Liturgy – an Introduction

Originally published on The Forum, Newsletter of the Lutheran church in Great Britain, Issue 7, 2011.

Sarah Owens is a student at South East Institute of Theological Education and has written the report below as part of her studies. This report looks at a local church’s current pattern of worship and prayer, its history and possibilities for further development.

How would you reply if a Christian acquaintance, who knows you are Lutheran, asked, ‘What’s your worship like? Is your church liturgical?’ What does that question really mean? Doesn’t that imply strict rules of what to say and things to do, secret mumblings among the ministers, and lots of effort to try and follow along, resulting in frustration, tedium and boredom? Surely not – we enjoy our Lutheran worship.

Using St Anne’s Lutheran Church in London as an example, this question sparked investigations into worship practices, and more specifically, the history of the development of worship and prayer. Major aspects in the evolution of worship and prayer of the English-speaking congregation within living memory will be described.

To understand the historical development, we should have a better understanding of who we are now. Our worship practice describes our faith, and this is particularly relevant for Lutheran congregations that worship in a seventeenth century Wren church in The City of London. Our congregations are composed of people of 30 nations, and services are regularly conducted in English, Latvian, and Swahili. What are the common features of worship and prayer that identify us as Lutheran?

Liturgy refers to the collective words (spoken or sung) and physical gestures of all participants during a worship service. (1) A Quaker meeting is a good example of non-liturgical worship. Is St Anne’s liturgical? Yes, indeed. Worshipers at our Sunday Eucharist service receive the service book and hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) and several printed pages: the Order of Service consisting of Ordinaries (unchanging text) and Propers (text changes weekly with seasonal themes), Readings (Prayer of the Day and Scripture), and a page of announcements which includes a listing of the week’s commemorations and prayer requests.

Lutherans emphasize time as an important aspect of God’s creation. A yearly cycle of weekly Sunday festivals is observed, each of which celebrates Christ’s resurrection, and consists of principal and lesser festivals which divides the year in two. The first portion, the Christmas and Easter cycles commemorate events in the life of Christ, and the second, the season after Pentecost emphasizes the life of the Church. Seasonal themes are evident in the liturgical colours which decorate the vestments of the ministers and linen of the altar.

We observe the three-yearly cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary which, in turn, supports seasonal themes. (2) For regular worshipers at St Anne’s the worship flows effortlessly, but to other denominations of a non-conformist tradition, it might seem regimented and overwhelming. Virtually every second of our shared worship time is planned.

Lutheran doctrine regarding worship practice is summarized as, “We keep traditional liturgical forms.” (3) St Anne’s maintains a traditional, liturgical form of worship that arose from several major contexts: the daily corporate worship and prayer of the ancient church, Roman Catholicism, and the Lutheran church of the Reformation. Martin Luther developed liturgy for full participation of all worshipers, emphasizing Word and Sacrament. Features included a musical setting, Scripture readings, sermons, weekly Eucharist, and hymnody in contemporary, contextual language. His liturgy was written for a yearly cycle of seasons, commemorating events in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Lutheran liturgy evolved as Lutherans spread through Northern Europe and North America, influenced by regional language and local custom. (4)

The congregation we now call St Anne’s developed as a branch from St Mary’s German Lutheran Church in Sandwich Street London due to a growing need among post-WWII German-English married couples and their children for a worship service in English. (5)

A personal interview with our founding father of English liturgy, Rev’d Dr Johann Schneider, age 89, elicited important aspects of the development process. The source material for liturgy was the German Lutheran service book and hymnal in use at St Mary’s. Dr. Schneider retained the musical setting of the German liturgy, including the familiar Gregorian psalm tones and the music of the Ordinary. Dr.Schneider did not do a verbatim translation but chose appropriate, contemporary English that best fit the musical setting. They wanted to sing the familiar introits, psalms, canticles, and the Ordinary in the traditional Lutheran fashion—accurately reflecting Lutheran worship practice since the Reformation. When other Protestant denominations shed song during the eighteenth century, Lutherans clung to song, especially responsive song, as part of our worship identity.

    1. Burns, S. SCM Study-guide to Liturgy. London: SCM Presss, 2006.
    2. ELCA. Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006
    3. Melanchthon, P. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV: Of the Mass. White sh: Kessinger Publishing, n.d.
    4. Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship. Lutheran Book of Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978 & White, JF.
    5. Introduction to Christian Worships, 3rd Edition Revised and Expanded. Nashville,: Abingdon Press, 2000.
    6. http://www.stannes lutheranchurch.org/St_Annes_Lutheran_Church,_London_UK/History.html.