Free worship more “priestly”?

Since the Anglicans write about liturgy with verve, understanding, and zeal, I read them, and then make up my mind about the merit of the arguement.

But one charge I’ve seen in a couple of different forms stings because the more I think about it the more it rings true: that worship in the “free churches” is more guilty of lapsing into priestly authoritarianism than “liturgical church” worship.

The notion – it is couched with too much sublety to call it an arguement – is that when worship is centered on “the preacher” with its acme in the sermon, worship becomes the act of a single person in the presence of silent audience. The flow of action is God-preacher-congregation.

By contrast, a high medieval mass looks down right democratic, with the laity looking up from their rosaries and private devotions at the ringing of the bell, to the elevation of the host. There the action is priest [aided by congregation’s prayer]-God.

Liturgical churches that have experienced more recent reforms can pull the action towards laity-clergy-God, where the clergy act in the role of the parson, literally, the representative person. Not a different species of Christian any more than an elected official is a different kind of citizen.

A regular liturgy, with its predictable rhythms and common standards, give the laity and clergy a common set of rules and expectations to work from. Sure, like the wonk who can torture Robert’s Rules of Order to his or her whims, liturgy can be distorted. But a “free” form of worship is surely prone to more severe spiritual violence. Little wonder that Universalists have been, historically, four-square opponants to the “new measures” of revivalism.

So I worry when my colleagues scout around in the ministerial college for a special service to introduce to the the church. I mistrust litugical practices that vary so wisely from week to week (which happs in pastorless churches, too) that nobody knows what to expect. I rue sermon competitions that bribe preachers into preaching sermon that benefits a denominational program or organization.

A free and priestly people deserve better.


  1. In the Unitarian-Universalist denomination, the congregations which have no minister (fellowships) and the congregations, which have hired a minister, are very different. The difference is partially due to the fact that fellowships are small, and hence can’t afford to hire a minister, but a few fellowships grow larger and yet refuse to hire a minister. Those larger fellowships seem different than congregations, which are the same size, but which have hired a minister.

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