The Reformation and Worship

The Reformation was not merely a revolution in theology.  It was also a revolution in worship, and at the heart of that revolution lay two great convictions: first, that worship was not a matter of human tastes and preferences, but of what God himself had authorised; and, secondly, that the form and order of worship was far too important to be left to the whim of individual ministers and churches.  This is why the Protestant churches quickly produced not only great creeds and confessions, but a large number of written liturgies such as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Genevan Service Book, Knox’s Book of Common Order and the Westminster Directory of Public Worship. 


Uniformity of worship

Underlying all of these was the principle that, subject to the guidance of Scripture, all the congregations of a particular communion were to follow a uniform Order of Worship.   Presbyterian Scotland was no exception.  First, the Book of Common Order, and then the Westminster Directory, regulated the way in which every minister conducted public worship; and even today our Ordination Service commits us to the worship ‘authorised and practised in the Free Church of Scotland’.

Of course, the uniformity is never absolute.  The Reformers, and particularly Calvin, drew a clear distinction between the ‘elements’ of worship and the circumstances of worship.  The ‘circumstances’ included not only such matters as when and where the congregation met, or what language was used.  They also covered such issues as the frequency of Communion and the version of the Bible to be used.  On such matters Reformed Orders of Worship made no stipulations. 

But they did lay down very clearly what were the essential elements of worship: prayer; the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; the reading of Scripture; the preaching of the word; and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  These, and these alone, were the essentials of worship, and by definition other ceremonies were excluded, including (in Scotland) the observance of Holy Days and the use of responses (a prominent feature in the Anglican Order but not in the Presbyterian).  On the other hand, the early Presbyterian liturgies did prescribe the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer by the congregation; and in place of what we refer today as ‘baptismal vows’ Knox’s Book of Common Order laid down that parents should recite the Apostles’ Creed as a statement of their personal faith.  These are practices which we would do well to restore to our modern Free Church services.


The Order for the Lord’s Supper

Particular attention was paid to the Order for the Lord’s Supper.  One reason for this was the urgent need to wean people away from the practices associated with the Mass, but the overriding concern was that every congregation should follow as closely as possible the order of the Last Supper as recorded in the New Testament.  Among the key points in the Service were the reading of such a passage as 1  Corinthians 11:23-32,  and an Exhortation which set forth the benefits of receiving the Sacrament ‘with a truly penitent heart and lively faith’ while at the same time warning of the danger of receiving it ‘unworthely’. 

But the most distinctive feature of the Scottish Order for Communion was the stipulation that communicants, including the minister, should sit at a table (as indicated in Luke 22.14).  Once everyone was seated, the Minister took the bread, offered the Thanksgiving Prayer, broke the bread and gave it to the people to distribute among themselves, each receiving it from a fellow believer and passing it on in turn.  There was no hint then of elders ‘serving the Table’, nor had anyone yet invented the idea that only a minister could serve a minister.  Nor again were the elements distributed in silence.  Instead, one of the biblical accounts of the Crucifixion was read, in order to fix communicants’ minds on ‘the contemplation of the Lord’s death, which is by this holie Sacrament represented.’

Of course, the church has the right to change its Common Order, and no modern Presbyterian church follows Knox’s Order to the letter.  In the event, the

Book of Common Order was replaced in 1645 by the Directory for Public Worship, but the change took place only by authority of the General Assembly so that, even in a moment of transition, the principle of a Common Order, binding the whole kirk, was carefully safeguarded.   

One obvious departure from the old Order is that few congregations today receive Communion sitting at a table.  The change took place in the 19th century at the instigation of Thomas Chalmers, who became increasingly irritated by the time-consuming inconvenience of having to administer the Sacrament to large numbers of communicants coming forward in turn to small tables placed in the aisles.  His solution was to introduce the practice of designating a certain number of pews at the front of the church as ‘the Table’, thus allowing all the communicants to sit together, and this was eventually sanctioned by the General Assembly, though only after some heated controversy.  However, the arrangement still protected Knox’s insistence that the Table was a table to be sat at, not an altar to be knelt at. 

Today, as Presbyterianism succumbs to the spirit of Postmodernism, we are impatient with uniformity, even with regard to something so fundamental as the use of wine in the Communion Service.  There is also a growing feeling that uniformity stifles originality and prevents the introduction of more ‘exciting’ services.  But a Presbyterian uniformity leaves its ministers abundant freedom in the areas that matter: their public prayers and their preaching, albeit within the framework of a form of worship which reflects, not the ideas of one individual, but the collective and historic wisdom of the church. 

Yet the adoption of a Common Order never means that we think that we, and we alone, have got it right.  It means only that we have thought it through together in the light of Scripture and can now assure our congregations that their worship is not at the mercy of one individual.


Let the people sing!

There was nothing revolutionary in the Reformers’ concern for uniformity of worship.  But one thing was definitely revolutionary: they made congregations sing.    In the pre-Reformation church the only singing had been the chanting of the monks in the monasteries and the performances of cathedral choirs at special festivals.  Hymns were probably sung at private devotions and in other informal settings (perhaps even in pubs), but congregations worshipped in silence. 

Luther changed all that.  Believing as he did in the priesthood of all believers he rejected the idea that worship was something someone else did for you, and insisted instead that every believer must offer her own sacrifice of praise.  This led him to compose and collect hymns, and to arrange or rearrange tunes, and the result was his Wittenberg Hymnal, published in 1529.  A similar process was under way in Strasbourg under the leadership of another Reformer, Martin Bucer, with one significant difference: what they were singing in  Strasbourg was the psalms, and this led to the publication of a versified translation of the Psalter  in 1538. 

It so happened that Calvin, banished from Geneva, was in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541, and he was captivated by this public use of the Psalter.   On his return to Geneva he gave the matter high priority, and with typical vigour and rigour set about persuading the congregation to sing ‘the word of God’.  Initially, he tried producing his own translations, but when some of the versions of his co-patriot, Clément Marot, fell into his hands he realised that they were far superior to his own, and he had the good sense to leave the field to the better man.    This led to the publication of a collection of Fifty Psalms in 1543, but a complete translation appeared only in 1562.  Marot had died in 1644, and the completed project was largely the work of Theodore Beza, often dismissed as an exceptionally arid theologian, but in reality also a gifted poet.

Calvin also left the composition of appropriate tunes to professionals, but they worked under the oversight of the local Consistory (Kirk Ssssion).  One of Calvin’s recent biographers, Bernard Cottret, has remarked that, ‘Music was an intimate part of Calvinist culture’ and that, ‘In the very depths of his being Calvin had a most intimate awareness of the power of music’.  Knowing that it could move hearts to good or to evil, he had very clear ideas as to what he looked for in a psalm-tune.  It had to be singable, of course: that was a priority, but it meant ‘sing-able by 16th century Genevans’, not necessarily by 21st century Scots.  But the music must also be simple, majestic and in harmony with the content of each particular psalm.  And it must not be ‘sensual’, by which Calvin meant it must not be suggestive of dance.  The rhythms of jig and waltz were ruled out (though many of our Free Church psalm-tunes can still set even the staidest feet a-tapping).

We need not be governed by Calvin’s musical tastes, particularly his discouraging of harmonious part-singing, but we should certainly emulate the thoroughness with which he approached the subject of congregational praise.  He knew that what people sang profoundly influenced what they believed: hence his insistence that both translations and melodies be

scrutinised and formally authorised to ensure uniformity in praise as well as in doctrine.  In line with Calvin’s example, the Scottish Psalter of 1560 was carefully revised by the General Assembly before being approved for use in public worship; and a similar procedure was followed in 2003 when the General Assembly authorised the use of Sing Psalms.  Unfortunately, many congregations seem to assume that this 2003 Act banished the ‘old psalms’, but in fact it specifically directed that the new versions were to be used ‘as well as the metrical versions currently in use’.  The real problem, I fear, is that when those who are self-consciously ‘modern’ meet anything older than the 21st century, they feel as if they are in the presence of an enemy. 

The problem now facing the Church is that having authorised the use of hymns we find ourselves with no authorised hymnal.  A Special Committee charged by the Assembly of 2011 with investigating ‘the feasibility and desirability’ of producing a recommended list of hymns ‘consistent with the word of God and the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith’ simply reported that it was neither feasible nor desirable; and the result is the unprecedented  situation that in a Presbyterian Church every minister has his own personal hymnal, he himself being sole judge whether or not it accords with Scripture and the Confession of Faith.

‘Calvinism,’ wrote B. B. Warfield, ‘is a profound apprehension of God in his majesty’.  That sense of the divine majesty must govern all our worship, and find expression in adoration, self-abasement and gratitude.