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.

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