Introducing Our Liturgical Forms
All worship is liturgical, that is, it follows a set rhythm and pattern. A church’s liturgy can be described in various ways: informal or formal, high or low, explicit or implicit. But all churches have a liturgy.
Christ Reformed is a member of the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA), a federation of churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition. While there is great freedom and much diversity in how our congregations worship, all churches in the URCNA voluntarily commit to using a common body of liturgical forms for the celebration of key moments in the life of the church, such as sacraments, profession of faith, and ordination ceremonies. These liturgical forms have been approved by our churches at our Synod (bi-annual gathering), and published in a book along with a collection of prayer, Forms and Prayers (2018). The entire collection is also available online at www.formsandprayers.com.
What is a “liturgical form”? It is merely a standard script directing the minister on how to perform a particular rite in the worship of the church. It may include many elements, such as an introduction, prayers, vows, or other teaching.
In the coming months we plan to present a series of blog posts exploring our liturgical forms, beginning here with the preface to our collection.
The “Preface” to our Liturgical Forms
The preface begins with a simple claim:
Liturgical forms are an important part of the Reformed faith.
The Protestant Reformation was a renewal of the church’s worship, as much as it was a renewal of doctrine and life. Just as catechisms and confessions were used to teach the rediscovered principles of Scripture alone and faith alone, so too liturgical forms were prepared to teach the proper understanding of the church’s sacraments and guide faithful practice.
Note that liturgical forms are a resource for teaching the doctrine of our worship. They are filled with biblical instruction that explains what we understand to be taking place in our worship.
Next, the preface walks through the organic development of these forms as they arose from debates about the nature of the church’s worship, and most importantly, about the meaning and significance of the sacraments.
Liturgical Forms were prepared initially for the celebration of the two biblical sacraments confessed by Reformed Churches: baptism and the Lord’s supper. In time, additional forms were provided for other ceremonial moments in the life of the church, including profession of faith, marriage, ordination of ministers and elders, and excommunication and readmission. These forms were prepared to enact and teach the sacramental doctrine found in our confessions and catechisms.
Because the Reformed drew upon scripture alone as the foundation for this doctrine, they contain rich biblical teaching. The forms at this site are therefore a timeless resource of sacramental and practical theology for all believers today.
The Reformed Churches on the continent of Europe drew from a common pool of liturgical forms, and there is much overlap in the German, French, and Dutch speaking churches. The preface sketches this development in broad outline:
The book of Forms and Prayers recently published for use in the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA) is reflective of the Dutch Reformed tradition. This tradition was heavily shaped by an early Psalter published for Dutch speaking refugees in Heidelberg by Petrus Dathenus in 1566. Dathenus drew heavily upon the liturgy of the Church Order of the Palatinate (1563), where Heidelberg was located, which had largely been prepared by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus. This liturgy drew upon the forms prepared by John Calvin for Geneva in 1542. The work of all these Reformed liturgists can be traced back to the earlier work of Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli.
As a rule, the Reformers did not seek to reinvent the wheel, but rather recovered and restored the most faithful practices of the medieval and ancient church. Their work reflects the writings of church fathers such as Augustine, Tertullian, and Chrysostom. Though notably Reformed in character, these forms exhibit ancient practice and thought.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Reformed tradition on the continent developed a different sensibility about liturgical forms than the Presbyterian churches that arose from English-speaking lands. The Dutch Reformed and their continental brethren were comfortable with committing to a common body of liturgical forms, that would be approved for use by a general gathering of the churches, or a Synod. We agree to uphold our Church Order in which we commit to use “the appropriate liturgical form” for sacraments and other key rites in the life of the church. By using approved forms, we recognize the fact that these liturgical practices are a formative part of the life of the church; they teach our faith in a similar fashion to the creeds and confessions that summarize it doctrinally.
So, for instance, in the sacramental life of the church, we not only commit to a common doctrine of the sacraments in our confessions (Heidelberg Catechism 66 – 85); Belgic Confession Articles 33 – 35 ), but we also commit to a common liturgy and practice of the sacraments, for the liturgy and practice are the means of manifesting the doctrine in the life of the church. Good theology (orthodoxy) can be undermined by bad practice.
This is why the preface also identifies, in broad historical overview, how and when our forms have been approved:
The Synod of Dort (1618 – 1619) approved liturgical forms for the use of the Dutch churches, and this liturgical tradition remained fairly stable in Dutch speaking churches for hundreds of years. Reformed church synods in North America approved English translations of these liturgical forms, notably in 1912 and 1934, with minor alterations and revisions.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, there was a great deal of liturgical innovation, not all of it taking the sacramental theology of the Reformation as its starting point. The URCNA Liturgical Forms committee sought to preserve the best of our tradition, and provide a collection of liturgical forms reflecting what was in use by our churches in the early part of the twenty-first century. Revisions were undertaken to ensure the language and sentence structure was clear and understandable to modern readers. After many years of work and much deliberative input from all our churches, these forms were approved by the Synod of the URCNA in 2016.
You can view all of our liturgical forms at www.formsandprayers.com. In our next post we’ll begin to explore the rich theology in our sacramental forms, beginning with the “Baptism of an Infant, Form 1.”