seasons including Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary. Each season has its own unique set of prayers and themes which center on the gospel of Jesus Christ and prepare us for our journey of faith.
Fourthly, Anglican liturgy unites us with the historic faith. In the liturgy, we pray the same prayers, songs, and rhythms with Christians who have lived through the ages. Becoming Anglican helped me realize that I am a part of the larger Christian family whose roots go back to the time of Christ. Too often, contemporary Christians forget that there have been two thousand years of church history. I believe that the Anglican liturgical worship offers a refreshing alternative to our postmodern worship by helping us reconnect to the historic Christian faith.
Lastly, Anglican liturgy is scriptural. It is estimated that nearly 80-90% of the historic liturgy is based on Scripture. Thomas Cranmer cherished the Word of God and sought to make it the very foundation of the Book of Common Prayer by saturating it with Scriptures from the Old and New Testament. He was a product of the Reformation and firmly believed the “Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation.” Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu reminds us, “The Prayer Book places the Bible at the heart of the Church’s worship and on the lips of the people. It teaches the grace and mercy of God, and it preaches Jesus as a living Saviour, not a dead master of a bygone age. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit is constantly acknowledged.”
Anglicanism is a deeply sacramental tradition that values the place of the sacraments in Christian worship. When I use the word “sacrament,” I am referring to an outward sign of an inward work of grace. God has chosen ordinary earthly objects of water, bread, and wine as outward signs to signify the deep inner spiritual realities of the Kingdom of God.
The sacraments are intricately intertwined into the Anglican liturgy, each having its own service with a unique set of words and prayers that are ancient in their origin. There are two great sacraments of the Gospel ordained and instituted by Jesus Christ himself; water baptism and Holy Communion. These two sacraments are powerful and symbolic ways that, through participating in them, we are invited to enter into the redemptive story of God in liturgical worship.