The work of the people
This is the first in a series of short reflections on our communion liturgy, in which the insights of several writers will be shared. This series will help us to lay a firmer hold on what it is we do together on Sunday night.
s I launch into this series of posts on the liturgy, it seemed a useful thing to begin with the word “liturgy” itself. The Latin derivation of that word is “the work of the people,” and that actually says something quite significant about how we understand worship. What it points to, first and foremost, is that worship is not a passive thing, nor is it something offered by a few leaders to entertain or edify or even inspire a congregation. Liturgical worship is an active thing – a piece of work – offered by everyone who gathers.
There might be some of us who have more visible or active roles, yet in a very real sense no one among us has a place above the others. This includes the priest, by the way; in Anglican theology, a priest can only preside at communion if there is a congregation present, even if that congregation is consists of only one other person.
Sometimes the priest is identified in the liturgical books as being the “celebrant” of communion, but I – and many others with me – believe that this is a misguided use of this term. As the ordained priest, I have been authorized by the local bishop to stand at the table as the presider or officiant, but it is the community together that “celebrates” the communion. It is our shared work.
There is a great image in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which speaks of the liturgy as being a great drama, offered corporately by the gathered community. Each person present has a role in this act of theatre, which is why we all have places to chime in with our voices and why we all move forward to receive communion. There is an audience to this drama, but it is not the congregation; it is God.
This, by the way, accounts for the way in which we position the various players in our liturgical celebrations. People often remark at the fact that our musicians play seated, off to one side and orientated toward the table. This is because they’re not playing to the assembled community, but rather leading music with the gathering. And while I do face the community to preach, preside at the table and proclaim words of blessing, during the other prayers, times of silence and the readings I am also oriented with the gathering. Again, the musicians, priest, readers and prayer leaders are not performing, or at least no more so than any other person in the assembly. Together we’re doing a common work, offered to God and to God alone. That is the “work of the people.”