Why bother with the Book of Common Worship?

‘Because the faith of the church is at stake,’ says featured guest at town hall forum

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Ronald P. Byars

LOUISVILLE — At the Presbyterians Association of Musicians’ Town Hall Forum on Thursday, the Rev. Dr. Ronald P. Byars spoke passionately about the faith of the church as he addressed the question, “Why bother with the Book of Common Worship?”

Byars, professor emeritus of Preaching and Worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary, described Christian faith as “personal but not private.” He called the faith of the church a “shared enterprise.”

According to Byars, the basics of faith are the Bible, the ecumenical creeds, and its long experience of the church preaching, teaching, worshiping and making public statements of faith when needed.

“In the Book of Common Worship — particularly in The Service for the Lord’s Day — we encounter a solid representation of our faith,” he said.

According to Byars, both Martin Luther and John Calvin took different paths in their use of music in worship. They largely agreed that the aesthetics in worship — the music and the art — were meant to serve the liturgy of the two great movements of worship in one service, the Word and the Eucharist.

Byars said because the Book of Common Worship does this, “It is aesthetically pleasing.”

“Yet many in our churches today think the purpose and content of worship on Sunday is pretty much whatever the worship planners decided,” he said, “or whatever suits their taste, or what they think will appeal to worshipers.”

Byars also talked about three pillars of the church, pillars identified by Reformed theologian Nicolas Wolterstorff. The first two are the Bible and conciliar-credal theology, which reflects on the teachings that emerge from councils and synods. The third pillar, liturgical theology, explores why the church does what it does in worship and what it means theologically.

These liturgical reflections on the Eastern and Western Church, as well as the church of the Reformation — and the church before the Reformation — are “critically important,” Byars said, yet Protestants often treat them with indifference.

“Why does it matter? Because the faith of the church is at stake,” he said, “rather than some other faith that may seem more comfortable or compatible with the spirit of the age.”

For Byars, the liturgy of the Lord’s Day in the BCW embodies the faith of the church in a variety of ways, including the words spoken or sung and the movement, gestures, actions, eating, drinking, anointing and laying on of hands.

“The liturgy is a critically important place where personal and individual faith interacts with the church’s faith, the ensemble,” Byars said. “Worship is an expression and a devotional act. But it also has formative power. So the stakes are high, for better or for worse.”

Byars also talked about how his theology and understanding of the substance of the church’s faith have been challenged and reshaped by his encounter with the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, found in the Book of Common Worship.

Byars said praying the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving over the years (including the phrases mentioned below) helped him realize at a deeper level that eschatology — what the Bible calls the new Creation, or a new heaven and Earth, or the reign of God — is also a central part of the Christian faith.

  • “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”
  • “Until we feast with him and all your saints in your eternal realm of justice and peace”
  • “Promised coming of his reign.”

For Byars, worship draws us into the biggest picture of all — a new heaven and new Earth, the cosmic redemption — and we’re shaped by it.

“The reign of God is big,” he said. “Big enough to embrace those tax collectors and sinners that Jesus said might get to heaven before the pious folk. God’s reign provides a vantage point to better understand where people of other faiths and no faith fit in. The church’s mission is to be a blessing to all the families of the Earth.”

The Rev. Ronald P. Byars, who spoke during a Presbyterian Association of Musicians town hall Thursday, is the author of a number of books.

You can learn more about Byars’ eschatological views and view previous PAM town hall forums here.

This month’s town hall forum also featured a brief discussion on safety concerns related to singing in worship, including guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.

 Board member John Sall, director of music ministries at Abington Presbyterian Church in Abington, Pennsylvania, said due to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is currently not safe to sing in crowds.

 “We believe that measures to restrict singing — as much as we might lament them — are in the best interest of the church and world at this time,” he said.


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