Theology and Liturgy and History (Oh my!)

In writing up my thoughts and recommendations around prayer book revision, I was poking around in the back catalogue. In the course of that exploration, I ran across a post which neatly and succintly addresses a large set of issues that I had intended to bring up. Rather than writing it all de novo, I think it makes much more sense to reproduce that text, with a few words of context for the current situation. (The original is here.)

I wrote the post in 2010 upon receiving word of the American Sarum conference that I subsequently attended and blogged. For me, the central issue was this: When we identify a historical point as particularly paradigmatic for renewal of our liturgical practice, we are making a huge theological statement whether we know it or not and whether we intend it or not.

Five years ago, the conference raised the issue of “Sarum”: what does it mean for 21st centruy Episcopalians to claim “Sarum Use” which was itself, truthfully, an appropriation of a Victorian nationalistic reconstruction of a medieval tradition?

Today, we know have this issue before us again because of the “fourth-century fundamentalism” that characterized the Liturgical Renewal Movement that gave such a strong shape to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. (Note that one of the current arguments against the retention of the Nicene Creed is that it wasn’t used during the Eucharist in the fourth century.) If we really are going to do a “comprehensive revision”, then we must look at what we have gained and what we have lost through conducting liturgy through an appropriation of the the 1960’s reconstruction of the fourth century tradition…


Liturgies change. Indeed, liturgical and ceremonial tinkering is inevitable across any significant group of folks whether there’s a set standard liturgy or not. Sometimes it’s because the liturgy needs a change, sometimes it’s because the tinkerers want a change.

No matter which way it goes, there’s no such thing as a liturgical change; rather there are theological changes that have liturgical implications. When a worshiping community of baptized Christians gather, they incarnate in a particular way the eschatological reality of the Body of Christ.  (This is most especially the case when they gather for a Eucharist where the whole intention is the making tangible and consumable the literal Body of Christ to be shared amongst them all.) You cannot separate the liturgy, the ceremonial, and the theology of such a gathering—they are inextricably bound up in one another. When the liturgy or the ceremonial gets changed, therefore, a theological change has necessarily occurred. When we say and do something different liturgically and ceremonially, we are just as surely saying and doing something different theologically as well. Sometimes these changes are minor—and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes these theological changes are intentional and conscious—and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the tinkerers are aware of what they’re doing—and sometimes they’re not.

When liturgies change, my sense is that the motivation for the change and the direction in which the change occurs relate to two different axes: contemporary culture and historical practice. That is, when liturgies change it tends to be because the tinkerers are trying to make a statement to the contemporary culture; history can be leveraged in a number of different ways:

  • Sometimes historical practices are jettisoned entirely because of a perceived disconnect with contemporary culture (this would be your praise & worship/Willow Creek type response).

  • Sometimes historical practices are resurrected because they represent a perceived correction to the current deplorable state of the contemporary culture—if the historical practice is maintained, the culture will be restored. (I see this as one of the motivations behind some who call for the ’28BCP & ’40 hymnal/Traditional Latin Mass: if we return to a pre-’60s liturgy, maybe we’ll return to a pre-’60s culture as well.)

  • Sometimes historical practices are resurrected because they represent a perceived connection to the contemporary culture–if the historical practice is maintained, this culture will be better able to hear, receive,  and embody the Gospel.

I’d suggest that this last approach has been behind most of the major shifts in liturgy within the Christian Church as a whole. Most of the major liturgical changes in Western Christendom have been attempts to re-engage/re-enliven contemporary practice based on historical precedents. This isnot a new thing. Most of the monastic renewal movements in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were rooted in attempts to return to the True Practice whether that be the Desert Fathers, John Cassian, Benedict or a combination of the three. The Protestant Reformers attempted to return to Early Church practice. The first liturgical revival driven by the monks of Solesmes was an attempt to return to proper medieval practice. The Ritualists attempted to return to a High Medieval practice. Blessed Percy and the English Use tried to return to a Sarum standard. The most recent Liturgical Renewal encompassing Vatican II and the ’79 BCP tried to return to fourth century practice. Picking up a theme from the previous post, isolating one movement as “museum religion” is a bit disingenuous becauseutilizing historical precedence for contemporary practice has been a consistent habit in the West for a very long time.

Furthermore, we need to note that the exercise of identifying and utilizing historical materials is always a process thoroughly invested with contemporary meanings and limitations. The Protestant Reformersthought that they were returning to Early Church patterns of worship. Their historical reconstructions of Early Church worship didn’t have a whole lot to go on and look little like how we reconstruct Early Church worship today. We have better sources and better scholarship. (Would Luther or Calvin have used the Eucharist of the Didache had they known it?) Likewise, the work of the Ritualists and the Blessed Percy are properly understood as part of a broader English Gothic Revival rooted in English Nationalism and a political and social appropriation of the peculiarly English/British heritage over and against Continental expressions of nationalism. The work of Vatican II and attendant movements cannot be separated from the cultural and social movements of the ’60s. Historical work and even its excess—antiquarianism—are events that are contemporary in nature despite their focus on the past.

Now we tie these two threads together. The appropriation of historical practices always signals theological changes to the contemporary liturgy. Some of the theological changes are because of what the historical practice itself is or does. On the other hand, the very act of incorporating a certain practice from a certain time and place is a theological statement entirely apart from the content of the practice; the very selection of any time and place as an “ideal” is a major theological statement. The selections of the Early Church for the Reformers and the Fourth Century for Vatican II were attempts to achieve a purity that had been lost. The return to the High Medieval or Sarum reflected attempts to recapture a fullness that had been lost. None of these choices are theologically neutral—they all had and have an impact.

So what, what is a Renewal vs. a Revival vs. Musem Religion? Is it purely subjective or are there objective measures? When is a Renewal/Revival/Museum Moment an imposition into a contemporary practice and when does it represent a true enlivenment and enrichment?

For me the issue goes back to theology. As I’ve said before, we’re not the Christian Historical Society—we don’t do things because they’re old, we do them because they proclaim the Gospel. But some times the old ways proclaim the Gospel in new ways or media or avenues that our contemporary society needs to hear. Whenever we try to bring back an old practice, rite or time, my questions are these:

  • Why—to what end? Is it for the sake of nostalgia or fantasizing that the contemporary culture will go away and reformulate itself accord to the ideal pattern if we can sufficiently recall this past time? Or is it because we see a way here that the Gospel can be better communicated in this time and place?
  • Is there a coherence and an integrity between this historical practice and what the contemporary community is doing now? How radical or organic is this change?
  • Are the theological messages and intentions of this change in coherent relation with the theological trajectory of the community into which it is being introduced?

These are the kinds of questions that I see and here us asking about the Vatican II changes and the changes of the ’79 BCP. They’re also the questions that I will take with me to the American Sarum conference. Why a Sarum Revival? Why here—why now? Into what deep currents, culturally and theologically, is it tapping—or do we want to revive it because it seems “cool”? Why Sarum over some other time and place? As I’ve said before, I think there’s a case to be made for infusing as bit of the English early medieval monastic spirit into contemporary American Episcopalianism. Why is Sarum a better choice?

I don’t want to focus narrowly on Sarum here, though. Instead let me just say that this movement is raising for me—for us—a number of questions that I think are important now and may become even more important in the near future. Society is shifting. Technology and the evolving world situation are bring us into new opportunities and conflicts. Where, amongst the contemporary world and the faithful works of the past, is the Gospel best found and proclaimed?


That, indeed, remains the central question that we must consider in prayer book revision. How do we best proclaim the Gospel in our own day and age?

One Reply to “Theology and Liturgy and History (Oh my!)”

  1. Hi Derek. Great article. I’m so glad you question “identifying [one] historical point as particularly paradigmatic for renewal of our liturgical practice.” I may be somewhat guilty of privileging the 4th century, and agree that some of the framers of our current Prayer Book did too, although clearly they didn’t get TOO far, as witness that the Nicene Creed has remained mandatory. I also agree with you that the real point has to be proclaiming the gospel to our generation. In that light, could you repeat or direct me to where you have made the case for “infusing a bit of the English early medieval monastic spirit into contemporary American Episcopalianism”?

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