E. Byron Anderson’s essay in Liturgy 31, no. 4 (2016) on how liturgical participation enacts God’s mission takes issue with an over-emphasis in our churches on getting people “involved” in worship in a way that seems to indicate the participation itself is the goal. He refers us to Don Saliers’s concern that ritual involvement not become something members of the body of Christ do “on our own terms, but in and as the church.” (Saliers, Worship as Theology) In other, more colloquial, language: It’s not about me or you; it’s about Christ in our gathering and who we become because of the Trinity.
Mark Searle also begins with ritual participation and then describes how it is related to two other forms of participation. . . . At the level of ritual participation, Searle resists the question of personal “ownership” of the liturgy; we do not do it “our way,” making it our own by “remodeling it to reflect [our] particular identity.” (Searle, Called to Participate, p. 18) Rather, we “participate in an activity whose shape and meaning derive from a tradition … [that] belongs to a community larger than the individual, larger even than the assembly gathered to celebrate.” (Such an understanding is easier to see in ecclesial traditions that prescribe rather than encourage the use of particular liturgical materials.) . . . Such work is grounded in our baptism into Christ and renewed at the Eucharistic table as we offer ourselves in union with Christ in praise and thanksgiving. Finally, participation at the level of the divine life “means nothing less than full, conscious, and active participation in the life of grace, lived and manifested individually and collectively, as union with God and communion with all humanity.”
The purpose of liturgical reform, then, is not for the sake of ritual participation, as much as such reform was and is necessary, but for the sake of our participation in God and in God’s saving work, in God’s mission of redemption and restoration, in the world. Liturgical reform, including the reform of our participation in the liturgy, is a means rather than the end to our formation for and participation in God and God’s mission.
If part of the difficulty in thinking about liturgical participation has been a misunderstanding of the purpose of that participation, another significant difficulty is that many in our churches, certainly in my own United Methodist Church, mistakenly believe that the church’s mission is and should be defined by the church itself, like an independent social service agency or corporation, rather than by God’s mission to the world. That is, we mistakenly believe that Christian people are called to serve a church-created and church-initiated mission without regard to how that mission is given to the church through Christ in the Spirit rather than created by the church. Such a misunderstanding of mission has often led to the churches’ collaboration with the forces of colonization and to missionary societies that were indistinguishable from the hegemonic forces of governments and industries.
. . . But, when we (re-)discover that God is the one who gives the church its mission, that God calls us to participate in God’s mission for the world, that God sends us into the world, we also discover that our participation in the liturgy is necessarily participation as church, a community defined by its participation in the paschal mystery of Christ’s dying and rising. Through such participation the Spirit draws us into life in and with God, and by means of such participation God sends us out in the Spirit’s power in Christ’s name.
E. Byron Anderson is Styberg Professor of Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois. He served as president of The Liturgical Conference from 2003–2015.
E. Byron Anderson, “Liturgical Reform: For Participation and/or Mission,” Liturgy 31, no. 4 (2016): 11-18.