Now there’s a contentious question. The length of a worship service can vary greatly, not only from one tradition to another, but even within a single tradition. Some Pentecostal churches are known for spending a couple hours in “prayer and praise”, sometimes not counting an additional hour or more of charismatic preaching. The Roman Catholics are often known for their Sunday Masses to be “one hour, guaranteed!” with half-hour weekday masses at noon so you stop in on your lunch break and get back in time for the afternoon shift. A couple centuries ago it was standard practice in many Anglican and Protestant churches to spend a couple hours in church on Sunday morning and come back for a couple hours in the afternoon. Long or short, liturgical or independent, the length of time spent in church can vary widely.
The super-holy among us may pose a different question: rather than asking how long a worship service should be, ask how much time do you want to spend with God and his family? The liturgical traditionalists among us may ask, do you actually want to worship the way the Prayer Books instruct us to? Challenges like these lead us to realize that there is a great deal more that we could be doing in church on Sundays than may of us currently do.
At my church, Grace Anglican Church, our Communion service on Sunday morning typically runs for just over 1 hour, even 1½ hours on special occasions. The things that make it longer are typically extra features that aren’t part of every Sunday: a baptism, the Palm Sunday procession, special offices of worship prefixed to the liturgy on high feast days like Easter and Pentecost and Christmas Sunday.
Other ways that the service could be longer is to have a longer sermon, or to chant some of the prayers and the Gospel lesson. We could sing more, we could have more elaborate processions (entering and exiting the room, preparing the Gospel book or the offering). We could solemnize the worship with incense or bells or moments of profound silence. Most of these are features of “Solemn High Mass” – a more elaborate and (usually more) beautiful enactment of the Communion liturgy one is likely to find in more Anglo-Catholic settings.
Eastern Orthodox churches are also known for their lengthy liturgies, due in part to the fact that they practically never (if ever?) have “Low Mass” like we tend to hold. Everything is done slowly and deliberately, seldom cutting corners, with an open eye to the holy and a blind eye to the parishioner’s potential schedules. This is certainly a challenge to our Western culture that is ridiculously addicted to being unhealthily busy.
But there is another feature of Eastern Orthodox worship that we also have in the Anglican tradition: different types of worship services, or Offices, that are appointed to be held at certain times and days. Our Prayer Books have always appointed:
- the Daily Office of Morning Prayer to be said every morning of every day,
- the Great Litany to be said after Morning Prayer (traditionally on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays),
- the Communion Service to be said every Sunday and Holy Day,
- and the Daily Office of Evening Prayer to be said every evening of every day.
In addition to this, modern Prayer Books have added Midday Prayer and Compline (Night Prayer) which also may be said in the churches. And then of course there are the special liturgies for Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and Easter, the services for Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, Matrimony, Burial, and a few other bits and pieces for other such special occasions.
A strict adherence to historic Prayer Book worship in a given church on Sunday might look something like this:
- Go to church in the morning for the Morning Office.
- At its conclusion, the Great Litany is prayed through.
- short break
- The service of Holy Communion is celebrated.
- Midday Prayer at noon or at home with the family, possibly coming back to church in the afternoon for catechesis
- Go back to church for Evening Prayer.
- Stick around for Compline or say it with the family at home at bedtime.
If you keep things simple and brief, that morning sequence could take less than 2 hours. If you make it solemn and elaborate, it could take 4 hours! And that’s not even counting Sunday School which many congregations hold today.
So… how long should we spend in church?
While it is important for the Church to take local culture into account, she should not be ruled by the world. There is a balance to strike between long worship services that enrich the soul and short worship services that get you in-and-out quickly so you can get on with your life.
At risk of being accused as a rigorist or young idealist, it is my eventual hope to host a church wherein the full Prayer Book scope of worship is offered: every Sunday holding Morning Prayer, Litany, and Communion in the morning, and Evening Prayer later in the day; and at least one of the Daily Offices held in the church on the weekdays. It would be understood that not everyone would (or even could) attend everything. But each service has its own things to offer us. Some liturgies lend themselves more to greater solemnity and contemplation, while others are more compatible with the looser “prayer and praise” movement.
Worship is the heart of the Christian life, the stronger its heartbeat, the healthier our spiritual body will be. Even if an individual Christian is not able to spend more than an hour in church on Sunday, it is important that the Church’s prayers are publicly offered and available for any and all to wander in and join. A praying church is a powerful church, and we Anglicans have beautiful and biblical resources of worship at our disposal as simultaneously Catholic and reformed Christians. Why not use the tools that, by God’s providence, we still have in our toolbox?