The primary purpose of worship in the Anglo-Catholic tradition is not to entertain, edify, inspire, motivate, or instruct, but to render to God the praise that is his due. In the process, we may find our hearts, minds, and spirits lifted into God’s presence so that we receive a foretaste of heaven. If we worship regularly, we shall grow spiritually and become more and more the persons that God created us to be. But, again, the point of worship is not what we get out of it, but rather what we offer up to God. As Our Lord teaches, only by losing ourselves do we find ourselves (see Matthew 10:39).
Prayer and liturgy are central to Anglo-Catholic life and mission. And Anglo-Catholic worship can best be described as liturgical, sacramental, and corporate.
Liturgical. Worship in the Anglo-Catholic tradition follows an ordered and (more or less) predictable pattern. While such liturgy may seem bewildering and confusing to someone attending for the first time, it quickly becomes comfortably familiar to those attending Sunday after Sunday—because most Sundays the same things are said and done in much the same sequence. Paradoxically, this highly structured order of service is not stifling but liberating. Not having to re-invent the wheel each week gains the freedom to concentrate on worshiping God.
Sacramental. Anglo-Catholic worship is sacramental in two senses of the word. First, it gives a central place to the Sacraments – especially the Holy Eucharist – as the appointed means by which we receive God’s grace and strength. Secondly, because we are not pure intellects or disembodied spirits, Anglo-Catholic worship engages us in the fullness of our humanity, body and soul, by means of visible signs and symbols that appeal to our sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. For this reason, our worship is deeply and richly sensual, making full use of music, incense, candles, vestments, sacred images, and ceremonial pageantry as the vehicles through which our hearts and minds are lifted to the unseen God.
Corporate. Anglo-Catholic worship is the activity of a gathered assembly. God did not create us to be isolated individuals. As human beings, we find the fullness of our identity in relationship with others. The liturgy fulfills our nature as social beings by bringing us together as members of a community. Worshiping together, we grow in our ability to forgive one another as God has forgiven us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Frequently Asked Questions concerning Anglo-Catholic Worship
1. Why all the rituals and ceremonies?
It is a common misconception that rituals are by definition empty and meaningless, that they involve “just going through the motions.” Anthropologists and sociologists have discovered that ritual is intrinsic to being human. We rely on countless rituals to bring meaning and order into every aspect of our lives. The classic example of an everyday ritual is a handshake, which not only signifies but also actualizes the friendship that it symbolizes. (If you doubt this, then consider the impact of refusing to shake someone’s hand!) Anglo-Catholic worship engages us in the fullness of who we are as human beings; and that means that it engages us by means of ritual: processions, bows, signs of the cross, and so forth. Yes, rituals can become empty when we perform them absentmindedly without paying attention to their meaning. The solution, however, is not to jettison the rituals but rather to revivify them by performing them thoughtfully and prayerfully.
2. Why do your wear those fancy robes?
In the Anglican tradition, they are called not robes but “vestments.” At one level, their purpose is similar to ceremonial dress uniforms in the military: they signify a rank and a function. When clergy and servers put on the sacred vestments, they are stepping into a defined liturgical role. So far as possible, the vestments serve to obscure the idiosyncratic features of individual personalities that call attention to themselves and distract the congregation from prayer and worship. The chasuble worn by the priest helps the congregation to see not Fr. So-and-So with all his annoying quirks and foibles but rather the celebrant of the Mass. At another level, the wearing of sacred vestments serves as a reminder that the ministers of the Mass are engaged in no ordinary mundane activity but rather are treading on holy ground and handling holy things.
3. Why do you pray out of a book?
It is sometimes alleged that prayers read from a book are less sincere than spontaneous prayers “from the heart.” This criticism misses the point. As the title of The Book of Common Prayer implies, this is common prayer – that is, the corporate prayer of the congregation and of the entire universal Church. The Anglican spiritual tradition certainly encourages us to pray in our own words in our private devotions. But in the Prayer Book we find not private prayers, but rather corporate liturgical prayers. They distill centuries of spiritual wisdom, embodying the thoughts, sentiments, and aspirations of the generations of faithful Christians who have gone before us. Reciting these prayers and making them our own can only enrich our spiritual lives.
4. Why do you use such old-fashioned language?
While worship in the everyday vernacular is perfectly valid, many liturgical traditions set apart a special language for worship that often harks back to an earlier period of the Church’s history. Such liturgical languages remind us of our continuity with the Christian past. The Latin of the Roman Mass harks back to the days when early Christianity established itself in the Western Roman Empire; the Russian Orthodox Church uses Church Slavonic; the Greek Orthodox Church continues to worship in the language of the New Testament. On the same principle, the liturgical language of many Anglo-Catholic (and other Anglican) parishes is Tudor English, dating back to the 16th century. It is for the most part intelligible if a bit strange sounding to the ears of modern English speakers. But even with its archaisms and occasionally difficult constructions, it remains oddly haunting and beautiful. In worship, we approach God with things set apart for holy purposes – such as sacred vestments and sacred vessels. Likewise, in corporate liturgical prayer, we employ a language set apart for holy purposes.
5. Why does the priest pray with his back to the people?
The priest is actually turning to face in the same direction as the people, in solidarity with them. Christian churches are traditionally built facing east, towards the rising sun, which symbolizes Christ rising from the dead and returning at the end of time to judge the world. So, when the priest prays on behalf of the congregation, he faces east to emphasize that he is addressing God. Then, at certain points in the liturgy, he turns to address the congregation on behalf of God. The currently pervasive practice of the priest facing the congregation from behind a freestanding altar runs the risk of closing the assembly in on itself, making the liturgy resemble more a "celebration of community" than an offering of worship. By contrast, the eastward position rightly emphasizes God’s transcendence and holiness. By adhering to the eastward position, we hope to contribute to its eventual recovery in the wider Church – a process that shows some signs of being under way in the movement known as “the Reform of the Reform.”
6. Why do you use incense?
In the ancient world, incense was the equivalent of modern air freshener. When an important guest was coming to visit, one would burn incense in one’s home to purify the air and eliminate foul odors. Since Jesus Christ comes into our midst during the celebration of the Eucharist, we cense the altar, the ministers, and congregation as a symbolic purification in anticipation of his arrival. Also, the rising smoke of the incense is sometimes said to symbolize prayer rising to heaven. At the most basic level, however, it just produces a pleasing smell: "the odor of sanctity." Anglo-Catholic worship engages us through all our senses, so that we come to associate the joy of worship and the comfort of prayer with the pleasant aroma of an incense-filled church.