Liturgy – it’s *not* the work of the people

by maggi dawn

There is a prevalent popular saying that liturgy is “the work of the people” – based, it is claimed, on the meaning of the original Greek word. But the current popular application of the word is often used to reinforce the idea that worship should be planned and executed by the people, according to their own taste, without any regard to liturgical tradition, doctrinal concerns, or church order.

This may sound like one of those moments when the etymology of an ancient word brings about a radical re-think of how we enact our faith.  But when it comes to this particular pop-phrase on liturgy, it’s application is not nearly radical enough, and its translation isn’t accurate enough. “Litourgeia” did certainly connect “work” and “the people”, but its meaning is lost if we use it merely to demand that the congregation gets to design their own worship.

What did litourgeia really mean? A litourgeia, in Greek usage, typically referred to a piece of work initiated by patronage for the purposes of the public good. So, for instance, if a wealthy person or group of people wanted to sponsor something for a town, they might initiate the building of a town hall – the work was initiated by some people who had the means to make it happen, and executed by others who had the skills and expertise to deliver the structure, but the result was something that existed for the benefit of all the people – and really, that meant all. It meant public – so that its benefits were available to everyone.

Anyone who knows my work knows that I am fully subscribed to including the community in the design and performance of liturgy. But that is with the caveat that such work takes place in the context of exploring the history, riches, expertise, theological wisdom and scriptural foundation of our faith. To say “liturgy is the work of the people” as an argument for doing away with tradition entirely, or for the unskilled to design worship, or more particularly to reinforce the idea that worship is something we do to satisfy our own tastes, or as a mandate to shift the balance of power inside the four walls of the Church, we have missed the point entirely. The really radical stuff begins when we understand that a liturgy – a work of worship – is supposed to be a work supported by proper expertise, and to have public benefits, not just personal satisfaction.

Back in 2011 I wrote in an article,

“… liturgy might legitimately be said to be work that is first for God, that also transforms our world and benefits people. But liturgy isn’t mine or yours. And it isn’t a mandate for “the people” to do whatever they like in church, regardless of tradition or order. In short, it’s not about me….

…the work of the people” is easily misused to imply that anyone and everyone has the right to have worship be the way they like it. And while I’m absolutely subscribed to inclusivity in worship, the second you cross that line to say “worship is about me”, worship disintegrates into an unholy mess. It’s not about me, or about you. It’s not the work of the people, it’s work in service of God that benefits the people. It’s FOR the people, but not OF them.”

I still think so.