2008January25, Friday

Liturgical Tautology: Presbyterian Worship Is Presbyterian Worship

Posted in Worship at 23:46 by Trey Austin

Over at Reformed Catholicism, Kevin Johnson has commented on the vespers service James Jordan led at the Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference a few weeks ago.

I don’t always, but in many ways, i do agree with his analysis of the service in question, and i also agree with him about Presbyterians trying to chant like they’re Anglicans. The fact is that Presbyterians are Presbyterians for more reasons than their Church government. We have a particular way of worshipping, and we have an inherent distaste for categorically imposed forms of worship. Not every Presbyterian has a problem with the way the Book of Common Prayer is set up and/or worded (i, for instance, am perfectly comfortable with it), but there are Presbyterian ministers (or laymen) whose consciences are bothered by doing certain things that the Prayer Book prescribes.

One thing i found funny about the post, though, was Johnson’s seeming self-refutation. In the first part of the post, he argued for the Prayer Book, and he argued against innovations on it (changing wording of the collects, for instance) because it was just better to have that tradition behind it. But then, at the end of the post, he argued for the validity of the Reformed practice of singing metrical psalms rather than chant verbatim psalms based on the argumet that it was their tradition, that they are not used to chanting, and that, because it is unfamiliar, they will not do it all that well (all true in my experience). That seemed to me to refute the point he had made previously about how the Prayer Book was just better and that there shouldn’t be any innovation on its tradition. If that’s true for the Prayer Book, why isn’t it true for psalm chanting as well? Could it be that Johnson is doing precisely what he derides, and making those kind of liturgical decisions based on his own preferences and predilictons? If not, how does he justify the difference between saying that, if one likes some things in the Prayer Book, he should follow it verbatim or not at all, and saying that one has freedom to follow the Reformed tradition of metrical rather than verbatim (chant) psalm singing? After all, the Reformed practice of questioning tradition and seeking to improve upon it is itself a Reformed tradition. In that regard, when they do that, they’re still just following the Reformed tradition.

The truth is that Presbyterian worship is Presbyterian worship, whether you’re talking about the prayers you pray or the songs you sing. Reformed and Presbyterians have a strong tradition in both regards (which includes set forms within congregations, but that are not universal; being, rather, recommended forms for worship). I don’t think anyone would say Jim Jordan isn’t a quirky Presbyterian, but he’s still fleshing out being a High Church Presbyterian, and that’s something that all Presbyterians are going to have to get used to again since the Puritan minimalists are loosing their long-held domination in the Presbyterian and Reformed world.



  1. Mike Spreng said,

    As a Presbyterian, don’t you long for a standard of worship? What would a guy like you (higher in liturgy than most Presbys) say about the Presbyterians adopting the BCP? I heard that Gary North proposed this in the 80s and it was shot down. I also heard that Sproul uses the BCP.

  2. Trey Austin said,

    If you mean how would i respond to North’s or anyone else’s use of the BCP for their worship, my response would be, “Praise the Lord!” That’s wonderful for them.

    However, i can’t see myself advocating its exclusive use (i.e., limiting my freedom to change things as i see fit in leading worship to help the people of God in my charge worship best), not because i don’t want a standard for worship, but because i already have one: Scripture. (I know, low blow! But hey, i’m still a bit of a biblicist.) Yes, everyone says they follow Scripture, and most people do in many ways. But that’s just the point. I believe the New Covenant model is to allow a greater degree of freedom in our worship. I believe it would be unhealthy for a universal standard of worship to be imposed ecclesiastically, especially if it is imposed upon a Reformed or Presbyterian Church like the PCA, ARP, URC, or some other such Church.

    I am an ARP (in exile in the PCA), and one thing that the former ARP Book of Worship said was that any prayer book may be used so long as that which is used does not conflict with the Standards of the Church. I’m perfectly happy for anyone to use an ancient liturgy, a Reformational liturgy, or a modern liturgy, and i’m perfectly happy with them setting it as a standard in their congregation. What i’m not happy with (i guess i’m Puritan enough to think this way) is a standard of worship that must be followed without deviation. Yes, i understand that there is latitude in the BCP to do things in certain ways and change things up a bit, but i’m talking about the forms themselves. I would vote against such a move on principle in any Presbyterian Church i’m part of. Yet, at the same time, i’m more than happy to study liturgies to implement in the worship i lead. I’m also perfectly happy to have a “recommended” form that one may follow if he likes. And, too, i’d be the first one to purchase a prayer book published for Presbyterians that includes forms for use in public and private worship, so long as they are not compulsary.

  3. al said,

    Trey, Jim Jordan lives about 45 mins away from us. We are thinking about having him come over and teach us to sing the psalms. He is really musically gifted and has a wealth of knowledge in matters concerning worship.

    I will keep you posted.

    al sends

  4. Steven W said,


    I don’t think Jordan is interested in forcing anything upon others. He isn’t saying the King should send troops in and make all congregations conform. He’s simply challenging people to think about improving and maturing worship.

    Chanting is one of the only ways to sing the psalms without reverting to Yoda-speak. You know what I mean. If you want to sing the Psalms in a straight-forward manner where the text makes sense, you probably will not be able to fit it into a pre-arranged melody. One of the optional session at AAPC also went through other options.

    The Chants done at AAPC were fairly easy too. Everyone picked up on them, and they were pretty Western-European through and through. What’s the difference between “singing” All people that on earth may dwell and “chanting” it. It was originally a chant, was it not?

    Also, why give the chant to the Anglicans. Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox do it too. Are Presbyterians simply “protesting” all of these traditions? I’d hope not. And of course, the CREC isn’t exactly Presbyterian is it? It more closely models the Continental polity, and it allows for various Reformed confessions, one of which is the 39 Articles. Wilson told me that the Augsburg is also up for consideration, so it seems that chanting would be quite a natural fit in this sort of atmosphere. We’re headed in a decidedly Bucerian direction.

  5. Fr. Bill said,

    Wandering in late here …

    We routinely chant the Psalms and a canticle (except during Advent and Lent) in every worship service. It’s easy to learn to do classical Anglican chant. To avoid sing-songy effects, we always use double chants.

    And, because chants tunes are so rigidly formulary in their structure (every chant built on a 4-note, 6-note couplet), its also easy to write your own chants. And for every chant you use (or write), it’s usually a simple matter to sing it in minor key when singing “dark” psalms (e.g. laments).

    One of the most powerful times of song in our parish comes at the conclusion of Good Friday’s stations of the cross. We chant the entirety of Psalm 22 with the chant in minor key from verse 1 through the words “… wild oxen” in verse 21. Then, beginning with the words “Thou hast answered me …” in the second hal of verse 21, we continue chanting the same chant, except in major key, and son on to the end of the Psalm, a triumphant song of praise anticipating the resurrection and its aftermath. That key switch never fails to generate gooseflesh.

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