How Did Presbyterian Worship Become Episcoterian?

I ran across this article recently. The author discusses the shift in Presbyterian worship style towards a more Episcopalian or Anglican liturgy. Having wondered about this particular phenomenon, I was intrigued. I intend to do more research and write a more in depth article on the topic, but for today, I will just give a short excerpt from the article as food for thought:

The critical problem with Episcoterianism is that it is not based on or compatible with the doctrine that lays at the heart of all Presbyterian worship – the Regulative Principle – which states that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (WCF 21.1) The RPW is a logical outgrowth of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the integrally related doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture, and states that Christ alone has the authority to determine how his church should worship Him, and that He has done so in the Bible.

Episcoterian worship however is based upon the Anglican theory that “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies” (The 39 Articles, Article 20) essentially stating that Christ has granted the church the authority to create new patterns for worship and to decree that congregations shall adopt and follow these patterns. Thus in Episcoterianism we see the introduction of many elements into worship that, while they may be ancient, are not prescribed in scripture such as vestments, the church year, lectionaries, processions, liturgies, the use of images, etc.

Of late this traditional worship is enjoying something of a revival in Presbyeterian churches, often as a result of the rejection of “contemporary” worship. In some congregations they have gone well beyond the old blended Episcoterianism of the 1950s and have instituted what can only be described as high-church Anglican or even Anglo-Catholic worship.

In the next article, I will examine historically how Episcoterianism crept into Presbyterianism in the late 1800s, but now I want to publish a document, Presbyterians Reject Prescribed Liturgies, that should show in detail how alien Episcoterianism is to Old School Presbyterianism.

The author then reproduces the full document “Presbyterians Reject Prescribed Liturgies” which lays out an argument against the use of liturgies. The whole article is worth reading. The following excerpt is from the conclusion:

Once more: prescribed Liturgies, which remain in use from age to age, have a tendency to fix, to perpetuate, and even to coerce the adoption and propagation of error. It is not forgotten, that the advocates of Liturgies urge, as an argument in their favour, a consideration directly the converse of this, viz., that they tend, by their scriptural and pious character, to extend and perpetuate the reign of truth in a Church. Where their character is really thus thoroughly scriptural, they may, no doubt, exert, in this respect, a favourable influence; but where they teach or insinuate error, the mischief can scarcely fail to be deep, deplorable, and transmitted from generation to generation. Of this, painful examples might be given, if it were consistent with the brevity of this sketch, to enter on such a field. On the whole, after carefully comparing the advantages and disadvantages of free and prescribed prayer, the argument, whether drawn from Scripture, from ecclesiastical history, or from daily experience, is clearly in favour of free or extemporary prayer. Its generally edifying character may, indeed, sometimes be marred by weak and ignorant men; but we have no hesitation in saying that the balance is manifestly in its favour. For, after all, the difficulty which sometimes occurs in rendering extemporary prayer impressive and edifying, is by no means obviated, in all cases, by the use of a Prayer-book. Who has not witnessed the recitation of devotional forms conducted in such a manner as to disgust every hearer of taste, and to banish all seriousness from the mind?

I believe the author may be on to something. I plan to do a good deal more reading on the subject. If you have any resources to suggest, please leave a comment.

Singing Theology So That We’ll Eventually Believe It

A friend pointed out an article to me today. It’s on the importance of our music and our worship being theologically sound and deep. The author points out that what we sing in worship informs what we believe about God. He gives the example of how our food affects our physical well-being. What we consume shapes us.

The author goes on to talk about how the content of our worship music really does make a difference in our growth as Christians:

Our song shapes our theology. Here’s a sad example. Think of the church whose songs are only happy all the time. This church celebrates, and celebrates, and celebrates. God is the consummate joy-giver. No sins are corporately confessed, and no lamentations are sung. It is only shiny, happy Jesus music. The flock, while being a joyful people, is persistently being shaped to view God in one way–as One who solves all their problems and only gives Christians good, happy, prosperous lives. Lex orandi, lex credendi. But then that day comes when Joe Churchgoer has a crisis–loss of job, cancer, death of a family member. Joe stops coming to church, becomes reclusive, starts doubting his faith, and eventually starts doubting whether God even exists. Why has this happened? Ultimately, it is because Joe’s church’s songs have so shaped his views of God that he has no categories for suffering. And when that happens, he starts to doubt that his other theological categories (God’s goodness, God’s power, God’s justice) are even true.

Having your theology shaped by song is a slow, steady process. Think of it like eating. If your body is out of shape, you don’t see any “re-formation” after your first healthy meal. It is only the faithful, perpetual consumption of healthy food that yields your body’s new shape. So it is with sung theology. We’re often eating of it long before we really believe it and are shaped by it. Chew, swallow. Chew, swallow.

Going back to my kids, right now we’re in the middle of slowly memorizing portions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism put to music by Cardiphonia. (I’m actually bribing them at $0.50 per song.) Now it would be foolish to expect that my seven-year-old son, who chants back that “God’s works of providence are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all their creatures and all their actions,” actually knows (much less believes) what he’s singing. But, because I’m a believer in lex orandi, lex credendi, I’m very comfortable bribing him to shove big forkfulls of theological leafy dark greens down his throat because I really do believe that it will one day show up in the figure of his soul.

So it is with us, children of God. We sing in order that we may one day believe. I can sing Newton’s great line “He has hushed the law’s loud thunder / He has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame,” but I know that there’s a part of me that doesn’t really believe the fullness of what that means. Nevertheless, I sing it. I shove that fork in my mouth, so that one day I might look at myself in the mirror and say, “Goodness, that looks more like Jesus than I remember from a year ago.”

I can testify to the truth of his thesis. So many times in my life, I have found myself going back to the hymns and songs that I’ve memorized, finding encouragement, hope, and rest for my weary soul. The RUF hymns from my college years are especially precious to me. It makes my heart proud to hear my children singing bits of hymns as they play through the day. They may not understand all of what they are singing about yet, but I pray that these words will sink deep in their souls and bear fruit as they grow in faith.