Someone asked me recently how often our church uses the Book of Common Prayer in our “traditional” service. (I’m using quotes because while the service in on the traditional end of the spectrum for this congregation, its definitely on the progressive/creative/inventive end of the spectrum for the Episcopal Church in general.)
Even though we attend church every week – and pay attention and everything – I couldn’t really answer the question. Here’s why – after 30 some years of praying the liturgy of our church, I don’t need the prayer book to follow along, even if we “using” it. I know the Creed, the responses to all six forms of the Prayers, the confession (and the one from Enriching Our Worship)… you get the idea. Now, this isn’t to brag. Its true that my particular memory is good at things like lyrics and words, but its really more about years and years of church. The words of the liturgy have seeped into my brain and taken up residence. Sometimes it feels like they’re just taking up space. These words have shaped me, slowly, over time. The beloved maxim in the Episcopal Church – that our praying shapes our believing – has been true in my life. This is part of what we mean by worship as Christian formation.
And yet – I (mostly) love having new prayers thrown my way too. I like needing to follow along, to pay attention, to be surprised or even startled by the words of liturgy. These new experiences, the new words and phrases and tunes and images, are their own kind of formation. The unfamiliar can expand our boundaries, opening up God’s presence and nature in ways we hadn’t thought of before. Hearing new prayers can even help us hear the familiar prayers in a different light.
When thinking about new forms and patterns of worship, I want to balance these. My New Testament professor was big on memorization of Scripture – not for the competition of knowing MORE but for the experience of having it in our brains and hearts and souls. (I’m putting words in his mouth here, but this is my recollection, seven or eight years out…). How familiar do prayers need to be to enter our lives? How often do we need to hear what is new and fresh and unfamiliar? At least I have some hope that asking the questions is its own kind of formation.