At Mesquite Bible Church, I ended up getting involved in their “Worship Team.” I helped out with the music, sound, and the slide projector for the words of the worship songs. (Yes, we used a real 35mm carrousel slide projector back then.) We had regular Worship Team meetings in which we discussed how we could improve the worship experience, with an emphasis on increasing congregation participation. We knew that worship should be more than being a passive audience member. In Charismatic churches, the congregation was very involved, but we wanted something more orderly.
Bob, the leader of the Worship Team, bought a copy of The Complete Library of Christian Worship, edited by Robert Webber. He asked that members of the Worship Team read a volume of it and report back to the team. I was assigned the volume on the history of worship, which I began to read, and I was surprised at what I found.
All of the churches I had been involved in had a relatively simple order of worship, and although there were common elements, such as the singing of hymns, reading of scripture, and a sermon, each church determined an order of worship as they thought best. The New Testament appeared to say nothing about the subject, so we thought that God left up to the judgment of the congregation. However, I saw in this history of worship that there had been a rather consistent traditional form of worship that went back to the early centuries of Christianity. I also saw that this liturgical style of worship involved the congregation in the worship, but in an orderly manner. The orderly involvement was made possible through the liturgy, which was like a script for a play. The liturgy said who said what, and at what time. There were parts for the leaders and the congregation. I reported all of this to the worship team, but was told that there was no way our church could move to a liturgical form of worship.
At about this same time, I had been listening to tapes of a Christian teacher named Malcolm Smith. He taught about God’s love for us, which was rooted in his covenant with humanity. I got a catalog of his tapes, and while most of them where on similar themes, one series jumped out at me called “The Power of the Holy Spirit in Liturgy.” I was very curious about this because my conception was that the power of the Holy Spirit and liturgy were at different ends of the worship spectrum. I bought the tapes, and listened to them. They were interesting because he gave a lot of theological reasoning behind the liturgical practices of his church. However, I had become jaded when it came to theology and thought that his church had come up with a theological rationale for their liturgy, and other churches probably had just as much rationale for their own liturgies. Therefore, I put the tapes on the shelf.
A few months later, Toni and I found out that Malcolm Smith was doing a retreat in Kerrville, Texas. We had enjoyed his tapes so much that we thought it would be nice to go to his retreat and see what he was like in person. When we arrived, I was surprised to see him dressed up like a priest, with a black shirt and white collar. It turned out that he was a bishop in a denomination called the “Charismatic Episcopal Church.” He considered himself “Catholic, but not Roman” because he said that there was one Catholic Church that went back to Jesus and the Apostles, and that it was now split into three main branches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox. He taught that the liturgies that these churches used were all descended from how Jesus taught his disciples how to worship, beginning at the Last Supper, with bread and wine in which Jesus was truly present.
This retreat turned my thinking upside-down in so many ways. Rather than picking up a Bible and trying to reconstruct Apostolic Christianity the way Bible churches did, Malcolm claimed that the worship of the Apostles had been passed down in a living tradition. You did not find descriptions of how to conduct a worship service in the Bible because the liturgy was taught by example, and all Christians at the time the New Testament was written already knew it. I had heard that Catholics claimed to have an authoritative tradition, but somehow the fact that there were other branches descended from the Apostolic tradition besides the Roman Catholics, made the whole idea more believable. Nevertheless, it was still another kind of theological system competing against many others. It was attractive to me, but I had no idea how to know if it was true.
In the last session of the retreat, Malcolm described how he discovered liturgy while he was a young Pentecostal preacher in England doing prison ministry. Because the Church of England is the established church there (no separation of church and state), all prison ministry had to be approved by the Anglican chaplain. Where Malcolm was ministering, the chaplain was an older priest who would have tea with him and talk about the ministry. From Malcolm’s Pentecostal perspective, this Anglican priest needed conversion, but instead it was the priest who ended up doing the converting. He casually asked Malcolm how much time he spent in prayer each day. This was a sore point for Malcolm because of the emotional nature of his Pentecostal spirituality. Although he had his share of spiritual highs, he had no consistent daily practice. Malcolm asked the priest the same question and received the immediate reply, “two hours.” This impressed Malcolm, so the priest taught him about the Daily Office of prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, and Malcolm said he’s been praying the Daily Office since then, and that it transformed his prayer life.
This story resonated with me because I had a very poor prayer life. I had tried various systems and never had lasting success. Many of them seemed like fads, but Malcolm’s system was centuries old, and he had used it for decades. I thought it would be worth a try, so I found everything I needed on the Internet, and eventually bought my own copy of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). Even though my church did not want to adopt liturgical worship, I was able to bring liturgical worship into my prayer life. I immediately took to this form of prayer. It had a depth that I had not experienced before, and the fact that it was rooted in history was very attractive. The most impressive thing for me, however, was the consistency it brought to my prayer life. After so many years of struggle with prayer, I had finally found something I could do every day over several years. I continued to pray the Daily Office in the BCP from 1999 until 2006 when I entered the Catholic Church. Then I switched to the Catholic Divine Office, which is similar, and I continue to use it to this day.