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LITURGY . The English term liturgy, like its parallels in other languages, is primarily Christian. It denotes acts and scripts of worship in Christian experience. By now, however, the word is widely used for similarly ritualized phenomena in other religions too. By extension, it may even be applied to ritual that occurs outside of religion (strictly speaking) altogether. It is derived from the Greek leitourgia, meaning work "performed for the public good," in this case sacrificial acts that served the gods on whom civic welfare ultimately depended. The Septuagint used the term as the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew Bible's avodah, "the sacrificial service," and Christianity retained it for the priestly work of Jesus (Heb. 8:6) and the ministry of Paul (Rom. 15:16). In Judaism, avodah is still found in some prayer-book titles, prayer being seen as the replacement for sacrifice.

The Greek-speaking church, in the East, used liturgy to denote the eucharist. In the West, churches adopted other nomenclature: mass or the sacrament for eucharist; and divine, daily, or ecclesiastical office to mean non-eucharistic daily prayer. By the 1830s, however, as part of a hunt for liturgical origins, liturgy was revived to designate corporate church prayer in general. The Oxford movement, for example, proclaimed liturgy central to the Church of England; and Roman Catholics developed a Liturgical movement variously traced to the Benedictine revival in France of Prosper Gueranger (18051875), the pastoral work in Belgium of Lambert Beauduin (18731960), and others. Other primary figures were theologian Odo Casel (18861948); Virgil Michael (18901938), who brought the Liturgical Movement to the United States and founded its primary organ of liturgical research in 1926 (Orate Fratres, renamed Worship in 1951); and scholars Anton Baumstark (18721948) and Gregory Dix (19011952), whose Comparative Liturgy and The Shape of the Liturgy (respectively) became classics. These developments culminated in Vatican II (19621965) within Roman Catholicism, and similar movements for liturgical renewal in other churches.

Liturgy frames issues around which matters of identity have been foughtfor instance, the Calvinist preference (dating from the Reformation) for purely biblical prayer; the institutionalization of Taoist ritual under K'ou Ch'ien-chih (365448); and Islamic processions to mourn the killing of the prophet's grandson. Cultural rifts among modern Christians have revolved around other issues, primarily:

  • the language of prayer (its register, inclusivity, and doctrinal precision);
  • the musical canon (inherited hymns alone or contemporary jazz);
  • inculturation (altering the liturgy to reflect the culture of the people assembled);
  • ordination of women; and
  • the status of gays and lesbians.

Contemporary liturgical change in Judaism reflects these same cultural rifts, but centers also on the relative importance of prayer in Hebrew rather than the vernacular.

From text to ritual

As a modern scholarly discipline, liturgy has focused on the origins and evolution of ritual texts. It emerged in nineteenth-century evolutionary theory, which Romanticism applied to literary traditions, seeing them as plants that are seeded and then grow through time, sometimes attracting weeds that sully the garden's purity. Religions were thus assumed to have an authentic liturgical canon, the history of which can be traced through scientific attention to manuscript recension. Some liturgists have dedicated themselves simply to unearthing liturgical manuscripts and preparing scientific versions of them. Others have applied this scholarship to implicit religious concerns, citing discoveries of ancient or alternative liturgies to support the status quo or to challenge it, reviving some traditions and jettisoning others.

The most significant recent development in the study of liturgy is its identification as ritual, not just literature. Like drama, liturgies may exist in printed modes, but the written text of Hamlet, for example, is not the actual playthe performance is. Unlike letters, stories, and chronicles, liturgy is a text (usually composite), written or oral, intended for ritual performance. It can even be the performance itself: its words, gestures, melodies, clothing, spaces, props, and roles. Worship (from the old English weorthscipe, implying "worthship"), is the term most employed to characterize the faithful playing out of such a liturgy.

Liturgy, then, is a kind of ritual, presumably a religious ritual. But differentiating it as distinctively religious is as difficult as defining religion itself, and definitions derived from Christian practice may not do justice elsewhere. It is common, for instance, to limit liturgy to public corporate celebrations, but Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism feature significant domestic ritual that should be included in the category. Then too, the blurring of the division between religious and secular results in modern liturgies that reflect both influences: civil marriages with religious components, for example, or national and civic liturgies with at least oncereligious connotations, like American Thanksgiving services, or even the national anthem of the Third Reichoriginally a Haydn hymn. In 2003, an American prison population claiming expressly not to be a religion won the legal right to celebrate its own liturgy anyway.

Liturgies can be variously cataloguedlike liturgies of protest, such as a gay-pride parade, and liturgies of anguish, such as ceremonies attendant on the 9/11 disaster. Since the 1960s, increasing inventiveness has provided variations on established liturgical practice, such as a feminist eucharist with a female "Christa" on a cross; but new traditions have sprung up too, such as the displaying of an ever-growing AIDS quilt. Some would even include as liturgy such rituals as opening a major sporting event.

Liturgies can be considered internally and externally. Internally, liturgies are open to whatever specific critique a particular religion applies to itself: theology for Christians; halakhah for Jews; shariah for Muslims; or dharma for Hindus and Buddhists. External considerations apply objective measures, like the literary model through which the study of liturgy first arose. Defining liturgy as ritual performance has spawned other methods of investigation, like studies of artistic communication, or even studies of how technology influences liturgical expression: invention of coffee brought about all-night ritual to Jewish mysticism; moveable type universalized prayer texts, erasing local variation; and nineteenth-century rail transportation permitted suburban cemeteries that prompted liturgies for funeral homes.

The terms liturgy and ritual are somewhat difficult to disentangle, especially because ritual has its own religious usage in, for example, Methodism. Narrowly conceived, liturgy is the ritual side of religion. But more broadly, liturgy becomes a subsection of the larger discipline of ritual studies (Grimes, 1982), so that insight into ritual informs the understanding of liturgy as well.

The turn to ritual studies came primarily in the postindustrial west where liturgical renewal was responding to modern sensitivities such as gender egalitarianism; internal anachronisms like the marginalization of worshipers from full liturgical participation in Roman Catholicism; and an inherited protest against ritual in many Protestant churches and Reform Judaism. Nearly every discipline in the human sciences has subsequently provided insight, but anthropology and linguistic philosophy have proved most helpful.


The contemporary application of cultural anthropology to liturgy has had to contend with four challenges from prior research. A psychological attack is associated with Sigmund Freud (18561939), for whom ritual is merely obsessivecompulsive neurosis: both are marked, paradigmatically, by strictly controlled touching and eating. Freud's tracing of ritual's origins to an elemental act of incest has been widely dismissed, but liturgy does, in fact, often resemble obsessive behavior, and is still popularly attacked as religiously undesirable, or at least subservient to doctrine and morals (Freud, 1913).

A sophisticated neo-Marxist approach (Bloch, 1989) emphasizes liturgy's verbal form: song, chanting, and repetitive but invariable wording. Communications theory measures cognitively meaningful messages according to the extent that a listener can predict what the speaker will say. Liturgy such as hymns, chants, or intoning praise, provides almost total predictability, so has little or no cognitive content to debate and is therefore charged with underwriting the ineluctable "rightness" of traditional authority among people who would be better off resisting oppression.

The sociological attack is more subtle in that its founder, Emile Durkheim, actually lauded religious ritual for the powerful way it underwrites the legitimacy of social morality. But Durkheim anticipated the replacement of religious liturgies by nationalistic secular alternatives that would accomplish the same thing (Durkheim, 1912).

A fourth challenge came from early armchair anthropologists like Edward Tylor (18321917) and James Frazer (18541941), who forced primitive liturgies of which they had read or heard into a straightjacket of social evolutionism.

These approaches suffer from reductionism: isolating some specific aspect of ritual (and therefore liturgy) and then identifying it as a sorry, and even immoral, remnant of early human history. Liturgy does follow fixed sequences of behavior, but it need not be a compulsive disorder. Liturgical language features linguistic redundancy, but this is not necessarily a ploy by authorities. And even though liturgy claims to access the sacred, the sacred is not solely a socially useful phantasm that supports the social order. Liturgists may agree with some characterizations made by Freud, Marx, Durkheim, and their followers, but liturgists draw different conclusions than they did.

Philologists studying origins and history of liturgical texts claim scientific absoluteness: the prayer is either rightly or wrongly dated to a certain era and author; there can be only one right answer. Ritualists are more like drama critics watching a liturgy and interpreting its messages. Their claims are what philosopher Susanne Langer (18951985) called presentational, not scientific: rather than true or false, they are judged by how compelling they appear, and there is more than one right answer. As cultural ethnographers, liturgists posit interpretations in keeping with a particular religion's internal explanations, but also according to the way liturgies seem externally to function. Other liturgists still study just the liturgical scripts, keeping in mind, however, that they are scripts for performances, not literary works alone. Yet others are musicologists or ethnomusicologists, concerned predominantly with the history or cultural performance of liturgical music.

Cognitively speaking, it is possible to see liturgies as expressions of metaphysical reality for their participants. In that regard, it is convenient to think in terms of three variables: (1) theology (the nature of God or some other higher power, organizing force, principle or reality, like the Upanisad Brahman); (2) religious anthropology (the nature of human beingsborn to original sin; reincarnations according to the principle of Karma; or the absolute servants of God, as in Islam); and (3) cosmology (the nature of the universeneutral as to human action, as in Epicureanism, or perfectible by human action, as in Jewish Kabbalah). Participants take their existential stand at the convergence of these three metaphysical variables, which liturgies expound through word and action. Liturgies posit sacred places; shape time with sacred fasts and festivals; define ideal lives by imposing life-cycle moments (first communion, marriage, ordination); conceptualize human nature (given free will, prone to sin); posit human projects (the Buddhist eight-fold path, the pillars of Islam); and cement relationships with the universe (through sacred soil, perhaps) and with each other (born into a caste, predestined as chosen elect). Along the way liturgies shape sacred history, not just what has been, but what can still be expected to pass, and, therefore, the hopes participants may rightly hold. Liturgies express the rules by which human destiny unfolds: the logic of daily experience. They rehearse formative or revelatory moments of original visionaries by including them in sacred narratives that may be read, chanted, sung, or acted out so as to map their categories on the world and instruct religious adherents on how to find their way within it. More immediately, liturgies organize relations of power, gender difference, and social classby rooting them in assumed metaphysical reality.

Typical of anthropological influence has been rite-of-passage theory, going back to Arnold van Gennep (1908): liturgies separate participants from an old status, transition them betwixt and between, and incorporate them into a new status. Victor Turner (1969) emphasized the potential of transitional (liminal) moments, when neither the old nor the new limit creative vision. Other theorists widely cited are Clifford Geertz, who saw liturgies as symbolic demonstrations of a people's ethos and world view (Geertz, 1973) and "the kind of lives [their] societies support" (Geertz, 1983); and Mary Douglas, who emphasized the body as a symbolizing entity and linked forms of ritualism to specific social structures (Douglas, 1970). Using Turner's emphasis on the potential of liminal moments to produce social and psychological transformation, liturgy's advocates have argued that liturgy is morally empowering (Driver, 1991).

Contemporary theory is multidisciplinary, bringing together such studies as mythology from Lévi-Strauss in 1963 and Eliade in 1954; performance practice from Turner in 1982; and even ritual's biogenetic basis from Newberg, D'Aquilli, and Rause in 2001. Most theorists assume overall that liturgies posit systems of meaninga view that goes back to pioneers like Max Weber (18641920)especially in "limit" moments, Clifford Geertz describes as intellectual bafflement, inexplicable suffering, and ethical paradox (Geertz, 1973).

Linguistic philosophy

By the end of the nineteenth century, western philosophy seemed mired in two equally undesirable alternatives: British empiricism, according to which the world is available only through the senses; and René Descartes's (15961630) claim that only introspection determines certainty. The latter solution could not guarantee that sensations from within represent the universe without; but the empiricists fared no better, because in the end, what one sees (as it were) is not at all what one gets. Neither school could guarantee a genuine world beyond one's own invention. Immanuel Kant's (17241804) attempt to admit the role of a constructing mind, while yet saving external reality, was whittled away by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), for whom reality was pure spirit.

These philosophical wars over the nature of reality had consequences for liturgical traditions that posit experience of God, hope, atman, salvation, samsara, jihad, and other presumably real entities, which ought to fit dominant theory of what can be reliably known. The question became whether what liturgy posits is not just chimerical, and if so, how one can know it.

A variety of responses have therefore arisen to justify liturgical claims. Hermeneuticist Paul Ricoeur, for instance, admitted the right to suspect naive theological assumptions. But he thought a new and sophisticated naivete would penetrate the world of symbols and see truths that ordinary sensedata miss. By far the most impactful modern philosophical trend has been what philosopher Gustav Bergmann (19061987) labeled "the linguistic turn." It began with scientifically influenced philosophers who denied all reality to statements that are neither empirical nor logically deducible from empirical bases. Propositions in liturgy (like those of aesthetics, ethics, and religion generally) are, therefore, neither true nor false, but simply meaningless. If liturgy is not saying anything meaningful, what is its point?

Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951) provided the philosophical possibility of meaningful liturgical statements. His Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) concluded that even though empirical reality was all that could be spoken about, anything that really mattered existed beyond speech and would have to be shown. Wittgenstein's later Philosophical Investigations (1953) described language as a series of games, only one of which is the description of empirical reality. Other games include naming, ordering, or offering to do something; these do not describe reality, but are not on that account meaningless.

With Wittgenstein, emphasis switched from determining what liturgical language describes to asking what it does. If liturgy does not describe empirical reality, perhaps it shows it, the way art, for instance, demonstrates truths that elude simple declarative sentences. Or, following contemporary pragmatists, perhaps liturgy manufactures truths as much as it discovers them (Rorty, 1999; Putnam, 1994; Goodman, 1978). Here liturgy meets philosophy and the human sciences, which also see ritual as accomplishing something, such as life-cycle passages. A particularly influential approach derives from J. L. Austin (19111960), who called some speech-acts "performative" in that the very act of uttering them performs certain tasks: Saying, "I bet you fifty dollars," establishes a wager; similarly, saying, "I declare you husband and wife" accomplishes what it says in the very saying of itas long as apt circumstances accompany the remark (husband and wife cannot be a dog and a cat, for example). In both the wager and the wedding, a speech act provides words that are measurable not as true or false, but as "felicitous or infelicitous"it works (because done properly) or it does not (Austin, 1962).

With Austin, and then with John Searle, liturgy emerged as a ritualized creative act bringing into being institutional facts like marriage, a new year, pardon from sin, and other states constituted by a religion's internal category scheme. Liturgy is universal to human society because it defines into being the categories of social life, religious or otherwise, without which there would be no social life at all (Searle, 1969, 1995).

The future of linguistic study

Contemporary trends in liturgical study still include historical reconstruction. They also encompass whatever internal studies a religion finds meaningful, as well as insights from the human sciences and philosophy, and the role of the arts in what is increasingly perceived as a performative discipline. Still in their relative infancy, for example, are studies of the way space and music transform script into performance. In addition, studies of Christian and Jewish liturgy have much to learn from the expansion of purview beyond western experience to include the vast panorama of liturgical expression worldwide.


From a Christian perspective, the history of the Eucharist is most fully covered in Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, 2 vols. (Westminster, Md., 1986). For an excellent survey overall, see Theodor Klauser, A Short History of the Western Liturgy (1965: Eng. Ed. Oxford, 1979). Protestant liturgy is surveyed in James F. White, Protestant Worship (Louisville, Ky., 1989). Reuven Hammer's, Entering Jewish Prayer (New York, 1994) and Entering the High Holy Days (Philadelphia, 1998) provide a modern and accessible survey of traditional Jewish liturgy. My People's Prayerbook (Woodstock, Vt., 19972004, Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed.) provides traditional Jewish liturgy in detail, alongside modern commentaries. During its brief existence, Liturgy Digest (Nathan Mitchell, ed., 19941997) devoted exceptionally fine treatment to a variety of liturgical topics, along with bibliographic details. Worship, the North American journal of record for Christian liturgy, has been available since 1926. In 1987, the newly launched Journal of Ritual Studies began publishing significant articles on ritual aspects of liturgy. Paul Bradshaw, ed., The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Louisville, Ky., 2002), includes specific prayers and liturgical items; and Edward Foley, ed., Worship Music: A Concise Dictionary (Collegeville, Minn., 2000) briefly defines musical entries. Paul Bradshaw, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Janet Walton, eds., provide a six-volume series, Two Liturgical Traditions (Notre Dame, 19911999), tracing parallels and differences in Jewish and Christian liturgy.

A sampling of other recent books of significance includes the following:

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford, 1962.

Bell, Catherine M. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York, 1992.

Bloch, Maurice. Ritual, History and Power. London, 1989.

Driver, Thomas, The Magic of Ritual [Liberating Rites ]. New York, 1991.

Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols. London, 1970.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). English ed., New York, 1995.

Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton, N.J., 1954.

Freud, Sigmund, Totem and Taboo (1913). English ed., London, 1950.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, 1973.

Gill, Sam D. Native American Religious Action. Columbia, S.C., 1987.

Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis, 1978.

Grimes, Ronald L. Beginnings in Ritual Study, Washington, D.C., 1982

Grimes, Ronald L. Ritual Criticism. Columbia, S.C., 1990.

Hoffman, Lawrence A. Beyond the Text. Bloomington, Ind., 1987.

Hoffman, Lawrence A. The Way into Jewish Prayer. Woodstock, Vt., 2000.

Langer, Ruth. To Worship God Properly. Cincinnati, Ohio, 1998.

LeviStrauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. New York, 1963.

Newberg, Andrew, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause. Why God Won't Go Away. New York, 2001.

Putnam, Hilary. Pragmatism. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Rappaport, Roy. Ecology, Meaning and Religion. Berkeley, Calif., 1979.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. New York, 1999.

Schechner, Richard and Willa Appel, eds. By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. New York, 1990.

Schulz, Hans-Joachim. The Byzantine Liturgy (1980). English ed., New York, 1986.

Turner, Victor W. The Ritual Process. Chicago, 1969.

Turner, Victor W. From Ritual to Theatre. New York, 1982.

Searle, John R. Speech Acts. London, 1969.

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. New York. 1995.

Van Gennep, Arnold. Rites of Passage (1908). English ed., Chicago, 1960.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York, 1958.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Berkeley, Calif., n.d.

Lawrence A. Hoffman (2005)

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