A Directory of Worship: The Beginning
If Reformed Christians were to draw up today, a directory or guidelines for worship, where would we begin? What considerations would first occupy our attention? Let's look at a historical example, the Westminster Directory for Public Worship, and see how that seventeenth century Reformed work began its reflection on worship.
The Westminster Directory begins with a preface in which the need for such a work is discussed. The preface reviews the historical backgrounds to the Directory and sets out the reasons such a work is required. That background is very interesting and very suggestive for us today.
The preface begins by noting the activity of the early Reformers to purify the worship of God. The Reformers ended the idolatry of the worship of the medieval church and introduced worship in the language of the people. Worship, then, must be directed by the Bible and must be comprehensible to the people of God.
The preface moves on to comment on the state of worship in England since the beginning of the Reformation there. The focus is on the Book of Common Prayer which contained the order of worship, the prayers and readings for the English church. The preface recognized the godliness of the early leaders of the Reformation in England and the great improvement in worship introduced by the Book of Common Prayer. But it also argued that the failure to reform the Prayer Book further, had made it into an offense to the church.
Several problems with the Prayer Book were raised in the Directory’s preface. First, the Prayer Book required that all prayers in the worship service be read from the book. There was no opportunity to pray specifically and pointedly for local needs. There was no encouragement to ministers to exercise “the gift of Prayer” in their public ministries.
Second, the Prayer Book imposed “unprofitable and burdensome Ceremonies.” The preface did not specify what those ceremonies were, but that was clarified in the main part of the Directory. The point of the preface was that by binding the conscience of worshipers with unbiblical practices, many were offended.
Third, the Prayer Book was a “great hindrance of the Preaching of the Word.” The preface charged that in some churches the Prayer Book was used and no sermon was preached. In other churches the sermon became very much secondary to the other elements of the liturgy.
Other offenses of the Prayer Book included being too similar to the Mass, causing strife in the church and encouraging the ministers to be “idle and unedifying.”
The preface concluded by saying that all of the problems with the Prayer Book necessitated a new work that would unify the churches in practice, but not rigidly impose a form for every occasion. The Directory, then, sought to draw as much specific direction as possible from the Bible, and where the Bible was not specific, to make decisions “according to Rules of Christian Prudence, agreeable to the general Rules of the Word of God.”
If we were to write a new preface today, we would write out a very different situation. Rather than facing a single way of worship imposed by church and state on every congregation, we face a bewildering variety of worship. From very formal ritual to the free-wheeling charismatic, the American religious scene offers almost every imaginable approach to worship. Yet our preface would not have to analyze and answer every form of worship in our day. It would be enough to observe how much variety there is in our time, and how little theological and biblical reflection most Christians give to answering the question, “How does God want to be worshiped?”
A directory would restate the Reformed commitment to the principle that all of our worship must be guided by the Bible. All elements of worship must flow from a specific Biblical charge. It is not enough to say that the Bible does not forbid a certain practice. We must be committed to showing the Biblical foundation for all aspects of our worship. We should also restate our commitment that worship must be comprehensible for the worshiper.
The preface to our new directory, like the old one, should also address the subjects of prayer, ceremonies and preaching in the contemporary scene. On prayer we should note that rather than having many prayers imposed on us by a Prayer Book, too many worship services today spend very little time in prayer. An emphasis on worship as entertaining is tempted to view prayer as boring or “dead” time in the service. We need to call ministers and congregations back to exercising the gift of prayer.
Many evangelical congregations would say today that they do not have any of the “ceremonies” that the Puritans worried about in the Church of England. But many new practices are emerging today that would fit under the category of ceremonies. Churches are experimenting with liturgical dancing, movies, drama, advent wreaths, banners and many other things. Are these “ceremonies” good? Do they have Biblical support? We need in our day to analyze a whole series of ceremonies that are either new or reemerging in Reformed circles.
Preaching has always stood at the center of historic Reformed worship. But as in the seventeenth century, so today some approaches to worship reduce or even eliminate the crucial role of preaching. Our new preface should underscore our commitment to the preaching of the Word of God.
The key thrust of a new preface must be the same as that of all the genuine Reformed directories and service books: we must worship as God directs in His Word.
By W. Robert Godfrey
Originally published in The Outlook, November 1990
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