A statement was made near me recently. I will re-frame it as a question so I can then attempt to answer it. “Now that we all have Bibles and can study them ourselves, why would we need liturgy and all that repetition to learn things?”
There are several reason, in fact, why. I would even argue that it may be more important now that we have a Bible on every coffee table. Access to information is not the same as understanding information.
Martin Thornton gives a concise summary of how formation occurs in the Anglican spiritual tradition. It is grounded in three things: daily offices, weekly Eucharist, and private devotion. Of these, the daily offices and the Eucharistic service are what are commonly termed “liturgical.” They include prescribed readings, prayers, recitation of one of the creeds, and confession.
As I have written elsewhere, private devotion for the first 1500 years of the church was largely composed of reflection and meditation on biblical passages, prayers of the offices and services, and what we would call “personal” prayer.
Those of us living post-Gutenberg have the benefit of having access to an affordable Bible. Even more amazing is that we can access it online for free. A person sitting at home privately reading a Bible is now possible (and has been for at least 200 years).
Since I can “read it for myself,” why do I need to recite the creeds and prayers? Why would I need 4 scripture readings in a service? Let me start with the last one first.
Over a decade ago, I realized that using the lectionary meant reading more scripture in each service (if you actually read all 4 readings). I thought that was a pretty smart idea since I knew that whatever scripture said was more important than what I said. I also knew that the scriptures often speak to someone in the pew even when I don’t mention that particular verse in my sermon.
I don’t understand how Christians can object to increasing the amount of scripture we read in church, especially if we have evangelical or Biblicist sympathies.
But what about those creeds and prayers? The ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian) define in concise manner what it means to be a Christian. They give a summary of “the faith once delivered to all the saints.” They are not exhaustive, but they cover a fair amount of theological territory. Add a good catechism and we have a very solid framework for growth in the knowledge of our faith.
Why is this important? Can’t I just “read it for myself in the Bible?” Theoretically. You could also sit down at a computer, start pushing keys, and teach yourself how to program, though it would take a long time and your way would be littered with mistakes. If you want to learn to program computers, it makes more sense to learn a computer language and study examples of its use. Most of us, however, use programs written by others so we don’t need to know how to program computers.
The Bible is not as straightforward as we may like. Some things are clear, like the fact that God likes the smell of burning kidneys, (Trust me; I’m reading through Leviticus currently.) but some things are not so clear. Important things like, “What must I do to be saved?”
Before you sputter that the answer is obvious to any fool who has read the New Testament, ask yourself this, “Does every church agree with what you are going to say?” (Let me save you a Google search, the answer is, “NO.”) If not, is it because they didn’t bother to pick up a Bible before formulating their answer? Of course not. So, how do we explain this?
There are several factors, but the main one is “personal Bible study” without grounding in the creeds, teachings, and traditions of the church. Particularly the first 400 years or so of the church.
It is far easier to examine a doctrine than to create one. Pick any you like. It is a fairly simple matter to read through the Bible and judge how well a particular doctrine “fits” what is given us in scripture, especially if we don’t have a vested interest in it. But, try to sit down with your Bible and figure out “what the Bible says” about some difficult topic; salvation, justification, the Trinity, the nature of Christ. Chances are you will fall into an error. Not because you’re stupid, but because it’s hard.
Also, God is interested in people. Groups. Congregations. Tribes. He made us to work together with the grace of his Spirit. This includes Bible study. It’s not that we shouldn’t read our Bible alone sometimes, but we should always couch what we read in the context of the story of God’s people—his church. The church has been doing this for a long time and we’re foolish to think we can, or should, “just figure it out on our own.”
The liturgy gives us a framework. It teaches and trains us what it means to be a Christian, so that when we approach scripture, we approach it as Christians who are being formed in the faith.