Does the Spirit need liturgy?

At the second Festival of Theology last week, the first talk was given by Graham Hunter, Vicar of St John’s Hoxton in London. This is what he said.

Introduction – Trellis & Vine

I spent the second half of August this year with my wife and children in a Provencal Mas – a converted farmhouse just a few miles from a little-known French commune named Chateauneuf-du-Pape! As a typical Anglican cleric, I was thrilled by the providential setting of our holiday location, for it enabled me to enjoy the site of mile after mile of vines laid out in expansive Cotes du Rhone vineyards.

I managed to sneak an afternoon away from the kids to visit an ancient vineyard and winery and learn a little more about these world-famous vines.

One striking feature of the area is the different ways in which the vines are laid out in the fields. Some are planted to grow along long running wire trellis; while others are carefully pruned to form what is known as a goblet vine – as they resemble a classic Paris goblet.

Why the difference? Some varieties of grapes, it turns out, do better on a smaller vine. They grow best when supported by a simple stake just a foot or so from the ground. They must be carefully pruned and shaped each year – for if they grow too big, they topple over under their own weight. The fruit is usually good on these vines, but there is little of it.

On the other hand, vines planted on a running trellis grow  longer and reach further. They are able to absorb more nutrients form the soil; they’re more structurally stable, and they yield a much greater crop of fruit.

Why do I mention this in relation to my topic? Because good liturgy is the spiritual trellis of the church. ‘I am the vine, and you the branches’ says Jesus in John 15. ‘Abide in me and you will bear much fruit’. Good liturgy is the mechanism or means chosen by God to enable us to abide in Jesus and bear much fruit.

Disconnected, set apart from one another, we will be like goblet vines – which may only grow to a limited size before toppling under our own weight. Without the running trellis of liturgy which connects the church of Jesus Christ to Jesus Christ, we cannot bear much fruit. Conversely, the running trellis of Christian liturgy is given to connect us to one another across centuries and continents, and enables us to bear spiritual fruit for the world.

That’s my central metaphor for understanding God’s purpose in giving liturgy to shape the life of the church – so if you remember only the pictures of goblet vines and running vines, then that’s probably enough. However, if you can bear a little more, then I shall try to share a little more that might be helpful.

Gifted Not Needed

‘Does the Spirit need liturgy?’ is the title of my talk. Well I might begin by examining the terms of the question. For the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, participating in the full divinity of the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is God, and as such we can impute to him nothing in terms of necessity. If liturgy is the work of the people, then God can do perfectly well without it thank you very much.

God does not need our liturgy – but he does give us our liturgy as the means by which he may be known and worshipped. Although liturgy is not listed within the classic lists of the ‘means of grace’, it is a means of grace. The Holy Spirit chooses to give liturgy as precisely that means by which we may be connected to one another, as well as the means by which through such connections we may encounter the divine image reflected within the new covenant community. Liturgy is a gift of God, but it does not constrain divine freedom.

Miroslav Volf has claimed that ‘the church is the extension of the incarnation’. He’s wrong – appealing, but wrong. While I appreciate the polemical force of the claim, St Paul uses the body of Christ metaphor as just that – a metaphor. St Paul doesn’t think that when we describe the church as the body of Christ, we’re actually Jesus’ body. The writer to the Hebrews is clear – the dwelling place of the bodily resurrected Jesus Christ is at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

The point is this: liturgy is not needed by God in any sense in which that might limit divine freedom. But it is gifted to us. Notice please that I’m not making too bold a claim for liturgy – it is not liturgy in and of itself that connects us to Christ. Although good liturgy enables individual Christians and local church communities to participate in the wider life of the people of God, it is a far more profound and gracious gift which enables us to participate in the life of Christ himself.

To be ‘in Christ’, to use St Paul’s participative language, is a work of God entirely un-dependent on our liturgical responses. Our liturgy may confess, profess and proclaim the new realities given us by God’s grace – but they neither produce nor constrict those realities. In other words, we don’t need liturgy to produce God’s gracious move towards us in Christ, nor does the Holy Spirit need our liturgies as though there were something lacking in the divine life without them.

So if the Holy Spirit does not need liturgy, why does he choose to give liturgy to the church?

Words & Works of Liturgy

In his classic text, Introduction to Christian Worship, James White reminds us that our term liturgy is derived from the Greek term leitourgia – itself a compound word consisting of ‘ergon’ – work, and ‘laos’ – people. Leitourgia or liturgy is a work of the people. In ancient Greece, liturgy was a public work – given for the benefit of the people. Indeed, paying taxes could be described as a leitourgia – so clearly Google and Amazon are among the low-church anti-liturgists of the corporate world!

James White summarises:

‘Liturgy, then, is a work performed by the people for the benefit of others. In other words, it is the quintessence of the priesthood of all believers in which the whole priestly community of Christians shares. To call a service “liturgical” is to indicate that it was conceived so that all worshippers take an active part in offering their worship together.’ (White, 1990, p32)

How then can we understand more fully the spiritual point of these works of the people? And how did we move from the works of the people to the words of the people – words usually presented in a baffling array of bold and italicised text?!

The works and the words give both substance and form to our expressions of Christian faith in relation to other Christians. There are some things that basically all Christians in all place and all ages have done. There are some common ‘works of the people’ which span continents and centuries. I might have almost nothing in common culturally with a 6th century Coptic orthodox Christian, or a 21st century Brazilian Pentecostal, or a 16th century German Lutheran, but yet I remain connected to each of them in the body of Christ. Our running trellis somehow connects these disparate parts of the vine.

What are the uniting works of Christian peoples? What have most all Christians done in all times and places?

Well, this is not an exhaustive list, but

  1. first, we have gathered together to receive in worship the revelation of God in Christ as witnessed to by Holy Scripture;
  2. second, we have initiated new members of our community by baptism, as commanded by Jesus;
  3. third, we have recalled the saving work of God and renewed our response to the new covenant in celebrating Holy Communion;
  4. fourth, we have prayed for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven and we have interceded for the nations; and
  5. fifth, we have served the poor, the sick, the lowly and the lonely – seeking to embody the compassionate love of God for all people.

These works of the people are uniting – whether we prostrate ourselves in worship or raise our hands, whether we wear funny clothes or create funny sub-cultures – there are still some basic features of Christian life that we hold in common with others. These ‘works of the people’ or liturgies are a gift of the Spirit to unite us – that we may be one as the Son and the Father are one.

But what then of words? How did we end up with so many words? Words have a symbolic function – they stand in for deeper realities. But like all good symbols, there is a trusted connection that bears authority between that which is signified and the signifier. The form of words bears their content and gives them authority to convey meaning. Words have power, and they have power to connect us and draw us into communion with God and one another.

But many church traditions are sceptical about the use of liturgical words – the use of fixed words and set texts in our gathered worship. Much of the free evangelical tradition, and indeed with it the charismatic movements, have a lingering suspicion of ordered textual worship. Tom Wright has a brilliant analysis of this – he believes that this suspicion is rooted in the lingering influence of philosophical romanticism and existentialism. Not that people would use these terms of course, but the argument as Tom Wright makes it goes like this: the only thing which is true and authentic is that which comes unfiltered and spontaneously from deep within myself.

Romanticism holds central the idea of the autonomous individual who must find ways to express the truthfulness of their ‘self’. Existentialism is sceptical about conformity – that is, the idea that your words, thoughts and actions might be conformed to social conventions. To do so renders them inauthentic. Social conformity is a threat to individual expression.

You can see how this might be played out in a Christian worship setting – we can find ourselves believing (consciously or sub-consciously) that the most authentic, and therefore spiritually pure, expression of our worship is that which comes from deep within ourselves, without the filters of set form or social conformity getting in the way. The only ‘true’ prayer or worship in this case is spontaneous prayer and worship. This can lead us to labelling as ‘spontaneous’ even things that we do routinely.

The truth of the matter is that charismatic worship relies very heavily on set texts – but they’re the set texts of the worship song repertoire. The words of our songs as they appear on the projector screens / TVs are our set liturgical texts. They’ve been written by someone else, but we still use them to express our own spiritual devotion. Imagine if we abolished the set texts of our worship songs. Much of our worship would be rendered impossible for any kind of unity in participation. For charismatics, worship song words have a ‘catholicising’ effect: they help us express unity both within our local church, but indeed across a range of churches and denominations.

Liturgy is given by the Spirit to have a catholicising effect – the words of our worship songs or our spoken liturgies enable us to be connected across the centuries and the continents. Christians in every time and place can experience what it means to abide in the vine that is Christ through the common life we share in our liturgies.


So let me conclude by returning to my original metaphor, though with a brief excursion to an alternative metaphor first.

The relationship between the liturgies of our gathered worship and the movement of the Holy Spirit can also be understood by way of a musical metaphor – that of jazz music. I love jazz music. In particular, I love the jazz music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and other pioneers of what is sometimes described as the free jazz movement of the 1950s and 60s. This form of music is characterised by amazing improvisation by musicians.

As someone who has attempted over the years to play jazz music, I’ve come to realise that true improvisation is only possible when musicians have developed a deep understanding of the musical forms. Only when the deep rules of melody, harmony and rhythm have been learned and practised is it possible to break out of these forms and enjoy the freedom and creativity of improvisation. The best jazz musicians will know their scales, chords and music theory inside out, and can then move freely within and beyond their accustomed musical conventions.

Understanding the deep rules and patterns of the liturgies that the Spirit has given to the church can enable us to enter into the joyful improvisation and freedom in worship that comes from the Spirit. And to return to the original metaphor, when we embrace this gift of liturgy, we take our place in that running vine which connects all Christians in all time and all places through both our works and our words – and abiding in that vine, we may bear plentiful spiritual fruit.

(You can read Graham’s more detailed exploration of this in his Grove booklet Discipline and Desire: embracing charismatic liturgical worship)

Come and think about the End of the World and Christian Hope at the teaching morning on 10th November 2018.

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13 thoughts on “Does the Spirit need liturgy?”

  1. “Much of the free evangelical tradition, and indeed with it the charismatic movements, have a lingering suspicion of ordered textual worship.”
    As a “Word and Spirit” Baptist I have found a deep richness in liturgy which we use in our Sunday worship. The result is only great depth and breadth. Worship in charismatic churches is more often than not lifeless, repetitive, and directionless. It is on the whole post renewal and I would say in trouble.

  2. Thank you for publishing this – it is a shame that the FoTs are on weekdays, meaning that that majority of the laity can’t easily attend – so publishing the texts here gives us a change to participate.

    (BTW – for future reference, recording the audio for the talks would be no problem at all – there is a recorder installed on the projector PC)

    The idea that our worship songs are a form of liturgy is a really helpful observation, but also rather frightening, as a significant amount of the songs we sing in worship have some very concerning theology, and a little more care in the choice of hymns and songs should be advocated. (I personally can’t sing once verse in the very popular “In Christ Alone”)

    Given that the concept of the “authorised” liturgy was partly introduced to ensure that the laity consistently received “good” theology, regardless of whether their priest had a true vocation, or was just the “third son” of the local lord, we who in our services somewhat eshew a “formal liturgy” are therefore obligated to ensure that we promote good theology in our songs, which may mean that some of us need to get our pens and chord charts out…

    • Clint

      I totally agree ‘the idea that our worship songs are a form of liturgy is a really helpful observation but also rather frightening as a significant amount of the songs we sing in worship have some very concerning theology” – Last night a friend who’s been attending an anglo-catholic church instead of charismatic where they’ve been for years, said she felt “less stressed” by the service – a very interesting perception I thought. She also said she greatly appreciated singing hymns with substance rather than fluffy worship songs.

      You may be interested in an old thread on what I would guess is the verse you cannot sing in the hymn you referenced –
      Other good people who frequent here find it difficult to sing too –
      Personally, I will belt it out at the top of my lungs with a grateful heart

      Maybe Ian can revisit this theme some time?

  3. Thank you…I particularly like the Jazz comparison. That puts in succinct form something very important to our worship. It’s nothing like “mere liturgy” or that style of leading which is just a series of announcements. Shape and content give freedom as well as an ability to participate beyond an invitation to sing. The framework gives structure to swing in and from.

    The use of liturgy which is thought through and (dare I say?) theologically sound also can bring scriptural balance, depth and continuity to that which can be a tad thin or even confused when it’s left to an individual’s leading. (Spontaneous or prepared). It’s also brings memorability – things can be recalled at will and over the times and seasons. That’s been emphasised for me through contact with worshippers who develop dementia. They can slip back to us in these things.

    There are great songs but many of them simply don’t cut it to any real depth and need the added oomph and that using a framework of liturgy can bring. There’s no doubt that some of the old hymns were atrocious or are too dated to use (“Through the graveyard, long and low” anybody?) but there are hymns and songs which have meat in them. Singing a thin song over and over again does not change its quality.

    I fail to understand the view that “in with the the new” must mean out with anything classed as “old”. “Contemporary worship” is a much abused term. It’s an assumption that “people outside the church” find lack of structure welcoming or comfortable…. I think it’s false. People are more intelligent and thoughtful than we sometimes treat them.

    Generally I lean to less liturgy than some but the absence of it leaves us the poorer in the long run. Having begun as an Anglican in the 60s with BCP only I rejoiced at the freedom and changes which followed but has the pendulum swung too far? Sometimes “yes”.

  4. Whilst I don’t have a problem with the idea that liturgy can help provide a framework in which the spirit can move, I am a little surprised that the primary scripture has no connection with liturgy but the centrality of, and reliance on Christ

  5. Chris – yes. Read the book of Revelation. The worship depicted gives us a base. Paul also follows a liturgical shape.

    The piece is interesting, but the author seems to fundamentally misunderstand both liturgy and charismatic worship!

    • Edward… I’m interested in your “fundamentally” misunderstands. You’re saying “totally” then. How so would be interesting.

      • As an Anglo-Catholic, Liturgy for me is about shape and intention. Word’s are secondary.

        As a Charismatic, Charismatic worship is about Charismata. Gifts of the Spirit.

        • Surely words are essential components of “shape and intention”? Silence is difficult to find shape in.

          “Charismatics” are rather more diverse in how they approach worship than you seem to think… I think.

          Otherwise I think that’s a false dichotomy.

  6. Many thanks Graham, really helpful. This week I found a wine bar that only plays Mozart, while the rest of the leisure and retail world has decided that we all want pop music. It made me think that the church has done quite well to keep traditional liturgy available for most of us. But most of all, I liked your idea that whatever is repeated rather than improvised is in a sense ‘liturgy’.


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