An Alternative Way of Worship for Progressive Churches (Keith Watkins)

With Bruce Epperly writing a series of posts on the importance of Progressive Theology, perhaps it is appropriate that we also have a conversation about worship in progressive churches.  I know of no one better equipped to lead this conversation than Dr. Keith Watkins.  Since I didn't go to Christian Theological Seminary, I didn't have the opportunity to study under Keith.  However, over the past 20 years or so, Keith and I have developed a strong friendship and have conversed regularly over the years, whether in person or in other forms, about worship.  Therefore, because of this, I have been his student and he my teacher.  Keith is now an emeritus professor, living in the Pacific Northwest, but still actively teaching us about matters of worship, ministry, theology, history (and of course bicycling) through his new blog Keith Watkins Historian In the post that I am republishing with Keith's permission, he lays out the foundations of what will be an extended series of posts outlining what progressive Christian worship might look like.  In a response to my comment at his blog, he makes clear the direction:  "In each entry I intend to state clearly what I believe to be the way churches like ours should plan and conduct worship. In the process, I will give a rationale supporting my proposals."


An Alternative Way of Worship
for Progressive Churches
By Dr. Keith Watkins

“What you should do, Keith, is develop an alternative liturgy for people like us.” My friend made this proposal as we were driving to his home following the celebration of Holy Communion at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. In earlier conversations, we had talked about our frequent disappointment with Sunday morning worship in churches of our own communion. He presumed that my long career as professor of worship, and my continuing interest in progressive Protestant church life, qualifies me to develop suggestions.

During the next few weeks, I intend to offer my reflections upon these matters. My goal is to outline characteristics of the church’s definitive liturgy of Word and Sacrament that meet three criteria: shaped by the historic tradition, expressed in the culture of our own time, and performed in a manner suitable to the occasion. In this first column of the series, I give a preview by noting characteristics of worship at All Saints Church, which I believe are consistent with these criteria.

First, the celebration conveys the sense that what is going on is important—important enough for the leaders to be well prepared and skilled in the performance of their respective parts of the liturgy. The liturgy is always well staged so that the visual and dramatic character of the event reinforces the meaning of the words and actions. The principal leader was at the top of his form. Although he and other leaders expressed a sense of personal presence, there was nothing trivial or inept about their words or actions.

Second, it was clearly an occasion of public worship rather than religious lecture, concert, seminar, support group, or political rally. By using the word worship, I mean that the primary orientation of the event was toward God who was addressed in the prayers, especially the prayers over the bread and wine during the communion. The scripture reading and sermon were presented in such a way that they prepared the congregants for their parts in the words and actions of praise. By public, I mean that participation was open to everyone. Except for the informal words and parish notes midway through the service, nothing was said or done in ways that implied congregants had to be insiders in order to understand and participate.

Third, the liturgy was fully consistent with the long-standing pattern of worship that began early in Christian history and, with important revisions, has continued in most churches ever since. At the same time, the liturgy at All Saints was revised in ways that allow it to be more appropriate for congregants at this progressive church. Contrary to the Prayer Book pattern, only one Scripture lesson was read rather than three. The ancient Nicene Creed was omitted. Most interesting to me was the fact that the Eucharistic prayer was carefully modified so that it more fully manifested conditions in the world and implications of the proclamation that had preceded this part of the liturgy.

While Episcopalians, as part of the Anglican Communion, maintain the tradition that the words of the Eucharistic prayer are to be read from the Book of Common Prayer, All Saints clergy make subtle variations in the early portion of the prayer while leaving unchanged the theologically important words at the prayer’s center. An exchange of e-mails with one of the church’s clergy indicates that the modifications of this prayer are developed or chosen with great care. Although the words of the service indicate an immediate awareness of current conditions, there is nothing left to chance in what was said and done.

Fourth, the style of the event was consistent with the geographical and cultural location of this church. All Saints Church is located at the very heart of Pasadena, California. This wealthy, politically important city east of Los Angeles is the center of major educational institutions, including Fuller Theological Seminary, museums, governmental buildings, commercial activities, and major churches. In some ways, this part of Los Angeles County, with its leaning toward politically progressive convictions, is the counter balance to politically conservative Orange County. Several years ago, a National Public Radio program featured All Saints in Pasadena and Saddleback Church in Mission Viejo as contrasting versions of churches that are appealing to younger, unchurched people in Southern California. All Saints Church appears to be advancing despite the malaise that marks many progressive churches. One reason is the skill with which the classic liturgy is adapted to the congregation’s natural constituency.

Fifth, the liturgy conveyed a sense of movement and energy. In part, this was because the order of service expressed the theological logic of the historic liturgy. The pacing, staging, language, and music of the morning were chosen and conducted in such a way that everyone was moved forward to a dramatic finale in communion. When we left church that morning, we felt as though we had actually done something that moved us from spiritual malaise to a sense of union with the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Keith Watkins is a historian and theologian who has devoted his life to the study of worship and the the practical life of religious institutions. His graduate studies in Berkeley (Th.D. from Pacific School of Religion) focused on nineteenth-century liberalism and American religious studies. During his 33-year career at Christian Theological Seminary , he specialized in the history and theology of Christian worship. His books Liturgies in a Time When Cities Burn,    Faithful and Fair: Transcending Sexist Language in Worship, and The Great Thanksgiving: The Eucharistic Norm of Christian Worship, which illustrate this interest. His continuing interest in religious history is evident in his 2009 book A Visible Sign of God’s Presence: A History of the Yakama Christian Mission.  His blog, Keith Watkins Historian can be found here


roy said…
I'll be interested to see where this goes, Bob. I have been thinking a lot regarding the shape of worship in progressive churches over the past decade and looking for folk who do it well. Frankly, I have seen very, very little. Often progressive churches tend to be either very conservative in style or seem to be caught up in a sort of intellectualism/high culturalism that I find off-putting. Both options bode poorly for the future.
David Mc said…
His blog, Keith Watkins Historian can be found here.

Didya forget a link Bob?
David, click again, it's working!

Thanks Roy for engaging Keith in conversation.
David Mc said…

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