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Public Work

For several decades, the etymological translation of liturgy most widely used was “the work of the people.” In fact, this translation is still in use in my home church in North Carolina. I’m sure it is no simple coincidence that this translation has accompanied a movement of liturgical renewal that began to gain momentum in the 60′s, sweeping over both the Roman Catholic church (as part of the changes of Vatican II) and in many protestant denominations, including the Episcopal church. It was a useful translation for this stage in the church’s communal life, as it supported an enhanced role for the laity, for the people, and served, I think, as a useful corrective to the centuries before, where the liturgy was not really seen as having very much to do with the people at all.

It was a useful translation, but, perhaps, it was not entirely accurate. Current scholarship suggests that a better translation might be public work, or public duty. In ancient Greece, the term was used to describe something undertaken by a (usually wealthy) private citizen that served a more general public interest. Such works included infrastructure such as bridges and roads, but also included public dramas and arts. Today we might use the words philanthropy or charity to describe these types of works. Not so much the work of the people as work for the people, work in the public interest.

What might this mean for the ways we think about and do our collective, communal, public worship? How do we celebrate the Eucharist in the public interest? Who is doing the work–the priest, the assembled congregation, Christ? Who are the benefactors–is the “public” the congregation, or the church, or the community surrounding a parish, or all of humanity?

And what does this mean for those of us who do this work, who plan, design, lead, and enact liturgy? What is it that we are doing when we do public work?

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