Learning from the Liturgy: Exceptions to the Norm

As even the casual observer of Anglican worship will notice, the liturgy is pretty ‘fixed.’  Very little variation happens from week to week – the majority of the worship service is identical every time we celebrate it.

For the most part, this is because a great deal of attention and care both to the form and the content of the liturgy – both its overall structure and its specific words are harnessed to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In light of this, only a few certain parts of the worship change from week to week.  These are called Propers, because they are “proper” to a particular Sunday or Holy Day or other occasion.  In the Anglican tradition, our Propers consist primarily of 3 Scripture readings, a Psalm, and the Collect of the Day.  There is also a sentence early in the Communion prayers, called a preface, that is proper to certain seasons or events, though there isn’t one for every week.

The rest of the components of the worship service are sometimes termed as the Ordinary, because they are ordered to be said every time.  But, in certain circumstances, even some of the ordinary parts of the liturgy can be changed or omitted.  The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) is often swapped out for the shorter Summary of the Law for much of the year.  The Standard Form Communion Prayer also has a shorter version (called Common Form) that is appropriate for shorter weekday worship celebrations, and another option called the Ancient Form, which is derived from an Early Church document.

These occasional variations in otherwise-fixed parts of the liturgy can have subtle but powerful effects on the course of worship.  When people expect to say the Creed but find themselves saying a Renewal of Baptismal Vows, their Christian calling is impressed upon them in a different way.  When people expect to sing or say the praiseful Gloria in excelsis Deo, but instead are hit with a more penitential hymn or anthem, a more somber tone is set.

Some parts of the liturgy, however, only change once a year.  These changes, too, can be subtle, but impactful.  In many places it is traditional to omit the exchanging of the Peace during Holy Week.  This normal, friendly, even reconciliatory part of the liturgy is such a regular part of the service that its omission can be something of a shock, even a disappointment to some people.  The reason for its omission, though, is significant: in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was betrayed by Judas with a kiss.  Normally a sign of greeting and peace, Judas transformed it that night into a sign of betrayal and the marking of a target for the soldiers to arrest.

Thus, on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week, we also “hold our peace,” as it were.  We remember the wicked deception of Judas, and remind ourselves that we, also, all to easily use signs of peace as covers for internal hatred.  How easily we lie through our teeth to “get along” while harboring ill will towards our neighbor.  Or, how easily we go through the motions of the liturgy while harboring a coldness of heart against our Lord and our God!

Keep an eye on the subtle changes that will take place in the liturgy over the next couple months.  Beginning next week, with Palm Sunday, leading up to Easter Day, many special and unique features of our worship tradition pop up.  And as the Easter season winds down just over a month later, watch for how the Ascension and Pentecost and Trinity Sunday bring with them more little changes to the liturgy, and how those changes emphasize the respective special celebrations of those seasons and days.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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