A Look at Liturgy: Its Reformation History

In visiting various United Reformed congregations, I’ve often been curious about the source of the basic structure and consistency of our liturgy.  In pp. 75-88 of the back matter of the Psalter Hymnal Supplement, the Liturgical Committee traces for us the general background of the liturgy inherited by the Christian Reformed Church and passed down to the URCNA.

In its commitment to the regulative and dialogical principles of worship, which we discussed earlier, the Protestant Reformation gave birth to a number of different liturgical structures.  What they had in common was their strong emphasis on the preaching of the Word and prayer, stripping the Roman Catholic mass of its ornate and intricate ceremonies.  The primary focus of worship was the fourfold purpose described in the Heidelberg Catechism: “to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor” (Lord’s Day 38, Q&A 103).

While the Reformation gave the Word of God the proper place in its worship, it tended to de-emphasize the sacraments, perhaps as a pendulum swing away from the Roman Catholic church.  When the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, it was often given its own unique liturgy, which explains why even today churches of Dutch Reformed origin often celebrate the sacrament only once every few months in a specially structured “Communion” service.

From the various liturgies of Bucer, Calvin, Zwingli, and even the Lutherans, Peter Datheen (Petrus Dathenus) created what would become the standard liturgy of the Dutch Reformed churches.  More than the actual structure of the worship service, however, Datheen was involved in the creation of liturgical prayers and formularies, many of which have made their way into the back of today’s Psalter Hymnal.

75AnniversaryWeekProgramInsideIt was not until late in the sixteenth century that the churches in Holland began to incorporate Scripture reading and psalm singing into their worship, first before the services began and later as part of the liturgy itself.  This gradual and unstructured growth explains the fact that a systematized order of worship was not established for the Dutch churches until 1933.

The Christian Reformed Church, ancestor of many of our congregations, inherited this unofficial liturgy from the churches in Holland.  It was not until 1916 that an overture came from Classis Illinois urging the CRC synod to establish a uniform order of worship.  The study committee appointed by synod to consider liturgical matters reported back in 1928 with this proposed order of morning worship, which the CRC adopted.  To emphasize the dialogical structure of this liturgy, actions from the side of God are italicized, whereas actions from the side of the people are in regular type.

  • Prelude
  • Introductory Service
    • Votum
    • Salutation
    • Psalm of Praise
  • Service of Reconciliation
    • Summary of the Law (Matt. 22:37-40)
    • Confession of Sin
    • Penitential Psalm
    • Absolution
    • Apostles’ Creed
    • Psalm of Praise
  • Service of Gratitude and Benevolence
    • General Prayer and Lord’s Prayer
    • Offertory
    • Psalm of Thanksgiving
  • Service of the Word
    • Reading of Scripture
    • Preaching
  • Closing Service
    • Prayer of Thanksgiving
    • Concluding Psalm and/or Doxology
    • Benediction

How was this order of worship received?  According to the Psalter Hymnal Supplement, it fell on its face.  The congregations of the CRC “choked on the ‘absolution’ that had been given a place in the liturgy following the law and confession.  In 1930, the new liturgy was dropped—after considerable protest and agony” (p. 87).

The advisory committee assigned to address liturgical matters identified three common themes among the churches’ vociferous objections to the new order of worship:

  1. The new liturgy would be detrimental to the unity of the churches.
  2. Synod had no authority to impose a uniform order of worship on the churches.
  3. Elements of the liturgy, particularly the absolution, were unnecessary or even unbiblical.  With regard to the absolution and service of reconciliation, “they foster formalism and ritualism; the absolution is lifted to a sacrament; it will push the preaching into the background; it is a step in the direction of Rome; God alone can forgive sins; the absolution transfers the exercise of power of the keys from the Word to the man and his office” (Acts of Synod 1930, 158).

In summary, this advisory committee posed this rhetorical question: “May we endanger the peace and the welfare of our denomination by insisting upon a liturgical element that has no clear Scriptural foundation?” (1930 Acts, 160).

After the liturgical debacle of 1930 no more attempts were made at introducing a uniform order of worship in the Christian Reformed Church until the time of the Psalter Hymnal Supplement.  However, individual consistories continued to develop a variety of liturgies for their own churches, each to fill unique needs and worship God in distinct ways.

And that, in a nutshell, is the liturgical history the United Reformed Churches in North America has inherited.  Next we’ll consider a few of the key elements of Reformed worship and their varied manifestations in our liturgy.

–MRK

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