Liturgy literally means “work of the people.” Many people think of liturgy as formal rituals. But, it’s more than that. Even churches that are not “formal” in style have a liturgy. Liturgy is the community of faith‘s response to God’s grace. And, it’s how a church orders itself and works together. Every church has a particular rhythm and pattern of life and worship together (not just the services on Sunday). Liturgy is the practices that shape and inform faith. This can be on a bigger scale, too. There are liturgies that are unique to particular denominations (i.e., not drinking alcohol) and liturgies unique to all Christians (i.e., communion and baptism).


Another word for this is “tradition.” Tradition is the practices that have been handed down to us by the community of faith over time. Sometimes traditions are fairly recent (i.e., use of guitar in worship) and some have a very long history (i.e., saying “amen”). You can even distinguish between “thick” and “thin” practices or liturgies. “Thick” liturgies are the significant practices that we will always keep (i.e., prayer, communion, baptism, preaching, to name a few). We keep these because they are significant ways that we are shaped. If we stopped doing those things, our identity would be something entirely different than Christian. “Thin” liturgies are practices that aren’t nearly as significant in shaping our identity. These will usually change from time to time. This might be as simple as saying that we always have three songs before we go to a time of prayer in a service. We could change it to four songs before the prayer and it wouldn’t change our identity.


Ultimately, liturgy should be Christ-centered and in line with the teaching of the apostles. When it goes beyond those boundaries it’s probably a good idea to remove, re-purpose, or replace that liturgy. Tradition sometimes needs to be corrected and changed. Although tradition can be extremely useful and helpful, if it becomes the sole authority over our lives, it becomes quite destructive. When that happens it is called “traditionalism.” This statement helps me to distinguish between tradition and traditionalism: “Tradition is the living faith of dead men. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living men.” Liturgy and tradition should always point toward Jesus, not back to the tradition or liturgy.


Anytime you go into a new culture, it takes time to learn the language and way of life in that new community. The same is true of visitors in a church. It takes time to learn the liturgy of a church. But, that doesn’t mean that the liturgy shouldn’t be accessible to guests. Since liturgy is the “work of the people”, the people of the congregation should help guests understand what is going on and why they do the things they do together. Pastors will often help with this by continuously explaining what is happening and why it is happening. As guests become a part of a church, the liturgy becomes a part of them and they then help shape the liturgy for the future.

  1. Idebenone says:

    In saying alll this I do not wish to imply in any way that it is enough for a priest to have pastoral zeal, and in general to “mean well” in order to do whatever he wishes: to alter services, to introduce new practices, to restore old ones, etc. There is no room in the Church for anarchy, and certainly it is the sacred duty of the Episcopate to guide, correct, lead, and decide in this area as in any other area of Church life. But what I most emphatically advocate and beg for is that decisions to be made in this most sensitive area, which in many ways determine all other aspects and the very spirit of the parish, be made on the basis of serious study, of the evaluation of all factors and implications. Being personally not “guilty” of any of the “abuses” enumerated in the instruction, I feel free to state that behind nearly each one of them there is a problem which cannot be reduced simply to disobedience or to “abuse” in the true sense of this word. Not everything that has been done for a hundred years and to which people are accustomed is necessarily correct in the light of the true liturgical tradition of Orthodoxy, and something which seems “new” and even “revolutionary’ may very well be a much needed return to genuine tradition. Although the final decision is always reserved for the Episcopate, there should be time while searching for that decision, while trying to discern what is right and what is wrong, for study and consultation, for that blessed “sobornost” of which the Orthodox speak so much and which they practice so little.

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