Reformation Liturgies and Modern Worship

Terry L. Johnson

The primary benefit of studying Reformation-era liturgies is to help us escape the limitations of our own day. What did our ecclesiastical ancestors think a proper worship service looked like? What were its elements? What was its mood or tone?

Since graduating from seminary, my constant companion has been Bard Thompson’s Liturgies of the Western Church, a veritable gold mine of information about the history of worship to which I have turned again and again. It played an irreplaceable role in the production of Leading in Worship (Johnson, ed., Tolle Lege, 2013, EP Books, 2019) and a lesser but not negligible role in the publishing of Worshipping with Calvin (Johnson, EP Books, 2014).

Now with the publishing of Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present, a second gold mine has been opened. The editors cover some of the same ground as did Thompson (for example, the liturgies of Luther, Farel, Zwingli, Bucer, Cranmer, Knox, Calvin, and the Puritans). Yet its 800 pages take us into liturgical territory that long has been inaccessible, including Diebold Schwarz’s German Mass (1524), Heinrich Bullinger’s Christian Order and Custom (1535), and John à Lasco’s Form and Method (1555). It provides us with heretofore untranslated and inaccessible German, French, Dutch, and Latin liturgies. It also has modernized the English of all twenty-six of the liturgies it presents, updated the punctuation, and reformatted the headings and rubrics. Finally, fresh historical analysis has been provided, and several excellent essays introduce the subject of worship and the scope of the editors’ design.

Giving Perspective on Modern Worship

Let me share a few examples from my own experience of how Reformation-era liturgies can inform present day worship.

When I was a theology student at Trinity College in Bristol, England, daily chapel and weekly communion eventually led to exposure to the communion service confession of sin from the 1662 Prayer Book. The language of that prayer was unsettling for me. “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” Bewail? “Which we most grievously have committed.” Grievously? It references God’s “Divine Majesty,” and his just “wrath and indignation against us.” This was a more serious understanding of God than had ever entered my mind. And it was a more serious view of sin. “We do earnestly repent.”  We don’t just repent, we earnestly do so. “And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings,” the “remembrance” of which is “grievous unto us” and the “burden” of which is “intolerable.” This prayer took me to depths into which I had never before journeyed, exposing my superficial view of God, sin, atonement, grace, and worship, and stimulating a desire to mature in faith and knowledge.

For years I have used the liturgies of Calvin, Knox, Cranmer, Westminster, and Baxter on Reformation Sundays with the hopes of similar results for others. Back when I was a barely ordained assistant minister, I used Calvin’s Form on a Sunday evening and was struck by the impact of reading the Law of God in connection with the confession of sin. It altered the whole mood of the service, giving it a weight and solemnity that our typical evening service lacked. Prior to that, we had never read the Commandments as a congregation. Eventually it became a permanent fixture in our Sunday evening services. 

The subtitle of Reformation Worship, “Liturgies from the Past for the Present,” indicates that the editors share this goal of informing the present with liturgical riches from the past.

Balance Between Form and Freedom

A second benefit of studying historic Reformed liturgies is that of balance between form and freedom. Aside from the Anglican Book of Church Common Prayer (1552, 1662) and the Palatinate Church Order of 1563, both of which mandated the specific wording of the prayers and transitions between the elements (“the minister shall say”), the Reformed church has always sought this balance. Form was regarded as essential. Examples of prayers were provided in Reformed orders of service. Yet these were not rigidly imposed (“the minister prays this prayer following or such like”). Anglicans might have books both of prayer and of homilies, but the Reformed church from the beginning guarded the freedom of the minister to preach and pray according to the needs of the moment.

According to church historian Philip Schaff, Calvin’s provision for some areas of latitude in leading prayers “opened the inexhaustible fountain of free prayer in public worship, with its endless possibilities of application to varying circumstances and wants.” Charles Baird saw the balance of free prayer and prescribed forms in Calvin’s service as the “peculiar excellence of the Genevan worship.” The concern for balance reached its apex in the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (1648). Examples of prayer were provided as “help and furniture.” Yet room for the development of the gift of prayer was maintained.

Once again, the genius of this balance crystallized for me in the context of actually worshiping. While attending the Buckingham Baptist church in Bristol, England, I was exposed to the prayers of the Reverend Ron Clark. They were unlike anything I had ever heard before. He prayed with urgency, fervor, and scriptural language and allusions. Whereas heretofore, public prayers were merely endured, his were moving. His were spiritually inspiring and edifying. I looked forward each week to his prayers as well as his sermon.

Only later did I learn that the Reformation was as much a revolution in prayer as a revolution in preaching, congregational singing, and the administration of the sacraments. Only later did I learn that the worship of the Reformed church, at its best, combined the strengths of a few fixed forms (for example, the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer) with free or “studied” or “conceived” prayer. Only later, through exposure to the historic liturgies, did I learn that the Reformed church was committed to what Hughes Old called a “full diet” of biblical prayer: six basic public prayers (praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, benediction) and five-fold intercessions (sanctification of the saints, the church and its ministry, the sick, the civil authorities, and Christian mission around the world). A substantial commitment to public prayer is not a principle that the Reformed church yields to the “liturgical” churches. It is a defining activity of every faithful church. God’s house, Jesus taught, is a house of prayer.

My hope is that exposure to our liturgical past through Reformation Worship will stimulate the kind of transformative impact that I experienced so many years ago. These historic liturgies have the capacity to lift us above the liturgical trivialities of our day. May they be the catalysts for a deeper knowledge of God, of his gospel, and of the worship of which he is worthy.

The author, a minister in the PCA, is senior pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia.

Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present, edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey. New Growth Press, 2018. Hardcover, 736 pages, $59.99.


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