A Directory for Worship: What it is, what it does

Who Determines Worship Practices?

"Says who?!" So say kids when they have disagreements. And so say church folk to each other when they disagree about worship practices or changes. Who determines what happens during worship? What should be said or done? In what order? How much variation is allowed from week to week or within a denomination?

Various church traditions have given different answers to these questions. At one end of the spectrum are the Anglican, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic churches, along with many Lutherans. The book tells them what to say and do. The Book of Common Prayer and other service books dictate not only the order of worship, but the very words to be spoken by ministers and people. At the other end of the spectrum are charismatic and "Free Church" traditions, which typically use no written directions for worship, but allow local autonomy to congregation and pastor.

Near the middle of the spectrum are Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Reformed churches with roots on the European continent, particularly the Netherlands, have traditionally had "orders of worship"—listing rubrics, such as "Pastoral Prayer" and "Offering," but giving pastors the liberty to provide their own prayers. Their approach to the sacraments and profession of faith, however, has traditionally been more structured. Pastors are expected to follow word for word the "forms" approved by their synod.

Presbyterian churches with roots in Scotland and England have followed somewhat similar practices, but with a Directory of Worship holding sway. Worship directories come in various forms, but a directory is basically a set of directions for the worship leader. The order of worship and suggested rubrics may be spelled out in great detail, although the prayers and other liturgical words are not provided.

The Origin of Worship Directories

The first generations of the Reformed Church of Scotland, as well as the Reformed churches on the European continent, adopted liturgical documents derived from the ministry of Calvin and other reformers. John Knox represents this extension into Scotland with the Book of Common Order (or "Psalm-Book"), which was printed from 1564 until 1644.

But by the seventeenth century, English Puritanism and similar forces in the Church of Scotland demanded further reform in liturgy. The Puritans held that the Reformed churches were not sufficiently reformed in their worship practices; they sought a basic uniformity in doctrine, favored plainness of ceremony, and insisted on freedom to obey Scripture and the Holy Spirit in worship. The famous Westminster Assembly (1640-1649) supplied the Church of Scotland with the first Directory for the Public Worship of God (along with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms). Actually, this Westminster Directory was largely ignored in England, but it became the dominant worship guide for the Church of Scotland and had immense influence in later Presbyterian churches in America.

What is the content of this Directory? The directions for the regular Lord's Day service consist of five parts.

First, "Of the Assembling of the Congregation, and their Behavior in the Public Worship of God" sets forth the proper gathering of God's people. The people are instructed to assume their places "in a grave and solemn manner, taking their seats without adoration, or bowing themselves toward one place or other." They are to abstain from "private whisperings, conferences, salutations ... gazing, sleeping, and other indecent behavior ...."

The second part gives brief instructions on "Public Reading of the Holy Scriptures." The books of the Bible are to be read in order, "ordinarily one chapter of each Testament."

The third part, "Of Public Prayer before the Sermon," is a lengthy mandate for the pastor to pray for confession, for the church and the world ("pray for the conversion of the Queen"), for the local congregation, and for blessing on the preaching. The prayer lists hundreds of petitions, but concludes: "We judge this is a most convenient order, in the ordinary public prayers; yet so, as the Minister may defer (as in prudence he shall think meet) some part of these petitions, till after his sermon ...."

The fourth part, "Of the Preaching of the Word," consists of an eloquent four-page treatise on the "plain" (or expository) preaching in the Puritan style. The minister is "not to rest in general doctrine, although never so much cleared and confirmed, but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers ...." The instructions close with brief directions for "Prayer after Sermon."

After outlining the regular service, the Directory gives instructions for baptism and Lord's Supper services, listing actions, exhortations, and prayers in great detail, just short of legislating required wording. Considerable attention is also given to marriage and visiting the sick, with an eye to civil law and pastoral theology. Burial is considered a civil event and is dismissed with the stipulation that "the dead body, upon the day of burial, be decently attended from the house to the place appointed for public burial, and there immediately interred, without any ceremony." Other matters addressed include the Lord's Day, fast days and days of Thanksgiving, and a brief mention of the singing of psalms.

The Lasting Influence of the Directory

In many ways the first Directory was a failure, both as a tool for guiding worship, and as a means of reconciling different liturgical customs. It was a grand and rigorous ideal, but it was too demanding for the context in which it appeared. However, the Directory did provide a model for later Presbyterians as they sought the goal of biblically Reformed worship. It provided guidance for worship that was broad enough to include diversity and hold a changing communion together; it excluded unacceptable deviations in worship; and it provided specific helps for prayer and other worship activities.

The directory strategy currently is flourishing among American Presbyterians, as separate denominations shape their liturgical and doctrinal idiom. The largest denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), adopted a complex new directory in 1989 and is also publishing a series of supplemental liturgical resources. This latest directory was significantly influenced by the revisions of liturgical forms and books for voluntary use in worship. A new service book (projected for 1993) will share a partnership with the Directory in guiding worship.

This new Directory for Worship provides constitutional requirements for worship, but it is also a major teaching document. The practice of using the directory as a teaching tool began in the 1960s, as a century of liturgical recovery and creativity once again inspired directories designed to guide reform of worship. This latest Directory speaks more in permission and suggestion than as law or regulation. It is also by far the longest, most complex directory ever adopted.

Other Presbyterian denominations are developing directories of different sorts. As a result, both the fracturing of a tradition, and fresh ferment within it, can be seen in the current state of directories for worship in the U.S.A.

An unofficial but general experiment seems to be in progress among the American Presbyterians to discover how best to guide worship:

■ The Presbyterian Church in America has reclaimed the nineteenth-century form of a directory.
■ The Evangelical Presbyterian Church adopted an extensively revised version of the directories of the 1960s.
■ The Associate Reformed Presbyterians reduced the scope of their directory's attention essentially to the sacraments, while acknowledging that many resources will be employed for assisting public worship.
■ Both the Reformed and Orthodox Presbyterians are refining directories to speak in tones characteristic of their confessional priorities.
■ Churches of continental Reformed roots never adopted directories. But the Reformed Church in America recently adopted a Directory for Worship, showing the influence of the Scottish Presbyterian tradition on a denomination of continental Reformed roots. (Liturgy and Confessions, Reformed Church Press, Reformed Church in America, 1990.)

Prospects for the Directory

The advantages and disadvantages of a directory approach tend to lie in the same features. Considerable authority is given and skill expected from the planners and leaders of worship. Principles and directives of the directory must be translated into ceremony and text by the worship leader. Such a strategy is powerless in the face of willful neglect, and the danger of liturgical whim is always present. (Churches with either a prescribed or discretionary liturgy at least provide words for a congregation, so the tyranny of pastoral extemporaneity is broken to a degree).

A more difficult problem is the balance to be sought between tradition and diversity, when "diversity" may simply shield a perverse attachment to local custom or fashion. Directory-guided worship risks poor discipline by requiring self-discipline.

The current generation of Presbyterian directories all tackle the educational task to a greater extent than previously. All the directories provide more background in theology of worship and more practical guidance than the early directories did. These newer directories also assume the use of other resources, as in the use of the PC(USA) service book, or even the borrowing of liturgical forms and texts of other denominations. A blending of strategies is taking place as one result of ecumenical sharing in scholarship and resources.

The directory approach expresses a truth of Christian worship: that although liturgy has a universal Christian dimension, it must also be appropriated individually and adapted to the local community. A directory can affirm the nature of true liturgical unity within the variety of styles and missional requirements created by evangelization and change in denominations. And it can serve as a helpful teaching tool and resource for pastors and members who are committed to the ministry of leading and teaching worship.


Stanley R. Hall is associate professor of liturgies, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Texas.


Reformed Worship 22 © December 1991, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.