Evaluating Spurgeon’s Criticisms of Liturgy

When I’m in Toronto and not at Richview on a Sunday, I often find myself attending an evangelical Anglican church. It’s not high church, but there is some liturgy in the service. I love the flow of the liturgy. The written prayers and confessions fill a hunger in my soul. Every time I walk away feeling grateful for the type of corporate worship I just experienced.

I am a closet liturgist.

That’s why I struggle a little with Spurgeon’s dismissal of liturgy. Here’s where I think he’s right, and here’s where I think he’s wrong.

He’s right: Liturgy can be a poor substitute for Spirit-empowered worship. I attended a liturgical service once with a friend. Afterwards I discovered that the service brought back memories of his childhood, in which he attended a church in which, at least for him, the liturgy was dead. Just words. Spurgeon is right to warn us that the liturgy can substitute for the real thing. Fair point.

But Spurgeon is wrong on a number of counts.

  • “Where in the writings of the apostles meet we with the bare idea of a liturgy?” he asks. Well, they prayed at certain hours. They celebrated the Jewish feasts. And the New Testament contains what may be hymn fragments or even confessions used by the early church, and they also used the psalms. These certainly hint at what some may call liturgy.
  • “Rather than be dependent upon the Spirit of God, they will pray by a book!” I think Spurgeon is guilty of creating a false dichotomy here. He seems to equate extemporaneous with Spirit-filled. I value the extemporaneous, but I don’t see why I can’t read a prayer that’s been saturated in Scripture and shaped through the ages. Why should a written confession be any different than, say, a written hymn? They can be used mindlessly or they can engage and shape the soul and lead us into worship.
  • “If I cannot pray, I would rather know it, and groan over my soul’s barrenness till the Lord shall again visit me with fruit-fulness of devotion.” Barrenness is not the only problem. Skill is also needed, and not everyone has it. Some need to prepare and labor over words even though their hearts are full of devotion. The written prayers of others may express their heart better than their own words. Anyone who’s listened to homemade wedding vows can tell you: there’s value in meaningfully reading words that are beyond our skill to write. I’ve never listened to traditional vows and thought that the groom must not love the bride. I have thought that the groom is probably incapable of improving on the traditional vows. The same can apply with liturgy.

So Spurgeon may have gone a bit too far in his criticisms. Litrugy can slip into empty formality, but there’s no reason it has to.

One more thing: the liturgy recites the gospel for us in a way that other services don’t. Bryan Chapell writes about this in Christ-Centered Worship, which I have on my desk. More on that later.

I’m interested in your thoughts. What do you think?

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada