Saturday, 6 June 2015

Liturgy (Readers 2015-2017) 1:
An introduction to Liturgy

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute:

Reader Course Day Conference

Saturday, 6 June 2015, Jenkins Room

15:45 to 17:00, Liturgy 1: Introducing Liturgy:


An understanding of the foundations of liturgy, including a comparison with secular liturgy in its social, domestic, political and cultural settings

Opening Prayer:

The Lord be with you:
And also with you

the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace;
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our opening prayer is the collect of tomorrow, the First Sunday after Trinity [7 June 2015]. It talks about collective prayer, God’s grace, and pleasing God in will and deed. In this module on liturgy, we are looking at how, in corporate prayer, we help people to approach God in both will and deed, thought and action, so that through worship we are, by God’s grace, in communion with God through Christ, and in communion with others through Christ.

This afternoon, I want to introduce us to the topics being covered in this module and in particular to develop an understanding of liturgical space, place, time and structure, with a critical comparison with secular ‘liturgies’.

(A) Introduction to Liturgy: ritual and symbol, meanings and language:

Some introductory remarks:

• Good and bad experiences
• Liturgy and our expectations
• Liturgy in the world today:

1, Drama (Plays, Opera, Pantomime).
2, The Cinema
3, Sport (Soccer, Rugby)
4, Domestic
5, Political and secular

Not all liturgy in the Church of Ireland is to be found in The Book of Common Prayer (2004).

Examples include:

• Harvest Thanksgiving
• Remembrance Sunday
• Service of Nine Lessons and Carols
• Christingle Services

Some of these have been adapted in recent years by imaginatively tailoring them to a Service of the Word. But they were there long before we introduced f a Service of the Word. Are these domestic/family, secular/political, folk/religious liturgies?

And there are quasi-religious liturgies too:

• Orange marches
• Remembrance Day services

What do we mean by liturgy?

Liturgy is more than rite and words. The components of all liturgy include an understanding of the role and function of:

• liturgical space,
• liturgical venue,
• liturgical time,
• liturgical structure.

How do we apply this to liturgy of the Church?

What do we mean by liturgy?

The word itself means “the work of the people.”

The Greek word laós (λαός) means the people.

The laós might even mean the rowdy, the masses, the populace.

Liturgy is not necessarily a sacred word. Sometimes it even has vulgar connotations. Some examples include:

Laou-laou (Λαου-λαου): on the sly, sneakingly.

Λαουτζίκος (Laoutzíkos) ... the common people; we are all members of the laity

Laoutzíkos (Λαουτζίκος): the populace, the rabble, the riff-raff, the vulgar horde; this use is current during the strikes and protests in Greece about public spending cuts.

And it gives rise to secular words we all understand: the word basileós (βασιλεύς, modern βασιλιάς), for a king, literally means the one who goes before or leads the people.

I was reminded in Crete recently that ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Greek word leitourgía (λειτουργία) means public duty. We now restrict this to the worship of the church, and even more specifically and restrictively to the ritual worship of the Church. In Greece, essentially, it is the Eucharist.

The word liton for a town hall is derived from λος, los, a dialectal variant of λαός (laós, people), is combined with ἔργον (érgon), work (werg- in Indo-European roots).

So basically liturgy means the “public work of the people”, the masses, all of us, for we are all members of the λαός, laós, the people.

I was reminded in Crete the year before last that The Beggars’ Opera translates into Greek as Η λαϊκή όπερα.

Liturgy (λειτουργία, leitourgía) is a Greek composite word meaning originally a public duty, a service to the state undertaken by a citizen. Its elements are λειτος, leitos (from leos or laos, people) meaning public, and ergo (obsolete in the present stem, used in future erxo, etc.), to do.

From this we have leitourgós (λειτουργός), “a man who performs a public duty,” “a public servant,” often used as equivalent to the Roman lictor; then leitourgeo, “to do such a duty,” leitourgema, its performance, and leitourgía, the public duty itself.

The word comes from the Classical Greek word λειτουργία (leitourgía) meaning “a public work.”

In Athens, the λειτουργία (leitourgía) was the public service performed by the wealthier citizens of the city state at their own expense (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the Greek city-states, it had a different sense: some public good which a wealthy citizen arranged at his own expense, either voluntarily or by law. In Athens, the Assembly assigned liturgies to the wealthy, and there was a law by which any man who had been assigned a liturgy while a richer man had had none could challenge him either to undertake the liturgy or to exchange property with him.

In Athens, the λειτουργία (leitourgía) was the public service performed by the wealthier citizens at their own expense, such as the offices of:

The Gymnasium at Olympia, where the athletes trained ... the Gymnasíarchos superintended the gymnasium

Gymnasíarchos (γυμνασίαρχος), who superintended the gymnasium.

The Greek chorus in The Bacchai at the National Theatre ... the Choregós paid the members of the chorus in the theatre (Photograph: Tristram Kenton)

Choregós (χορηγός), who paid the members of the chorus in the theatre.

The hestiátoras gave a banquet ... and his public service finds a reminder in the modern Greek word for a restaurant, εστιατόριο (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hestiátoras (εστιάτορας) who gave a banquet to his tribe – the word survives in the modern Greek, meaning a restaurateur (the modern Greek word for a restaurant is εστιατόριο, a place of public service, where the public is served food.

The Triérarchos in Athens outfitted and paid for a warship for the state (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Triérarchos (τριήραρχος) provided public service to the state in Athens by outfitting and paying for a warship for the state.

How do you see those four roles represented in those who provided the service of the people, the liturgy of the Church, today?


The meaning of the word liturgy is then extended to cover any general service of a public kind. In the Septuagint, the word liturgy (and the verb λειτουργέω leitourgéo) is used for the public service of the temple (e.g., Exodus 38: 27; 39: 12, &c). It then it came to have a religious sense: the function of the priests, the ritual service of the Temple (e.g., Joel, 1: 9; 2: 17, &c.).

An icon of the Priest Zecahariah in the Temple

In the New Testament, this religious meaning has become definitely established. In Luke, 1: 23, Zechariah goes home when “the days of his liturgy” (αἱ ἡμέραι τῆς λειτουργίας αὐτοῦ, ai hemérai tes leitourgías autou) are over. In Hebrews 8: 6 (διαφορωτέρας τέτυχεν λειτουργίας, diaphorotéras tétuchen leitourgías), the high priest of the New Law “has obtained a better liturgy,” that is, a better kind of public religious service than that of the Temple.

So in Christian use, liturgy meant the public, official service of the Church that corresponded to the official service of the Temple in the Old Law.

In today’s usage, by liturgy we mean the form of rite or services prescribed by the Christian churches.

The liturgy of the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox Eastern, and some other branches of the Church centres upon the Eucharist.

In the Western Church, the principal services traditionally centred on the Eucharist

In the Western Church, the principal service is centred on the Eucharist. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are nine rites with distinctive liturgies, in various languages. The Orthodox Eastern Church has several liturgies.

But, in a broader sense, liturgy includes the divine office (given in the Breviary) and also services other than the Eucharist.

With the Reformation, the Reformers generally shifted towards the sermon as the focus of formal worship, and adopted vernacular speech.

In the 20th century, the liturgical movement sought to purify and renew the liturgy. This movement is a shared experience for all Western churches. The changes the liturgical movement ushered in include:

• the use of vernacular languages in the liturgies;
• participation of the laity in public prayer,
• a new emphasis on music and song.
• the formulation and reform of services.
• and wider awareness of the value of form itself.

Two factors often lead to confusion:

1, Liturgy often means the whole complex of official services, all the rites, ceremonies, prayers, and sacraments of the Church, as opposed to private devotions.

In this sense we speak of the arrangement of all these services in certain set forms – including the canonical hours, administration of sacraments, etc. – that are used officially by any local church. So liturgy means rite.

In the same way, we distinguish the official services from others by calling them liturgical. Those services are liturgical that are contained in any of the official books of a rite. In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, Compline is a liturgical service, while the Rosary is not.

2, The word liturgy, now the common one in all Eastern Churches, restricts it to the chief official service only – the Eucharist or the rite we also call the Holy Communion. This is now practically the only sense in which leitourgia is used in Greek, or in its derived forms (e. g., Arabic al-liturgiah) by any Eastern Christian.

(B) Signs and symbols in today’s culture:

In our use of language today, we know the difference between signs, icons, symbols, indices, and what they actually represent or point us to:


Icons on computers serve as an international language

On the computer, icons serve as an international language:

• A half-open manila folder allows me to open a document or folder
• Who remembers floppy discs? A floppy disc is not a floppy disc: it is an iconic sign allowing me to “Save the Present Document”

These icons have international use and value. A new set of icons is developing for iPhones. But the icons work only if I can grasp the link between the sign and the function being carried out.


The weather cock on Christ Church Cathedral ... a weather cock on a church is not an icon, it is an index (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Unlike an icon, an index does not look like the concept it is conveying:

• A weather cock points to the direction the wind is blowing.
• An arrow on the road points the direction for traffic – it could be fatal to confuse it with an icon, and think there was a danger of an attack by archers if I continue to drive on.
• A knock on the door: this is not about the sound, but is an indication that someone outside wants to get in. If I attend to the sound and count the rhythm, they may go away.
• Clues point to a criminal, they are not the crime and they are not the criminal.

All of these depend on habit and custom, convention and interpretation. If we use the wrong one, if I am in the wrong place, if we make the wrong use of one or misinterpret an icon or an index, this may be alienating and even life-threatening.

There are nine million bicycles in Beijing ... but they all need to know whether to stop or to go at red and green lights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the Cultural Revolution in China, the colour red indicated revolution and therefore forward thinking. Green turned to red at traffic lights, and red to green. If you misinterpret the colours of traffic lights – in Beijing or in Dublin – you may find yourself in the wrong lane, at best, in the casualty ward or funeral home at worst.

I suggest on Sunday in your parish churches, you look at the ways in which we liturgically use signs, symbols and space.

Church and State have their own language, symbols and expectations when it comes to public ritual … so too with theatre, sport and domestic occasions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Ritual and symbol seen through the eyes of secular liturgy and ritual: Evaluating experiences, e.g., drug culture, sports, theatre, &c.

‘Liturgy’ and our expectations

‘Liturgy’ and ritual in the world today:

1, Drama/Theatre (Plays, Opera, Pantomime).
2, Cinema
3, Sport (Soccer, Rugby, Golf)
4, Domestic
5, Political and secular

Five working groups:

1, Drama/Theatre (Plays, Opera, Pantomime)

The Theatre of Dionysus, beneath the slopes of the Acropolis, where the tragedies and comedies of Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles, were first performed ... theatre has its own language and rituals (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Special language:

• Shakespeare’s English, silence in Beckett
• Opera: Italian for Verdi or Puccini, German for Wagner
• Rhyming-slang-type names in Pantomime (Stinky-Pooh).

Special Movements:

• Off-stage directions and voices
• Dramatised swooning and dying
• Raising up a dagger
• The final bow and encore

Special clothing

• You know who is the good fairy and who is the wicked step-mother
• Period costume.
• Clothing in opera often a very different cut; this is especially so in ballet
• At the Opera, the audience often dresses very differently too.

Sacred space

• The pit for the orchestra;
• The wings and off-stage;
• Where would we be watching Romeo and Juliet without a balcony?

Where would we be watching Romeo and Juliet without a balcony? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Responsorial language

• An important part of drama and opera
• There is a special form in pantomime:
“Look out, he’s behind you.”
“Oh yes he is, oh no he’s not.”

Signs (what do they point to?)

• Curtains close for end of act
• End of scene/end of act differentiated with an inner curtain
• Throwing roses at the diva (smashing plates in Greece)
• Chekov: if a gun on the wall, not for decoration, but symbol of later drama
• Curtain calls symbolise the end, but also invite participation in applause


• Important to know who is who in a play.
• A programme will name the producer, the director, the lighting team, stage hands ... even if not seen.

Special food?

• Interval drinks?
• People take picnics to the opera in Verona

The Opera at Verona is popular and informal … but often people dress differently for the Opera (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

What is alienating for you as a participant, as part of the audience?

• It is important to see and to hear.
• If you are a child at pantomime, then you need to be engaged, to participate, to enjoy
• What if the programme notes are not good?
• If the lighting is bad?
• If the actors’ movements don’t match the roles they’re acting.

2, Cinema

Special language

• Certainly a special time, not go in the morning.
• But even language can indicate your generational approach:
• Are they films, or movies?
• Are they westerns or cowboys.
• Is it the cinema?

Special Movements

• The blackout has its own ritual symbolism
• The usher’s light
• There is a wonderful Rowan Atkins sketch the illustrates the ritual acts appropriate in a cinema when people are watching a horror movie, and they are quite different to the ones I remember as being appropriate for young boys watching westerns
• What about how people behave at The Rocky Horror Movie or Mama Mia?

Special clothing

• The usherettes in the past
• Special clothing and behaviour for watching The Rockie Horror Movie.
• Special glasses for 3D movies

Sacred space

• Don’t stand up between me, the projector and the screen.

Responsorial language

• Yes actually, watch outside when people are leaving a movie.

Signs (what do they point to):

• How to find the exit, the loo and the food sales point; they too make a difference.


• Not just the roles in the movie
• The ticket seller,
• The ticket checker,
• The usher,
• the projectionist
• Each has a role that is different from my place in the audience

Special food?

• Popcorn!

What is alienating for you as a participant, as part of the audience?

• If the lights come on at the wrong time
• If the advertising goes on too long
• If others stand up or talk during the sacred moment.

3, Sports (Soccer, Rugby, Golf)

Villa Park ... like many English football clubs, Aston Villa has its origins in local church activities … but football has evolved its own rituals and language

Special language:

• technical terms:
• I don’t know what a birdie or an eagle is
• “Fore!”
• What does love mean in tennis?
• The referee’s whistle is a special sign language, with different meanings in one or two pips, and a long sharp blast

Special Movements:

• special entrances and exits
• addressing the ball
• lining up the teams at a cup final
• Shaking hands with the President
• The hakka
• The Mexican wave
• Waving bananas

Special clothing:

• Players’ clothing is distinct from the referee’s as well as from each other
• Special kit for the goalkeeper
• Golf!
• Tennis and Cricket whites
• Soccer supporters.

Sacred space

• The umpires behind the wickets
• The penalty box
• The tennis umpire’s chair
• The goal line
• The side line
• For spectators, the difference between terraces, or Hill 16, or The Kop.

Responsorial language

• Football chants and slogans
• “The referee’s a …”
• Where is it appropriate to sing The Fields of Athenry or Ireland’s Call?
• The drums among French rugby supporters
• The Mexican wave?

Signs (what do they point to?):

• Again, the Mexican wave?
• Yellow card, red card
• The flag at the hole on the green
• The goal posts
• The circle, and the penalty box
• The scoreboard in cricket


• Umpires
• Goalkeepers
• Linesmen
• Ball boys
• Ticket sellers
• Waterboy

Special food?

• Certainly at American football
• Strawberries at Wimbledon
• How often play at a cricket match adjourns for tea
• Captain’s dinner in a golf club
• Champagne, and popping corks at Formula 1

What is alienating for you as a participant or part of the audience?

• Sitting among the wrong supporters, at the Kop, Hill 16 or the Canal End
• Ladies’ day in golf clubs?
• Fixing times of matches to suit television viewers (in China)?
• Flares are a real bugbear at Greek soccer matches.

Cricket has its own clear distinctions when it comes to language, space, roles, signs, clothing and food … Cricket on a Saturday afternoon in Grantchester, near Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

4, Domestic

Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, name days, Sunday dinner:

At our dinner table, even on weekdays, we like to have flowers on table, usually candles, bread, wine, a salad … then we know the table is set and we can begin dinner. We serve each other the food, we raise glasses, καλή όρεξη, bon appetite.

Special language

• Congratulations
• Many happy returns
• Condolences
• Many happy returns

Special Movements

• Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake
• Candles and flowers
• Who carves the Sunday roast

Special clothing

• One of my sons at the age of six started saying he wanted us to dress for dinner.
• Party dress / little black number, and when inappropriate.
• Wedding clothes nothing to do with church tradition

Sacred space:

• The table for a wedding anniversary
• Our dinner table: flowers, candles, a salad, bread, wine, often candles too

Responsorial language

• “For he’s a jolly good fellow ...”
• “Hip, hip ...”

Signs and icons (what do they point to?)

• The birthday cake.
• Birthday cards,
• Clinking glasses

Special food?

• Birthday cake
• Champagne
• The Sunday roast, Yorkshire pud?
• Is Turkey inappropriate outside Christmas/Thanksgiving?


• You don’t initiate singing happy birthday to yourself
• You don’t pop the cork at your own birthday

What is alienating for you as a participant, in the audience?

• When others don’t sing.
• When others don’t respond
• When others forget your birthday, or gatecrash.

It is alienating when others behave inappropriately, using wrong language, songs, signs, and movements at the wrong times.

How many remember clips of Marilyn Monroe popping up and singing … “Happy Birthday.” But it was inappropriate. She was and still is the focus of attention. Who remembers how old JFK was then?

5, Political and secular

Special language

• The speaker calling the house to order
• Invoking points of order
• Giving way

Special Movements

• The state opening of parliament
• The Lord Mayor’s parade
• Judges processing into court, “Please arise”
• Sitting on different sides of the house (hence, left and right)
• Waving order papers
• Speaking from the dispatch box
• Swearing in the jury/or the jury retiring
• The house adjourning

Special clothing

• Judges’ wigs
• The speaker’s robes
• The way Black Rod or a court usher dresses

Sacred space

• Please approach the bench
• The speaker’s chair.
• At parades, the reviewing platform, and who is seated where.
• The press gallery

Responsorial language

• “Order, order!”
• “Hear, hear!”

Signs/icons (what do they point to?)

• The woolsack
• A Mayor’s chain of office
• The keys of the city
• A judge’s wig or black cap.

Special food?

• If you’ve been on a jury you may not like to recall that
• But draw on other ritual food, like birthday cakes, popping champagne, &c
• The members’ bar


• The court bailiff
• Black Rod
• The Gentlemen Ushers
• The tellers

What is alienating for you as a participant/or in the audience?

• Parliamentary procedures can be alienating
• But look at the number of people who queue up to visit the Dail or Westminster.
• There are people with positive experience of being jurors … justice was done, and they had a good day
• The state opening of parliament.


In all of these, body language matters.

If I put out my hand for a handshake and you refuse it, who feels bad?

Do you give each other a kiss? When is it not appropriate?

An example of misinterpreted body language is easily provided by Greek head movements for yes and no, and can have consequences if I am in the line for a loo.

We create ritual and liturgy in every walk of society.

We are alienated when we are counted out, when we fail to understand what’s going on, or when it loses meaning for us.

In all of these, there are essential ingredients to make sure it works, and they usually include:

• Special language
• Special movements (including body language)
• Special clothing
• Special place and space
• Responsorial language
• Meaningful and indicative signs
• Assigned roles
• Perhaps special food.

We are alienated when:

• the wrong language, signs, responses, movements, roles are used
• when the right ones are misappropriated
• when we feel counted out
• when we fail to understand what’s going on
• or when the ritual or liturgy loses meaning for us.

And a good understanding of these social uses of ritual help us to understand when and how good liturgy works for us and for others, and how and why bad liturgy can be alienating for us and for others.

Worksheet for seminar/workshop:

Space and sign, meaning and timing:

Special language

Special Movements

Special clothing

Sacred space

Responsorial language

Signs/Icons (what do they point to?)


Special food?

Manual/facial actions:

What is alienating for you as participant/audience?

Some key texts and reading:

The Book of Common Prayer (2004).
The Church Hymnal (5th ed., 2000).
C. Hefling, C. Shattuck (eds), The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Oxford: OUP, 2006).
Graham Hughes, Worship as Meaning: a liturgical theology for late modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Harold Miller, The Desire of our Soul: a user’s guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Dublin: Columba, 2004).

Paul Bradshaw (ed), The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (London: SCM Press, 2nd ed, 2002).

Next: 2,

The Book of Common Prayer (2004): understanding the liturgy and worship of the Church of Ireland.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes for a lecture at the Reader Course Day Conference on Saturday 6 June 2015.

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