Liturgical Customs of the New Church

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, October 30, 2005

Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. (EXO 20:8)

In the Word the Lord commands us to worship, to baptize, to marry, and to take the Holy Supper. The acts themselves are dictated, but not the forms.

The Writings tell us that every new church is established by the good remnant of the old church, and this is certainly true of the Christian Church. The Lord’s disciples, and all the early leaders, were Jews. Their main subject of debate was over whether Christianity was a new church in itself, or simply a subdivision of the Jewish Church. This was an important issue that had a profound effect upon their ritual for if they were a Jewish sect, then all the rituals and sacrifices would have to be a part of their worship, but if they were a distinct new church then they should reject the old traditions and seek out new traditions of their own.

If you read the second chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, you’ll see a long argument by Paul on this very issue. It culminates in Romans 3:18 where he says,

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.

Many, starting with the reformer Martin Luther himself, have pulled this passage out of its context to justify their belief in the doctrine of salvation of faith alone. The implication is that Paul is speaking about the Ten Commandments when he refers to the “deeds of the law.” Yet what it is actually speaking about is whether or not a Christian should sacrifice a turtledove at the circumcision of his son in the temple in Jerusalem! Three verses later in Romans 3:21, Paul speaking this time about the Ten Commandments, says

Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.

So under the leadership of Paul and the other leaders, the Christian Church declared itself to be a new dispensation, distinct from the Jewish church, and developed its own unique ritual, abandoning the ritual of the Jewish Church. An unforeseen consequence is that we are left without much in the way of scriptural support for our practices and rituals.

The book of Exodus describes the tabernacle in intricate detail, the book of Leviticus describes the priest garments and every festival and sacrifice, 2 Kings describes every detail of Solomon’s Temple. But these are all rules for the ritual of the ancient Jewish Church, not the New Church.

If were to strictly follow the statements of scripture, we would have to travel to the Jordan River for any baptism, or hold the Holy Supper just once a year in an upper room of an inn, with only 13 men present. But people in all Christian denominations have recognized that this would not be useful, nor is it the intent, so they look for the essential symbolism in the act and derive their rituals on those principles.

What about the New Church? There’s not much detail in the Writings to help us.

There are descriptions of church services and weddings in heaven, but there is not much detail. In the wedding, for example, Conjugial Love 20 there is first a description of the room (apparently not a church) and how they are dressed.

[3] When they were thus seated together, the bridegroom turned to the bride and placed a gold ring on her finger, and taking out bracelets and a necklace of pearls, he fastened the bracelets on her wrists and the necklace around her neck. Then he said, “Accept these tokens.” And when she accepted them, he kissed her and said, “Now you are mine,” and he called her his wife.

This done, the guests cried out, “May there be a blessing!” They each called this out individually, and then all together. One sent by the prince in the prince’s stead also called out. And at that moment the room was filled with an aromatic smoke, which was the sign of a blessing from heaven.

Then servants in attendance took cakes from the two tables next to the candelabrum, and goblets, now filled with wine, from the tables in the four corners of the room, and they gave each guest a piece of cake and a goblet, and they ate and they drank.

Later the husband and his wife arose, followed to the doorway by the six young women carrying silver lamps, which were now lit. And the married couple entered the marriage chamber, and the door was closed.

That doesn’t sound anything like the ritual that we use, does it? And we need to ask ourselves why that is.

Swedenborg’s description of the church services he observed in heaven mention that the open Word is on the altar, and that there is a pulpit, and that the minister prays and gives a message that is drawn from the scriptures. The description of the church itself sounds more like a council hall or a movie theatre with the seats raised towards the back and surrounding the altar in a semicircle. There is no mention of hymns or priestly garments. Therefore, we have to create our rituals from principles drawn from the Word, and at the same time borrow from established rituals in the Christian Church. The early leaders of the New Church felt that in its two thousand year history, the Christian Church had worked out some pretty good forms of ritual, and that these could be borrowed, modified, and incorporated into the rituals of the New Church. This serves two purposes: first, there is not the necessity of reinventing the wheel, so to speak. Secondly, by borrowing forms it means that those from a different Christian tradition who visit our services will find things that are familiar and comforting.

In the liturgical customs we have established, each service begins when the worshiper (not the priest) enters the nave. An offering bowl has been provided so that the very first thing each person does is to make a freewill offering to the Lord in recognition of all the gifts that He has given to us. Today, with so many ways of handling money, many of us have made other arrangements to contribute towards the financial needs of the church. While an automatic bank transfer, for example, is a convenient way to support the church, it lacks the element of a free will response, a choice made and an action taken in response to our recognition of our need sacrifice something of value to the Lord as a part of our preparation for worship.

From a doctrinal point of view, even if most of an individual’s contribution comes through other means, it is an important part of the ritual for each person to make some token contribution to the offertory bowl each service. This gift is an external in which there can be an internal act of worship.

Human beings are social animals. We like to be in groups, and we like to socialize with other people. It is our nature to look around in church, to see who else is present, to see what they are wearing. We all find that as we settle into our seats that we remember things we need to say to others when we see them. But, as it says in Habbakkuk,

…The LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.

We know that this passage refers to the noise in our heads – all the worldly concerns that vie for our attention. What the Lord is asking of us is that we leave our worldly cares aside when we come to church, to silence those things so that we can become aware of what He has to offer.

Be still and know that I am God.

We represent this state of quieting the spirit by resisting our impulse to converse with others, and maintain silence except when otherwise indicated by the office by things such as the hymns and responsive readings.

In general, the hymns are intended to set the tone of the service. If we were in some society in heaven, that would work because heavenly societies define themselves through their music. Music is the language of affection, and all in a particular society have the same ruling love. As much as we would like that to be the case in this world, the fact is that there are as many ruling loves as there are people in the congregation. While there might be some general agreement on a few of the hymns, most of the people in the congregation have different favourite hymns because they have different affectional responses to the music.

With the new Liturgies in 1995 and 2005, and the rise in popularity of “Contemporary” services there has been a lot of discussion throughout the church about what constitutes a “good” hymn. After many conversations with many people in several congregations, a common thread has emerged: a “good” hymn is one that you know well enough to be able to sing along comfortably.

Our personal list of favourite is highly influenced by where we grew up and went to school. Hymns that are beloved in Toronto may be unknown in Durban or Detroit. Still others have come to the New Church from other denominations and bring with them the affections for the hymns they learned there. The hymns that are selected for publication in a Liturgy will include a mixture of old favourites and new songs that are unfamiliar. It may be that what you think of as a “new” song is actually an “old favourite” for someone else.

The open Word is a symbol for the Lord’s presence with the congregation by means of the Word and is an essential part of every General Church service.

The Lord’s prayer is a huge topic by itself. We are told that the Lord’s prayer, in the internal sense, is a complete summary of the whole of the doctrine of the church. It is also special to us because it was specifically defined and commanded in the gospels.

Regarding prayers in general, we are told that prayer is “speech to God from God.” “From God” means that it arises in us from those things that are God’s in us – truths and goods from the Word. It also means that true prayer does not concern worldly or natural things, but seeks to lead the one who prays into an understanding of the Lord’s Divine Providence, to see how temporal things might be understood in relation to God’s overwhelming purpose of helping us find our way to heaven. God cannot really be conjoined with men because the infinite cannot be conjoined to the finite. But, God can be conjoined to those things that are His that are in us. Those godly things in us the make it possible for us to be conjoined to Him are His truths from the Word.

Closely related to the prayer is the Psalter or some other form of responsive reading. The liturgical reason for this is to have the Lord’s own words spoken back and forth between the Priest, representing the Lord, and the congregation. This is supposed to be a representation of the reciprocal conjunction between God and Man by means of the Word.

The Lessons are read from the lectern, and nothing is to be heard from the lectern except the Word of God. An exception is made for a brief sentence of introduction when needed. The congregation should rest in the confidence that anything that is ready from the lectern is from the Word of God and presented in context. The mind’s critical faculty can be at rest during this part of the service.

The sermon, on the other hand, is read from the pulpit. This is consciously done to distinguish the sermon from the readings from the Word. The congregation is supposed to listen critically here, to weigh the things said by the priest against the things that have already been learned from the Word and from experience.

The rational is what makes one human. Its name comes from the word “ratio” because its job is to weigh one truth against another and make decisions about their relative values. We’re taught that even in heaven, in order to preserve and exercise the rational degree, whenever something is taught the opposite is also given so that the angels must think and weigh what they hear.

During the sermon, just like in heaven, the rational is needed. The sermon is to be drawn from the sense of the letter of the Word and to be supported by doctrine drawn from the Writings. But in the end, it is just one man’s opinion, and should be listened to with affirmative doubt.

In conclusion, what have we learned about the essentials of New Church Ritual? That the Word should be open during the service. That there should be the recitation of the Lord’s prayer by the congregation. That there should be readings from the threefold Word. All the rest of the things that we add are symbolic details, intended to add to the sphere of worship. These can change from time to time, and from place to place without harm, because it is not the ritual that’s important, but our response to it. Does it draw us closer to the Lord? Does it help us renew our covenant with Him? Does it strengthen our resolve to be better people than we have been so far? If it does these things, then the ritual is serving its essential uses.

Then Samuel said: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of Rams.”


First Lesson: PSA 5:1-7

(Psa 5:1-7) Give ear to my words, O LORD, Consider my meditation. {2} Give heed to the voice of my cry, My King and my God, For to You I will pray. {3} My voice You shall hear in the morning, O LORD; In the morning I will direct it to You, And I will look up. {4} For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, Nor shall evil dwell with You. {5} The boastful shall not stand in Your sight; You hate all workers of iniquity. {6} You shall destroy those who speak falsehood; The LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. {7} But as for me, I will come into Your house in the multitude of Your mercy; In fear of You I will worship toward Your holy temple. Amen.

Second Lesson: JOH 4:19-24

(John 4:19-24) The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. {20} “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” {21} Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. {22} “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. {23} “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. {24} “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Amen.

Third Lesson:

64. The reason why “Jerusalem” means the church as to doctrine, is that there and at no other place in the land of Canaan were the temple and altar, the offering of sacrifices, and therefore the Divine worship; and for this reason the three yearly feasts were celebrated there, to which every male in the whole country was commanded to go. This is why “Jerusalem” signifies the church in respect to worship, and therefore as to doctrine-for worship is prescribed in doctrine, and is performed according to it. Amen.

The Saigon Factor / Hope

An Extemporaneous Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Now it happened, when the king heard the words of the woman, that he tore his clothes; and as he passed by on the wall, the people looked, and there underneath he had sackcloth on his body.  (2KI 6:30)

A.  To tear one’s clothes is a recognition that one is without truth.

The king’s actions are a powerful symbol of the state we come to when we become dramatically and personally aware of the evil that surrounds us.

1.  The first lesson describes people suffering from famine and siege

a.  Walled up in a fortified city

b.  The Syrian army outside waiting for the opportunity to tear down the walls

c.  Food became so scarce that a small portion of dove droppings sold for five shekels of silver.

d.  In this context, we are told of two woman reduced to the point of cannibalism

(1)  Not just cannibalism, but they were eating their own children

B.  In 1975 the NVA were closing in on Saigon

1.  After a lifetime of stress and war, it was about to come home to the people of Saigon

2.  It was observed that as the NVA drew closer

a.  As it became clear that the end was near,

(1)  The whole fabric of their ancient and civilised culture collapsed

(a)  Personal property was no longer recognized

there was rampant looting

(b)  People coldly murdered each other to gain an edge

i.  And no one seemed to care

(c)  Every aspect of civilization, the rule of law

was thrown aside in the interests of self-preservation and escape.

(d)  Today, this total collapse of a society under stress is called the “Saigon Factor.”

C.  In 1993 South African Society is under tremendous stress and uncertainty.

1.  We know how stressful life can be

a.  Death, Divorce, Moving, Illness

b.  Any one of these by itself can knock your life off the rails

c.  But when these have to be faced in the context of a complete societal change

(1)  Moral foundations and mental stability are at risk.

d.  We all know the problem.  How can the church help us cope?

D.  A few weeks ago someone told me that they had prayed for a sick friend

1.  But the friend had died.

2.  It struck me that while it appeared that the prayers had failed

a.  In fact the prayer had been answered

because that sick friend, now in the spiritual world, would never again be sick!  That person could look forward to an eternity of improving health and physical vigor!

b.  It only seemed that the prayers had failed

because we are constantly deceived into thinking that this world is the point of our existence, we think that our happiness in this world is what the Divine Providence is to provide.  When we pray for health, we pray for the health of our physical bodies, ignoring our spiritual ills.

E.  Even though we may feel things are going poorly

1.  Yet the Divine Providence is operating

a.  We just have to know where to look

b.  The Divine Providence regards eternal ends.

(1)  The Doctrines speaks of two ways that we ignore this teaching

(a)  Those who ascribe all things to prudence, and nothing to Providence

First, the Heavenly Doctrines speak of those “who ascribe all things to their own prudence and little or nothing to Divine Providence” (See AC 2694:3).

We are taught that they may be shown in a thousand different ways that the Divine Providence governs the universe down to the most minute particulars, and they may even from time to time perceive this truth in their own life by living experiences. However, as quickly as the memory of the event fades, so fades their conviction, and they return to their former belief in their own prudence. This change is temporary because it was a change in the thought only, not accompanied with a change in the affection.  An opinion cannot be changed as long as the person who holds it still loves it. The affection for the opinion must change before the opinion itself can change, and the affections are only changed through temptation.  In states of anxiety and grief that come from spiritual temptations, strong opinions can be broken, for then it may be seen that all power, prudence, intelligence and wisdom are from the Lord. At the same time we acknowledge that are nothing, and need His Guidance and help. (See Ibid.)

(b)  Those who believe in salvation by faith or grace.

Again, people who firmly believe this may be shown a thousand logical reasons why this can’t be, and yet they will not be moved an inch, because only the thought has been touched, not the more important ruling affection.  We love many different things and our contradictory affections enable us to hold contradictory beliefs.  As long as we believe they are our very own beliefs, and we have affection for them, our view cannot be changed.

Is it not true that the best way to convince another person to do something is to lead him to propose the project himself?  The best salesman is the one who is able to convince the customer that it is the customer’s own idea to buy.  It is the affection or love that must be changed, and this can be done only by the Lord during states of temptation, for it is only by temptations that we can be reduced from our belief in our own guiltlessness to the state from which we can perceive the hell in ourselves, and this to such a degree as to despair of ever being saved, then for the first time that persuasive (belief) is broken, and with it (our) pride, and (our) contempt of others in comparison (to ourselves), and also the arrogance that (we) are the only ones who are saved  (See AC 2694:4).

2.  Disasters and troubles are permitted for the sake of our ETERNAL welfare

We need the deep despair in temptation in order to break the persuasive light from our own self-intelligence, so that we will recognize our need for the Lord.  Then, as soon as we do realize this, and ask for the Lord’s help, states of comfort and hope are given by the Lord.

From the depths of anxiety and grief, we can be led by the Lord into the heartfelt realization that not only is all good from the Lord, but also all things in the universe, from greatests to leasts, are under His direct, loving care: are of His Mercy.  Finally, when we see our own character clearly, we are humbled in heart.  We not only think but also know and acknowledge with both heart and mind that without the Lord we are nothing at all.

And then comes a miracle.  From this depth of despair, from this feeling of helplessness and unworthiness, when we turn to the Lord for help, the Lord flows in with comfort, and hope, and even delight. The purpose of temptation is to conjoin good and truth in our natural degree, to build a new will in the elevated understanding, a new will full of good from the Lord.

When good and truth are conjoined in us through combats of temptation, we feel delight because the conjunction is a correspondence with the heavenly marriage of good and truth, and also with the Divine Love Itself and Divine Wisdom Itself conjoined in the Lord.  This conjunction and union in the Lord is the source of all delight.  Thus, when we have resisted an evil in ourselves, and hung on to our conviction that what we are doing is commanded by the Lord for the sake of our eternal life, the evil is removed, good from the Lord flows in, and the state of temptation ends as states of comfort and hope begin.

3.  The importance of an affirmative attitude.

“…Temptations are attended with doubt in regard to the Lord’s presence and mercy, and also in regard to salvation. The evil spirits who are then with the man and induce the temptation strongly inspire negation, but the good spirits and angels from the Lord in every possible way dispel this state of doubt, and keep the man in a state of hope, and at last confirm in him what is affirmative.  One who yields in temptation remains in a state of doubt, and falls into what is negative; but one who overcomes is indeed in doubt, but still, if he suffers himself to be cheered by hope, he stands fast in what is affirmative  (AC 2338).

It is important to note how we are to become steadfast in the affirmative principle, so necessary for success in temptation:  We must allow ourselves to be cheered by hope, we must believe in the feeling that the Lord gives us in our states of temptation that there is a place for us in heaven, and that it is possible to throw off the impediments of this world with the Lord’s help.

If we will allow ourselves to have this hope, then we will see the end and use in temptation, and will not be destroyed by the effort. We are given hope from the Lord so that we may see our way out of the natural and spiritual disasters we experience even while we are in the depths of them, if we have confidence that the Lord has the power to save, that He is the Redeemer.

I cry out with my whole heart; Hear me, O Lord!  I will keep Your Statutes.  I cry out to You; Save me and I will keep Your testimonies. I rise before the dawning of the morning and cry for help; I hope in Your Word  (Psalm 119:145-147). AMEN.


IV.  Lessons

A.  2KI 6:24-30

24  And it happened after this that Ben-Hadad king of Syria gathered all his army, and went up and besieged Samaria.

25  And there was a great famine in Samaria; and indeed they besieged it until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and one-fourth of a kab of dove droppings for five shekels of silver.

26  Then, as the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried out to him, saying, “Help, my lord, O king!”

27  And he said, “If the LORD does not help you, where can I find help for you? From the threshing floor or from the winepress?”

28  Then the king said to her, “What is troubling you?” And she answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’

29  “So we boiled my son, and ate him. And I said to her on the next day, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him’; but she has hidden her son.”

30  Now it happened, when the king heard the words of the woman, that he tore his clothes; and as he passed by on the wall, the people looked, and there underneath he had sackcloth on his body.

B.  MAT 6:19-21, 25-34

19  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal;

20  “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

21  “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

25  “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

26  “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

27  “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28  “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;

29  “and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

30  “Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31  “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’

32  “For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

33  “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.

34  “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

C.  DP 214, 215 (portions)

The Divine Providence regards eternal things, and not temporal things, except so far as they make one with eternal things.

There are many temporal things, yet they all relate to dignities and riches. By temporal things are meant such as either perish with time, or come to an end with man’s life in this world only; but by eternal things are meant those which do not perish and come to an end with time, and therefore do not end with life in this world.

Since, as has been stated, all temporal things relate to dignities and riches it is important to know the following, namely, what dignities and riches are and whence they are; what is the nature of the love of them for their own sake, and what is the nature of the love of them for the sake of uses; that these two loves are distinct from each other as heaven and hell are; and that man hardly knows the difference between these two loves.