Initial Theses on the Liturgy

Thesis 1: The liturgical cycles of Mass/Office/Liturgical Year as envisioned by the 7th century and enacted in various places by the 9th/10th is the single greatest system for Christian formation ever produced by the Western Church.

  • When I say “produced by the Western Church” it’s important that we realize that I do mean quite a lot of the Western Church was in on creating it. That is, the liturgy was not something created in Rome and exported out.  To quote a heavily underlined and starred passage in my copy of Vogel:

The period that extends from Gregory the Great [590-604] to Gregory VII [1073-1085] is characterized by the following facts regarding liturgy:

a) the systematization of the liturgy of the City of Rome and of the papal court (the Roman liturgy in the strict sense);
b) the spread of this liturgy into the Frankish kingdom through the initiatives of individual pilgrims and, after 754, with the support of the Carolingian kings;
c) the deliberate Romanization of the ancient liturgy of Northern Europe (Gallican) at the behest of Pepin III and Charlemagne
d) the progressive creation of a ‘mixed’ or ‘hybrid’ set of new rites in the Carolingian Empire through the amalgamation of the Roman liturgy with the indigenous ones;
e) The inevitable liturgical diversification resulting from these Romanizing and Gallicanizing thrusts;
f) the return of the adapted Romano-Frankish or Romano-Germanic liturgy to Rome under the Ottos of Germany, especially after the Renovatio Imperii of 962;
g) the permanent adoption of this liturgy at Rome because of the worship vacuum and the general state of cultural and religious decadence that prevailed in the City at the time. (Vogel, 61)

  • The gap between the 7th and 9th/10th centuries that I allude to refers to the gap between planning and execution.  I.e., here’s People’s Exhibit A of what I mean. This is a lectionary list from the late 9th century that shows that, while Masses from Wednesday and Friday in the time after Pentecost ought to have appointed Gospels, at that time the scribe couldn’t locate what they were… The gaps got filled in by a standardized system in the 10th century (Type 3 alt).
  • The Western Church has produced a lot of great writers, thinkers, and teachers. And yet I don’t believe any of them have ever surpassed this construction of the liturgical year as a method for forming Christians into the mind of Christ. Partly because so many Spiritual writers assume these liturgical cycles as the starting place—their works proceed from here.

Thesis 2: The full formative potential of the Western liturgical system, however, was rarely—if ever—fully realized due to the vocational and educational limiting factors placed upon it.

  • Engagement with the full liturgy was restricted to those who lived in intentional liturgical communities: only monastics (of both sexes) or canons ever got the “full experience”. The laity got the leavings.
  • Too, it required a fluent knowledge of Latin. Not only was this not open to most laity, but not all clergy and monastics had both the ability and the education necessary.

Thesis 3:  The formative power of the Western liturgical cycles was not due to its superiority in a single mode of instruction but due to its comprehensive character;  it integrated the intellectual, doctrinal, emotional,  affectional, aesthetic, kinetic, and dietary elements into a holistic system.

  • to poach a paragraph directly from chapter 3:

Within the life of the early medieval monastic establishment, a change of liturgical seasons signaled a change in life—liturgical and otherwise. The beginning of a season marked a change in the biblical texts that a community read, a change in the musical settings and the textual contents of the life of prayer, possibly changes in the colors of vestments in the oratory, even changes in what the monastics ate and wore. The changes of seasons affected life around the monastery; as a result, they affected thinking around the monastery. The seasons were comprehensive periods of formation, mimetic modeling of an aspect of Israel, her Christ, or his Church that engaged the mind with doctrines, the heart with religious affections, and the body with acts of penance, ascesis, or holy joy. Reading the gospels within these contexts foregrounded either primary or latent meanings in the text that accorded with these doctrines, affections, and acts…

These are the initial historical theses that seek to a lay a foundation before moving to the contemporary issue.

6 thoughts on “Initial Theses on the Liturgy

  1. Paul Goings

    Very interesting. I think that starting from first principles will help the “new liturgical movement” to achieve its several goals more effectively than it would without a critical study of liturgical history. This sort of study was supposedly the basis of many of the Conciliar reforms, but, in my opinion, that was mostly an abject failure.

    By way of anecdotal evidence, I have experienced the “full formative potential of the Western liturgical system” in a new way during the last few years in terms of the Easter Triduum. For most of us, the three days are merely three Masses with a few special variations. In many places, nothing else is extant. However, since we’ve started observing the Offices in common for those days, that has served to contextualize the major liturgical services in a way I’d never experienced before. This is also true in terms of Sunday Vespers, which helps to create a genuine experience of the Dies Domini, rather than the hour or so of Sunday Mass, which is all that you can get in most places.

    Thus, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what you do with these theses.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    I think that starting from first principles will help the “new liturgical movement” to achieve its several goals more effectively than it would without a critical study of liturgical history. This sort of study was supposedly the basis of many of the Conciliar reforms, but, in my opinion, that was mostly an abject failure.

    Yes, starting from first principles. Different and distinct from starting from origins which is what has often derailed/led these kinds of discussions astray.

    That is, many of the major moves to reform the liturgy both in the Reformation and at V II tried to make a return ad fontes and rediscover the practice of the Early Church and make that normative.

    The problem is one of sources. We don’t have them and those that we do have don’t say the same things. Thus, the reforms are based on conjecture and models that, looking back, were rather heavily flavored by their circumstances.

    Instead of trying to return to historical origins, I’m starting with a claim about Christian formation rooted in efficacy rather than history. I’m quite sensitive to critiques of museum liturgy that try and re-present historical liturgies and that’s not where I’m headed. Instead, I’m going to suggest and make the case that this historical moment had a superior logic and methods of Christian formation (but fumbled on execution) and that we should use the logic and methods, hopefully learning from earlier mistakes and paradigmatic blinders.

  3. Vicki McGrath


    Your Thesis #3 is exactly where I’ve been trying to work, although you have articulated it much more clearly and sharply than I had. I’ve been at my present parish for seven years and we’ve finally gotten a rhythm down that both highlights and underlies the seasonal changes and differences that help the congregation to learn God’s story and to find their place in it and live the story – primarily through worship in all its facets, but also through parish life and events. In some cases I’m starting to see that people are understanding that what happens in the cycle of the Church year really does have an effect on how they see the world. But lest I claim too much, I have to say these awarenesses are mostly in their infancy.

    As the previous poster commented, having the critical and theoritical research to back this up will be very helpful.

    Write on!


  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Hi Vick1+, Yes, I think that’s exactly where we need to be aiming—the integration of liturgy and life. Or rather, the integration of the mysteries of the faith with our experience of life. I’m just trying to articulate why the liturgy is the preeminent vehicle for accomplishing the task and how, then, we approach and enact the liturgy in order to move to the goal as completely as possible.

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