Some interesting thoughts from Conrad Gempf contrasting liturgical and non-liturgical modes of worship (Gempf uses the terms “low church” and “high church”, of which more below).
First, on calls to make church services more “relevant” by ditching liturgy, vestments etc:
Sometimes postmoderns seem to think that ‘old-fashioned’ church was a relic of 1950s culture. As if our churches need to be updated because ordinary people on the street stopped going around in robes and chanting responsively on buses sometime in the 1980s. Part of the point was that it was not our culture, that it was counter-cultural.
Vestments in particular are not a holdover from an earlier, now superseded, cultural paradigm, but reflect an approach towards worship that has continuing relevance – perhaps all the more so in a personality-obsessed culture:
Priests dressed in robes rather than dressing as themselves to deflect attention from themselves; from personalities. The priests are not up there because of who they are, but because of the role they were given to play in representing/summarising the congregation before God and representing God to the congregation (depending on which way they’re facing at the front, as it happens).
And then there’s the nature of worship itself, and particularly how the singing of hymns fits into that:
In a low church setting … your ‘time of worship’ is the singing. In a high church setting, you interrupt the serious business of worship to take time out to express how you feel about it through singing.
What I don’t entirely agree with is Gempf’s use of the terms “low church” and “high church”. Historically, “low church” worship was liturgical (sung Matins from the 1662 BCP, for example, or the Lutheran Hymnal’s “Divine Service Without Holy Communion”). And some “low church” evangelicals are equally critical of the recent tendency to equate “worship” with singing: see this post from a couple of years ago on a critique of the “praise and worship” movement from a Sydney Anglican perspective.
But the image of people wandering around in robes and chanting responsively in every life until the 1980s is an entertaining one. And now it simply doesn’t happen. Something else we can blame Mrs Thatcher for, no doubt.