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The Liturgical Movement began as a movement of scholarship for the reform of worship within the Roman Catholic Church. It has grown over the last century and a half and has affected many other Christian Churches including the Church of England and other Churches of the Anglican Communion, and some Protestant churches. The Liturgical Movement has been one of the major influences on the process of the Ecumenical Movement, in favor of reversing the divisions which began at the Reformation.

The movement has a number of facets. First, it was an attempt to rediscover the worship of the Middle Ages which was held to be the ideal form of worship. Second, it became a scholarly exercise in examining the history of worship. Third, it broadened into an examination of the nature of worship as a human activity. Fourth, it became an attempt to renew worship in order that it could be more expressive for worshippers and as an instrument of teaching and mission. Fifth, it has been a movement attempting to bring about reconciliation between the churches on both sides of the Reformation.

At the Reformation of the sixteenth century, while the new Protestant Churches abandoned the old Latin Mass, the Roman Catholic Church reformed and revised it. The split between Roman Catholic and Protestant was, in part, a difference about beliefs regarding the authority of the Bible and was exacerbated because, with the development of written European languages, a Latin service would be something one would primarily see and secondarily hear, a vernacular service, one in the language of the worshipper, would be one which the worshipper was supposed to understand and in which to participate. Language was only one issue. The revision of the Roman liturgy which followed, and which provided a single use for the whole Western Church, restated, in opposition to the Reformers, the sacramental principle and in particular a doctrine of the Eucharist, which expressed its sacrificial nature. The Liturgical Movement, which began as further attempt to restore the liturgy to its ancient principles, resulted in changes that have affected both Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants. In all three, for different reasons, frequent communion was unusual and both sought to remedy this.


The Roman Catholic Church responded to the breaking away of European Protestants by engaging in its own reform, the Counter Reformation. The Council of Trent, which resulted in the adoption of the Tridentine Mass as the standard form of worship, was held in 1545–1563. From then on the Latin Mass remained substantially unchanged for four hundred years.

Meanwhile, the liturgies of the protestant (Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist, and others) were changed more or less radically: the language of the people was used at mass. Deliberately distancing themselves from "Roman" practices, these churches became “Churches of the Word” - of Scripture and preaching - breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church's focus on sacraments. The practice of Holy Communion became more infrequent and was supplemented in many churches by the service of Morning and Evening Prayer. In some Lutheran traditions, the Mass was stripped of some of its character, such as replacing the Canon of the Mass with the Words of Institution ("This is my Body... this is my Blood"). Common practice was to make the service of the day (the ante-communion) into a preaching service.

The first stirrings of interest in liturgical scholarship (and thence liturgical change) within the Roman Catholic Church arose in 1832 when the French Benedictine abbey at Solesmes was refounded under Dom Prosper Guéranger. For a long time, Benedictines were the pioneers in restoring Roman liturgy to its original form. At first Guéranger and his contemporaries focussed on studying and recovering the authentic Gregorian Chant and the liturgical forms of the Middle Ages, which were held as an ideal. Other scholars such as Cabrol and Batiffol also contributed to the investigation of the origins and history of the liturgy, but the practical application of this learning was lacking.

The 19th century saw the increased availability of patristic texts and the discovery of new ones. Jacques Paul Migne published editions of various early theological texts in two massive compilations: Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca, despite the hostility of the hierarchy. In addition, the Didache, one of the earliest manuals of Christian morals and practice, was found in 1875 in a library in Constantinople, and the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to the 3rd-century Roman theologian Hippolytus, was published in 1900. This latter was a 'church order', containing the full text of a eucharist; it was to prove highly influential.

The first real encouragement to reform came from Pope Pius X elected in 1903. In the same year he issued a Motu Proprio on church music, inviting the faithful to participate actively in the liturgy, which he saw as a source of the renewal of Christian spirituality. He called for more frequent communion of the faithful, and in particular the young. Subsequently, he concerned himself with the revision of the Breviary. This was to be the necessary spark.


The movement had a number of elements: Liturgical Scholarship, Pastoral Theology, and Liturgical Renewal. As to the first of these, in his influential book Mysterium Fidei (1921), Maurice de la Taille argued that Christ's sacrifice, beginning from his self-offering at the Last Supper, completed in the Passion and continued in the Mass, were all one act. There was only one immolation - that of Christ at Calvary to which the Supper looks forward and on which the Mass looks back. Although Taille was not a liturgist, his work created a huge controversy which raised interest in the form and character of the Mass. His argument, whilst not yet congenial to Protestants, removed the objection that each mass was a separate and new 'immolation' of Christ, a repeated and thus efficacious act.

Pastoral considerations played a major part. As we have seen such motives lay behind the tone of the papacy of Pius X. Thus, in 1909 he called a conference, the Congrès National des Oeuvres Catholiques in Mechelen in Belgium, which is held to have inaugurated the Liturgical Movement proper. Liturgy was to be the means of instructing the people in Christian faith and life; thus the mass would be translated into the vernacular to promote active participation of the faithful. One of the leading participants in the conference, Dom Lambert Beauduin of Louvain, argued that worship was the common action of the people of God and not solely performed by the priest. Many of the movement's principles were based in Beauduin's book, La Pieté de l'Eglise.

At almost the same time, in Germany Abbot Ildefons Herwegen of Maria Laach convened a liturgical conference in Holy Week 1914 for lay people. Herwegen thereafter promoted research which resulted in a series of publications for clergy and lay people during and after the war. One of the foremost scholars there was Dom Odo Casel. Having begun by studying the Middle Ages, Casel looked at the origins of Christian liturgy in pagan cultic acts, understanding liturgy as a profound universal human act as well as a religious one. In his Ecclesia Orans (The Praying Church) (1918), Casel studied and interpreted the pagan mysteries of ancient Greece and Rome, discussing similarities and differences between them and the Christian mysteries. The conclusions of Casel were studied in various places, notably at Klosterneuburg in Austria where Pius Parsch an Augustinian monk applied the principles in the little church of St. Gertrude which he took over in 1919. Here with laymen he worked out the relevance of the Bible to liturgy. Similar experiments were to take place in Leipzig during the Second World War.[1]

In France,in spite of the publication of the Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne de de liturgie it was only through contact with German and Austrian movements that practical experiments were begun and these mostly had to wait until the Second World War. In 1943 the Centre National de Pastorale Liturgique was founded and the magazine La Maison-Dieu began publication.

However, the idea of liturgy as an inclusive activity, subversive of individualism, while exciting to some, also raised anxieties in Rome. In 1947 Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Mediator Dei which warned of false innovations, radical changes and protestantizing influences in the liturgical movement. At the same time he encouraged the "authentic" liturgical movement which promoted active participation of the congregation in chant and gestures.

The Second Vatican Council

The Latin Tridentine Mass remained the standard eucharistic liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church in the West until the Second Vatican Council. In 1963, the Council adopted, by an overwhelming majority, the Constitution On Sacred Liturgy "Sacrosantum Concilium". For the first time the vernacular liturgy was permitted, even if to a possibly minor extent to the one actually reached afterwards by national churches; the emphasis in the liturgy was now on anamnesis, such as de la Taille had advocated. The influence of Hippolytus was evident in the form of Eucharistic Prayers. Accompanying this was the encouragement for liturgies to express local culture (subject to approval by the Holy See).

The recovery of the Divine Office (in the U.S. the Liturgy of the Hours), the daily prayer of the Church was just as startling. As liturgical prayer is the prayer of the Church, the Constitution states that "in choir" (common) office prayer is always preferable with respect to individual one.

Anglican Communion

At the time of the English Reformation, the liturgy was revised and replaced with the Book of Common Prayer. The changes were relatively conservative and did not substantially shift after the sixteenth century. In Victorian England, interest in liturgy had grown through the work of the Oxford Movement, which drew attention the church's history and relation to the Roman Catholic Church. The Cambridge Camden Society (1839–63), originally formed for the study of ecclesiastical art, generated an interest in liturgy that led to the ceremonial revival of the later nineteenth century. The revival brought Anglican scholars into conversation with their Roman colleagues.

By the 20th century, the Church of England saw quite radical ceremonial and ritual changes, most of them in imitation of Rome.[2]Tractarians, followers of the Oxford Movement, so-called because of their publication of religious tracts, and whose initial concern was in the relationship of the Church of England to the universal Church, became interested in liturgy and, in particular, in the Communion. Gradually, dress and ceremonial were altered in imitation of contemporary Roman practice: (e.g. stoles, chasubles, copes and even birettas; candles multiplied, incense was burnt; priests learned to genuflect and bow. Gradually, the Eucharist became more common as the main Sunday Service, often enhanced by using prayers translated from the Missal. The English Missal published first in 1912, was a conflation of the Eucharistic rite in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Latin prayers of the Roman Missal, including the rubrics indicating the posture and manual acts. It was a recognition of practices which had been widespread for many years. The changes were the subject of controversy, opposition, hostility and legal action.[3] Liturgical change appeared to be, not reform, but a retreat to mediaeval models and was perceived by many bishops and clergy as 'popish'.[4]

The attempt to revise the Book of Common Prayer in 1927 and 1928, was still rooted in the past, owing little to the researches or practices of continental scholars.[5] Only with the publication in 1935 of Gabriel Hebert's Liturgy and Society did the debate the relationship between worship and the world begin in England. Hebert, a Kelham Father interpreted the liturgy on wider social principles, rejecting, in the process, the idea of the eucharistic fast as being impractical. Its members wished for more frequent communion, not merely attendance at Mass; it wished to relate the eucharist to the world of ordinary life and through its influence the offertory was restored, though not without protracted controversy.[6] The ideas of the Parish Communion movement as it came to be called were in advance of English Roman Catholic scholars, but the liturgy remained officially unaltered until the 1960s, when the synodical process began which was to produce the Alternative Service Book in 1980 and Common Worship in 2000.

Churches of the Lutheran Tradition

Equally dramatic in some places has been the change in some of the Lutheran churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, for example, has been heavily influenced by the movement in its vesture and ritual. Black gowns have long been replaced by traditional catholic vestments. The St. Thomas Mass returned the fuller use of ceremonial (the liturgical action, in which movement takes place during the liturgy to express its different parts).

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran body in the United States, has also seen a return to greater appreciation of the liturgy and its ancient origins, and many traditional liturgical symbols, such as the sign of the cross, incense, and the full chasuble have become much more common than in years past. While some freedom in style is exercised by individual congregations, the overall style of the aspects of liturgical worship - including vestments, altar adornments, and a general return of many formal ritualistic practices - has drifted closer to the styles of the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions.[7]

Also, in the United States, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has taken a lead in the recovery of Lutheran liturgical practice by re-introducing catholic expression compatible with Lutheran teaching and the historic customs. Such practices as imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, veneration of the cross on Good Friday, aspersions of holy water during Eastertide are relatively common in today's Lutheran parish. The Liturgical Institute at Valparaiso University has been a major influence on expanding catholic ritual among Lutherans.

In Germany, the excising of the Eucharistic Prayer by Martin Luther in his Kirchenordnungen, one of a number of factors which contributed towards infrequent communion, was reversed in the decade after the Second World War with new service books and subsequently by the challenge of the Second Vatican Council. In the United States the new Lutheran rite (1978, Lutheran Book of Worship), draws considerably from Roman sources.

In the United States, numerous inter-church organizations classifying themselves as Lutheran bodies exist, due mostly to the waves of immigration in the late 19th century and early 20th from northern European and Scandinavian countries. Because of the differences in languages and customs, congregations grew along 'national' lines, establishing their own version of the 'church back home' - for example, the Norwegian Lutherans, Danish Lutherans, etc. Because these early churches usually stuck to the vernacular language of their native country, they became popular with their foreign-born members - not only as a place for worship, but as a social outlet. Over the decades into the 20th century, English gradually took hold among the settlers and their descendants; thus the need for foreign-language worship dropped remarkably. Yet the cultural and stylistic differences remained, and, most likely, the gap widened with passing time.[8]

The ELCA is today the largest Lutheran denomination in the US - making up over half of all Lutherans in the country - and is considered moderate-to-liberal in its practices and teachings. In contrast, some other US Lutheran bodies are considered to be more conservative than the ELCA, often adhering to much more fundamentalist and confessional views. While their usage of liturgy is often similar, there are important differences, many of which are related to major differences in theology. For example, while ELCA churches retain the word catholic in the Nicene Creed (as well as the Apostles' Creed) it is much more likely to hear 'catholic' replaced with 'christian' during recitation of those ancient creeds in some conservative churches. Likewise, while ELCA services are typically quite similar in style and formality to Roman Catholic or Anglican liturgies, some conservative Lutheran denominations tend toward a more informal, 'protestant" style. While the differences between their liturgies often seem minor, the beliefs and teachings behind the different Lutheran churches are often quite contrary to each other.[9]

Influence & criticisms

The influence of the Roman shape of the liturgy has been considerable among most liturgical churches of the west, including the whole of the Anglican communion, the Methodist Church in England and including less formally liturgical churches such as the United Methodist Church of the United States. On the other hand, the there has been various criticisms, mostly from within the Roman Catholic church at the loss of mystery and the reduction in the sacrificial element of the Mass (see Mass of Paul VI).

See also

  • Romano Guardini
  • Alexander Schmemann
  • Friedrich Heiler
  • Hermann Sasse
  • Gunnar Rosendal
  • Gregory Dix
  • Annibale Bugnini
  • Gabriel Hebert
  • Max Thurian
  • Clarence Rivers


  1. Ernest Benjamin Koenker, The Liturgical Renaissance in the Roman Catholic Church (1954) p. 10
  2. Contemporary commentators, such as Benjamin Jowett, saw the changes as indicative of Romantic and aesthetic influences (and 'revolting to tha reverent mind'), but the models were Roman. Judith Pinnington 'Rubric and Spirit: a diagnostic reading of Tractarian Worship' in Essays Catholic and Radicaled. Kenneth Leech and Rowan Williams (Bowerdean 1983) p. 98f; see also Valerie Pitt: 'The Oxford Movmeent: a case of Cultural Distortion?'; (ibid). p. 205ff.
  3. Chadwick, Owen The Victorian Church vol 2; Carpenter, S.C. Church and People (SPCK 1933)pp.212ff.
  4. see footnote 2
  5. Gray, Donald, Earth and Altar, (Canterbury Press 1986) p.196
  6. Gray (ibid) Buchanon,Colin The End of the Offertory (Grove Books)' Arguile, Roger The Offering of the People (Jubilee 1989)


  • A Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, J.G. Davies (SCM)
  • Earth and Altar Donald Gray (Canterbury Press 1986)
  • Liturgy and Society A.G.Hebert (Faber 1935)
  • The Early Liturgy, Josef Jungmann (DLT 1960)
  • A Short History of the Western Liturgy, Theodor Klauser(trans. J. Halliburton) (1969)