How Liturgy Simplifies Worship for the Cognitively Impaired

Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto Me.

In 2005, God blessed our family with our third child, our second daughter, whom we named Bethany. As soon as Bethany was born, we knew there was something different about her. Unlike her two older siblings, who were born practically bald, she had long, black hair which extended past her neck. She also had a ruddy complexion. And within minutes of her birth, the nurses rushed her the neonatal ICU because her extremities were beginning to turn blue. Over the next few months, it became more and more apparent that we were blessed with a child with special needs. It took eleven months to get a diagnosis, when we finally learned that Bethany has an extremely rare genetic disorder known as Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome (RTS). RTS affects about 1 out of 125,000 Americans and results in a variety of disabilities, physical and cognitive. In Bethany’s case, she is nonverbal, making her IQ very difficult to determine, but she has been estimated to have an IQ of around 50.

Neither my wife nor I were reared in liturgical churches. I grew up in a small, rural, non-denominational church and she was reared in a small, rural Southern Baptist congregation. We met in a Southern Baptist Church, in which we were married, and remained Low Church evangelical until the Southern Baptist megachurch we were attending split in the mid-2000s. Even before then, however, I had begun to be attracted to liturgy, and we used the occasion of the church split to find a liturgical congregation. A couple of years later, we moved to Birmingham, Alabama and, after a few months of searching, began attending Trinity Presbyterian Church (TPC), a congregation which has well-established liturgical worship.

Bethany was two when we began attending TPC. We were also at that time the primary caregivers for my mother, who had Alzheimer’s. We all attended TPC together. I soon recognized that the liturgy was a great aid to my mother in following the worship service. She soon learned the rhythm of the liturgy and it helped her immensely. And as she grew older, the same became true of Bethany. Unfortunately, my mother has passed away, but Bethany continues to grow in her anticipation of the various parts of the liturgy. While she certainly cannot understand much of what we do in worship, she does appear to recognize that we are worshipping.

I bring our other three children to Sunday school, which precedes our worship. My wife tells me that when she and Bethany arrive for worship, Bethany becomes very excited as she recognizes that she is about to attend services. Because of her condition, we sit near the back of the church. In recent months, we have moved Bethany to near the center aisle, as she intently follows the elders as they process during the opening of the service and as the pastor walks down the aisle during the absolution and the reading of the Gospel lesson. She wants to be where she can see them and, in her own way, participate in those aspects of the service. She recognizes when we are about to kneel for corporate confession and is anxious for us to help her get down from her chair. In our congregation, infants may receive communion, and she is always anxious to participate when that portion of the service arrives.

At meals, our family always prays and she recognizes when we are about to pray at church. If any of us, including her siblings, don’t have our hands together for prayers, she will grab our hands and push them together for prayer. She will often look up to the ceiling during prayer and singing of hymns and psalms, and she is beginning to understand to lift her hands during the doxology.

I in no way believe that she understands the words of the hymns and psalms nor of our very meaty sermons, but I have no doubt that she understands that we are worshipping God. Liturgy permits her to recognize this and, to the best of her abilities, to participate in the worship.

I have told family and friends, it is a beautiful sight to behold Bethany at worship. Sunday worship is one of her favorite things to do each week, and we make every effort to assure that she attends unless she is ill. While she cannot speak nor sing, she can squeal, and that is her way to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. I am certain that that is exactly her intent when she does so.

I have heard from evangelicals that liturgy makes worship too complex and too mysterious, that it detracts from the simplicity which God desires. My experiences with my mother, as her cognition declined with the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, and with Bethany, demonstrate to me that the opposite is the case. The consistent pattern of liturgy simplifies worship and, as one becomes more and more accustomed to it, makes worship less of a mystery. I don’t deny that liturgy has deep and profound meaning; it most certainly does. Bethany may never understand those aspects of liturgy. But liturgy enables her to worship God in a more meaningful way than would be possible in a non-liturgical church.

Gregory K. Laughlin, is Associate Professor of Law and Law Library Director at the Cumberland School of Law, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama

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