The Liturgy Explained – New Edition

The Rev. Dr. James Farwell, Professor of Liturgy and Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, has updated his laudable book, The Liturgy Explained. Frequent contributor to Music, Liturgy and the Arts, Michael Smith, offers a review of this notable text.

I love to cook, it’s my therapy, and I’m quite serious about cooking. Many years ago, a friend gave me a book about making sauces; everything from the classic Escoffier sauces to more basic pan sauces are discussed. What I love about a good sauce is it takes a pan or pot full of liquid and slowly distills it to a thick, rich, glaze that contains the most potent characteristics of what initially went into the pot without the bulk of the liquid. James Farwell’s “The Liturgy Explained” is a fantastic sauce. Fifty-six accessible yet powerful pages of liturgical theology of our most common ritual, Holy Communion, reduced down from centuries and volumes of what the Church has believed and taught about the liturgy.

The introduction begins with an analogic story of a masked suitor becoming the character to which he pretends to be over time by imitating and practicing “ritual shorthand.” It also sets up the conceit that human beings are always taking the “second step” in the liturgical action, in response to God who first loved us and who awakens love in us. A concise, yet potent discussion of the terms ritual and liturgy follow. These six pages should be required reading for every person who is attempting to be (or believes themselves to be) catechized into the Church. Farwell points out the higher purpose of ritual (It’s more than “things we do repetitively” or “dramatic expressions of those central things we believe anyway or that happen to us elsewhere.” Christian rituals actually enact or bring to pass a certain state of being. In the introduction to liturgy, Farwell quotes Robert Taft in pointing out that “the one true liturgy is God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ.” Our engagement in that work occurs when we hear and respond to the Word and eat sacred food, where “something is not just recalled, but enacted; not just talked about appreciatively, but brought to pass again.” Finally, Farwell points the reader to a higher purpose than mere knowledge about the liturgy; rather, our understanding is about “being ready to be formed by it,” into members of Christ’s body.

Chapters One and Two are brief explorations of “the sacred geography” and the “structure” of the liturgy, respectively. Geography deals with the functional and symbolic basics of liturgical space: where we proclaim and hear the word, where we are initiated into the body through water, and where we eat sacred food to become strengthened for service. It also deals with the relationship of these centers to each other. Recalling the introduction, Farwell points out that each of these loci, individually and together, point to that “second moment” where we “recognize, celebrate, and return repeatedly” to the truth of God and our response to God. The chapter on structure deals with the ordo, or “deep grammar” of the liturgy. As grammar operates at multiple simultaneous levels, so does ordo. Farwell explains how the basic patterns of proclamation and response operate at both the macro- (Word and Sacrament) and micro- levels, where proclamation and response exist within both the Word and Sacrament portions. He further breaks down the second level of ordo into concrete actions such as Gather, hear, respond, exchange, prepare, etc. 

The third chapter walks the reader through each particular moment of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer’s Eucharistic liturgy (including Enriching our Worship I), and applies the principles from chapters one and two towards deeper theological reflection. Larger concepts like the cycles of the liturgical year and an Anglican understanding of the role of public proclamation of scripture are also discussed in the context of the various explanations. For instance, when discussing the Prayers of the People, Farwell refers to the church as the “priestly character of Christ, standing for God with the great need of the world to be healed and saved.” Referring back to the primary points of the first chapters, this is “as much about becoming certain kinds of people as about believing certain things.” The portion on the Holy Communion would make an excellent stand-alone presentation for the average church member, and contains nourishment for the neophyte and the spiritual elder. The final chapter discusses the movements of bodies (ours) through space (God’s). Farwell explains how the rubrics of the 1979 BCP attempted to smooth out the high church/low church postures and practices as well as differing practices from one congregation to the next. He then takes us through the choreography of the liturgy with reflections on how we, as creatures with bodies, embody our spirituality when moving through the liturgy. My only qualm with this portion is that I would have liked to have seen differing physical abilities addressed through the lens of liturgical theology. Admittedly, the concentrated brevity of the book can’t encompass too many particularities, but addressing this might have served to draw the circle wider when thinking about the embodiment of the liturgy.

This book is a fantastic sauce that, as so many recipes instruct, coats the back of the spoon. Because the information and explanations are concentrated and approachable while pointing to something beyond themselves, they will stick with the reader and be called to mind when practicing the liturgy and becoming the body.  It’s just begging to be used by bible studies, worship committees, adult forums, reading groups, and just about any other vehicle for formation. It’s the sort of book that’s an ideal read for a convert to the Episcopal Church in their second year of being Episcopalian. Give them time to experience liturgical cycles, and then this book will open much meaning that will serve them and their local church well. Particularly now, when so many of us cannot be in our spaces or use our bodies together in ritual action, reading this pointed me towards a day when we can both practice and become the liturgy together again.

Michael Smith is the Minister of Music at St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh, located outside of Philadelphia, PA. The program includes a semi-professional adult choir and a chorister program. Prior to this appointment, he served as Chair of Performing Arts at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, where he oversaw all aspects of the PreK-12 Music and Theater programs while serving concurrently as Organist/Choirmaster at The Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont. Michael earned his undergraduate degree in organ performance at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He went on to earn graduate degrees in organ and conducting at Yale University, where he served as graduate assistant conductor of the Glee Club. He has performed recitals and accompanied and conducted choirs internationally.