Liturgy, Instruction, Worship

Once a month, I attend Fast and Testimony Meeting in the morning, then sing in the choir for an Episcopal Evensong service as dusk falls. One of these services is appealing to me as a theological abstraction, but usually leaves me cold in practice; the other regularly moves me to tears and is a major source of spiritual sustenance.

First, a little history and description of the Evensong service: Prayer services have been the heart of Episcopal worship ever since the Reformation. Part of the innovation of Anglicanism was the belief that the performance of worship was the duty of the whole people of the church, and not just the monastic orders. The first British prayer books in both England and Scotland, took as their models the monastic daily office, and made those daily offices (worship services) the holy work of all the people.

The prominence of morning and evening prayer (Matins and Evensong) increased over time as Puritan and other influences made the Eurcharist less frequent. Until the late 1980s, when the Eucharist re-emerged as the principal Sunday form of worship, Morning Prayer was the usual Sunday service at most Anglican/Episcopal churches around the world. As a result, Matins and Evensong became a distinguishing characteristic of the Anglican branch of the church, marked by a great deal of excellent music and liturgy.

Music for the liturgy of Evensong is always marked by settings of two New Testament texts: the Magnificat (the Song of Mary: “My soul doth magnify the Lord”) and the Nunc Dimittis (the Song of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace”). In addition, there are a sung psalm, sung collects (prayers) and usually one hymn and one anthem. The full texts of the preces and the collects can be found here.

Some of the questions I have: how are instruction and worship related? Or are they? Is listening to testimonies or talks really worship, or is it something else–religious community-building, theological instruction (heaven help us!), a chance to develop patience and charity, a medium through which God’s spirit can offer glimpses of truth?

Should we expect that the liturgical structure of “the true church” will be similarly “true”, or can we assume that human innovation plays a large part in the construction of our worship services? Does the temple ritual do the liturgical work that other churches try to accomplish in their Sabbath worship?

Do different styles of worship work better for people of varying temperaments? If so, should we expect all members of our church to appreciate our worship services anyway, or should we encourage people to seek the kinds of spiritual experiences they crave in whatever setting they find them?

Given that our Testimony Meetings, Conferences, Sacrament Meetings, and temple ceremonies have changed, sometimes quite dramatically, in our relatively brief history, should we expect further changes, or have our liturgies settled into a form that will last for a while?


  1. Bah! Obviously I haven’t posted in way too long. Could one of you clever bloggers fix my link for me? Thanks.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Kristine, I find that my own testimony is mediated through music more than anything else–even the scriptures. Beautiful sacred art music just has a profound affect on my spirit that other types of worship do not. I think it’s great that you sing in the Evensong service.

  3. More and more, I think that our Sunday services are geared toward community building. I think that different people find communion with God through different media, and consequently different activities are going to be more spiritually significant for some than others. But church is more than personal, it is interpersonal. That said, we can and should do our best to find media touching for all types in our worship. Personally, I have felt the power of God no greater than singing high church music.

  4. cj douglass says:

    I don’t believe that our Sunday meetings are intended to be the only form of worship we experience. In fact, I think the very nature of Mormon worship begs for further exploration. Whether that includes family scripture study or singing with an Episcopalians(or both) I don’t think God cares. Its when we cease to search for truth and light outside of the confines of Mormonism that I think we limit ourselves.

  5. In a Sacrament Meeting we sing together, we pray together, and we take the Sacrament (Mormon terminology). I think those are forms of worship. I sometimes wince at the hymn choice. I often wish the prayers were more topical and less routine. I always celebrate the Sacrament, even when the little ones are noisy.

    But the talks are — in my opinion — all about participation and community, and have little to do with worship, and seldom doctrine or instruction.

    This does leave a 70-minute meeting seeming a bit shallow on the worship front. In apologetic mode (a mode I seldom turn on), I like to think that creates a longing for something more that causes Mormons to seek out Christ, in their closets, in their fields, on the road. Hopefully we find Him.

  6. Excellent post, Kristine. I attend Episcopal services with my husband pretty often, and go on retreat at a Catholic monastery once a year, among other things. I can definitely say that there are beautiful things I experience in those places that I rarely feel in Mormon meetings. That’s not to say that our meetings aren’t amazingly helpful in other ways; we build community better than any religious group I know, and that’s hugely important. For pure worship of God, though, we often fall short in our communal gatherings.

    I believe that Mormon tradition, drawing heavily on Puritanism, expects that true worship is a very private matter and is best conducted individually and with our families. I find this approach lacking, and when I have discussed it with others, they have reminded me that the temple is the place where we are to worship. When pressed, however, they often admit that temple-going is less an experience of worship for them than an opportunity for service; we are not worshipping God there so much as learning about Him and our role in salvation history, and preparing ourselves for eternity. There are worshipful aspects to this of course, but nothing compared to what is poured out to God by the liturgical traditions. In the temple, we never quite let go of ourselves. We are there primarily to learn something of great value–almost like obtaining a credential–and so the experience, however spiritual it may be, is never entirely selfless. Even when we are serving as proxies for others, we are also there for ourselves. In such a circumstance it’s more difficult to focus entirely on revering God’s beauty, goodness and power.

  7. As a missionary in Mission Viejo California, my companion and I often attended Sabbath services at Temple Eilat, the local Jewish Synagogue. At one time we had as many as six elders attending at once (Friday evening was a slow time for us). In attending these services, I was actually struck by the similarities between their sevices and ours. I found them no more or less “worshipful” than a typical sacrament meeting. In discussions with the Rabbi, we then discovered that he had attended BYU and studied under Hugh Nibley. Go figure.

  8. Thanks, all.

    cj–do you think that your idea that “our Sunday meetings are intended to be the only form of worship we experience” is widely held within the church? I’m guessing it isn’t. And while I’m certainly glad that I’ve had opportunities to experience the worship services of other faiths, it ruffles my theological feathers a bit to think that the “one true and living church” wouldn’t also have something like the ideal form of worship revealed for its members, if, in fact, liturgical form is of any importance to God. (Maybe it isn’t!)

    CEK–I agree entirely with your classifications of hymns, prayers, and Sacrament as the portion of our meetings devoted to worship. I suspect that’s partly why everyone is so opinionated about hymns and music in the church–all of our communal worship is crammed into about 5 minutes’ worth of music! I also like the idea of that tantalizing bit creating a longing that opens up private opportunities for communion and mysticism.

    Jana, I also struggle to figure out how temple “worship” (it does get called that pretty often) is supposed to work–I wonder if some of what has changed in the late 20th-century paring down of the ceremony dilutes the communal worship aspect somewhat (I’m thinking of the preahcer and the Protestant hymn-singing and the somewhat more extensive audience participation of older versions). The current form is about as satisfying as collective worship as watching TV together is as a family activity. It feels more meaningful when Ward Temple Night works; other times it seems pretty atomistic and anonymous.

  9. It’s when we cease to search for truth and light outside of the confines of Mormonism that I think we limit ourselves.

    How sad. I found myself yearning for more than Mormonism could offer, and wound up with a MA in Biblical Studies from a Protestant institution and have found more joy in my soul and closeness to God than anything Mormonism could have provided. So I completely and respectfully disagree. It’s when we limit ourselves only to the confines of Mormonism that we limit ourselves.

    But getting back to Kristine – yeah, for me, I’m more erratic than most Mormons and prefer a little glossolalia or exorcism once in a while, even if the farthest I’ll go is a simple “you” instead of “thou” in my prayers.

  10. David,
    What you said:

    It’s when we limit ourselves only to the confines of Mormonism that we limit ourselves.

    …is what I meant. Ofcourse I meant that we should be continuing our studies within Mormonism as well. Thanks for the clarification.

    I’m assuming that you meant my idea was “our Sunday meetings aren’t intended to be the only form of worship we experience”. And yes, the idea that Mormon worship is not the ideal worship is sad for me as well but like others have mentioned, I see the focus being placed elsewhere(community, etc.)

  11. I think that there are some important theological connections between styles of worship, liturgy, and practice. I come from a catholic background (was an altar boy for 4 years, right before they gave up on that as a means of entry for the priesthood and changed “boy” to “server”), and at my episcopalian undergrad college I frequently attended the susng compline service at 10 PM, 5 nights a weak.

    And, particularly in that last service of the day, a very initimate candle-lit affair, entirely done by students, in the great choir of the chapel, in which we all sung the plain-song service a capella, there was a great beauty. I often found it an excellent preparation for prayer, and the psalms we sang every weak (antiphonally) remain with me more than most do. A difference of taste, perhaps, but I prefered that service to any in the BCP except perhaps the Festival of Lessons and Carols, which is of course a beast of a whole different character.

    But I think that there are very important aspects of liturgy that we as members of the church may not want to emulate. Most “high church” services emphasize a particular vision of the community, replicated through the liturgy, in which there are expert leaders and then there are followers. This is at odds with the nature of our community: that the priesthood is dismissed back to sit among their families is, I think, not insignificant.

    Of course, there is also the nature of the prayer associated with the high church service. Though often poetic, it is also composed by others, not not present, and can become a kind of vain repitition–an opportunity to feel like one may have made a connection without having to make the critical effort that is required to make (for instance) a sacrament service a worship service. Feeling the emotion left from the hymns and the poetic prayers is not, fundamentally, coming to Christ. It may be peaceful, may even be in his peace, but it is not an interaction with him.

  12. A satisfying thing about liturgy is being involved in community worship in which you don’t really have to deal with the individual members of the community. All are untied in song or recitation and the individual foibles of the members of the community are invisible or irrelevant. Testimony meetings are a good idea in theory, but then you have to deal with the messiness of individual’s interpretation of the purpose of the meeting, their theories about angels, what constitutes a spiritual experience, etc. We all need elements of that liturgy — a chance to have direct access to communion with the Holy Ghost without the complexity of a distractingly contextual medium.

    An example of attempts at different liturgies: I was in a ward where the ward music director (a professional jazz pianist) started organizing readings of scripture as poetry with music in the background. (She called them ‘powergems,’ after the oldschool scripture gems of my youf.) We did quite a few, one or two a month, and they were deeply spiritual and massively popular. I wish we had recorded them.

    My concern with testimony meetings is that, in many instances, they are too liturgical. They can focus excessively on ritual participation — the need to bear one’s testimony whether prompted or not — and form — the grammatical structures, ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt,’ the “I know’ list at the end. I know I tend to beat the same drum a lot, but I didn’t appreciate testimony meetings until I left the American west and heard people testifying, rather than bearing testimony.

  13. I find myself agreeing with all of you!

    TMD, I agree that there’s something potentially dangerous about the effortlessness of a pre-composed liturgy, but I suspect that’s also what works about it. The body and part of the mind do the kneeling and reciting and singing on auto-pilot, and that frees some other half-conscious part of the mind and spirit for transcendent experience. And yeah, we do have divergent taste–I love the BCP, especially the old one in all it’s un-PC, non-gender-inclusive glory!

    Norbert, I love your first paragraph–you’ve very precisely articulated the problem I wanted to get at. I love the *idea* of testimony meeting, but in practice I’m not charitable enough to get past the “individual foibles” that are so potently on display in testimony meetings. I suspect that this is also the reason I like the precomposed prayers, with their careful wording. There’s no distracting awkwardness of phrase or stylistic ugliness to awaken the natural critic in me and derail my attempts to understand Love with unlovely thoughts about my neighbors. Which, coming full circle, is exactly what I love about testimony meeting: my cheap mysticism is confronted with the real and difficult problem of practicing my religion!

    I also find it interesting that everyone immediately concluded that it was Evensong I found sustaining, not Testimony Meeting–I tried to leave it a little ambiguous in my intro. Maybe my reputation for snobbishness precedes me :)

  14. The problem with testimony meetings is that those who know how to give a proper testimony and would have something to say … don’t.

    When I hear people complain about TM, I ask them for the last time they themselves stood and delivered…

  15. Being among friends of episcopalians, I just wanted to mention that I know many of them will be happy with the good news from Tanzania, and that I am happy for them. They may be able to maintain a place in the episcopal church!

  16. Kristine: I wondered about that, but concluded that the order in which you placed your feelings was puposeful.

  17. Hmmm, TMD, I’m not inclined to regard the news from Tanzania as good, but ymmv. It is interesting to see how the process differs when the discussion and disagreement happens in a relatively open way, instead of all the decisions being made behind closed doors and handed down from the top.

  18. Kristine–

    I’ve long seen the continuous and acrimonious public battles of the episcopal church as evidence of the importance of revelation and priesthood authority. While the ECUSA has been able to weather much theological difference over the years (I’ve been in a university chapel where the main cross had a removable jesus, depending upon the theology of the episcopalians using it), the battles of the last three decades–women priests, prayer book, women bishops, the role of scripture, now proudly gay bishops and same-sex unions–have produced tremendous amounts of acrimony and hurt feelings and schism (and believe me, congregations left and schismatic congregations were formed in response to all of those–don’t forget that more than 300 priests and a number of bishops left the anglican church after they ordained women). So often the focus of the episcopal church has turned to politics rather than coming to Christ. Dioscese and parish committees spend inordinate amounts of time and effort addressing these issues, and fighting among themselves–it’s not just a national or international issue. So I see it as a poor model.

    And it seems to me that Schori and Robinson and their allies now seek a kind of authoritarian response, in denying those who episcopalians who priviledge scripture as a source of authority and who reject openly homosexual bishops the kinds of solutions which have been used for years in other provinces of the communion where such deep rifts have developed, like the use of primatial vicars for dissenters within a province. Indeed, this refusal to even try to recognize the “conservatives” viewpoint as valid suggests to me very strongly the authoriarians tendencies of progressives and others of the left. Really, it seems to me that, properly negotiated, the Tanzania communique may offer a way out for both sides. But I think that the majority in the ECUSA is at the point where it just wants the conservative/traditionalist minority to either shut up or leave, or be forced to shut up through threats to seize churches etc.
    So I don’t see their “open-ness” as being in any way desireable. Rather, debating and voting over doctrine may seem nice according to the ways of the world, but I beleve it is ultimately destructive of faith and community.

  19. (Sorry for the thread-jack)

  20. Nobody minds thread-jacks when they’re interesting. Well, at least I don’t!

  21. I’ve had a recurring “issue” with my need for worship over the church’s scheduled meeting of edification or instruction when Easter Sunday happens to fall on the first Sunday in April. I love and need to worship on Easter Sunday — I want to sing in the choir and partake of the sacrament. Although I generally enjoy General Conference and listen attentively, when it falls on Easter Sunday, it doesn’t meet my need for worship. Going to a dark chapel and watching a satellite broadcast or, now, staying home in my pajamas and listening to it on the computer, just don’t do it for me. I have been known to attend other churches’ services on these Sundays. When I see that this conflict will occur, I have, several times, written to church leadership in Salt Lake, expressing my wish that in the future they would move General Conference a week in either direction to allow us to enjoy a worship service on Easter Sunday and have our conference meeting of edification at a different time. FYI: when I get a response from these letters, they reference my previous letters, so they do have a file on me! But then they add that they have no plans to change the week of conference. I don’t really understand this. There’s nothing particularly sacred about that weekend — it’s just an administrative thing. And, though I might invite a friend of another faith looking for an Easter service to attend ours — I would never do that on a General Conference Easter Sunday. My friend would probably think we didn’t celebrate Easter and were, therefore, not Christians. I have a many times attended services at other churches, and have been substitute organists for them and performed musical numbers and accompanied music at first communions. My most memorable Easter Sunday was one when I was in London and went on Good Friday to a service at St. Pauls Cathedral, went on Easter Sunday morning to Westminster Abbey and then that afternoon to a meeting at my Hyde Park Chapel ward. But though I love the music and drama and theater of the other services, I feel the spirit more purely at my home ward’s testimony meetings, where I see and hear people I know and love sharing the feelings in their hearts.

  22. Kristine, great to hear from you!

    I think like Jana that the Mormon view is that a lot of the most important worship is personal or to be conducted with family (or friends). Of course, I think most actual Mormons don’t think of it this way. Most actual Mormons seem to think of Sunday meetings as the core of their worship. This is sad because as you say the worship part is so limited and often not that well done. I think the way we grow through learning to serve and be served by one another is ultimately more important than worship, so I’m okay with our meetings, but I think really good worship can also be very nourishing, so it is a real loss that we don’t do better at it. (I am also sad that most Mormons seem to let Sunday meetings become the core of their gospel learning process, because they are far from enough on that front too)

    But for you, perhaps part of your personal worship is Evensong. So you are actually following the program better than most Mormons!

    For me, my personal worship routine used to include things like (i) about once a month talking late into the night with Patrick and Melissa and Mike and Kennan and some of our other friends at ND; (ii) practicing and then performing in church songs like “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” while awkwardly dodging participation in the ward choir; (iii) singing the Alfred Burt Carols and other favorites around the piano with my family for an hour or two whenever I made a visit home; (iv) progressively compiling and elaborating a list of temple study scriptures with my sister over the course of the past fifteen years.

    I do think though that the current Mormon collective worship pattern is highly contingent and is driven partly by cultural assumptions (such as distrust/lack of appreciation for the role of the body, ritual, non-verbal communication and expression), and partly by practical necessity. Due to pluralism and urban sprawl we don’t all live a five-minute walk from the church anymore to have meetings multiple times per day (the assumed context of many older worship traditions I suspect). Of course, in places like Utah we do, so it is unfortunate that we don’t take advantage of it for services like these. I am hopeful that in a few more years we will be ready to shift gears again and adapt worship schedule, curriculum, etc. somewhat to local circumstances.

    Kristine, what do you make of the fact that at many churches worship involves a rock band? To what extent is the wonderful music you enjoy at Evensong a reflection of a certain rather odd demographic at that church which is totally different from what we have and would realistically want in the CJCLDS? Is it apples and oranges to compare this with the CJCLDS? Or . . . would it make sense for someone in MoTab to compare their experience there with their ward meetings?

    Next time I’m in New England, can I come to Evensong?

  23. Kristine,

    Your post reminded me of an interesting book that explores some of the same ground. The book, “Paul and the Expansion of the Church Today”, was written by Ed Firmage.

    Though I welcome Gladys Knight’s infusion of musical variety to the annual MoTab Christmas concert, I remain miffed that brass instruments (excluding the organ stop) are excluded from Mormon worship. However, I have noticed a few bell choirs that have sneeked onto the stage in Mormon liturgy over the last 20 years or so. I’d like to think that some of the early bell pioneers from Philadelphia helped prepare the way for the recently formed bell choir on Temple Square.