Liturgy and Worship

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Liturgy and Worship

It could well be said that the years since 1965 have been, in America as well as in much of the rest of the religious world, a time of unprecedented liturgical change—indeed, upheaval. One could probably go farther to suggest that for Christian churches at least, there has not been such a time since the Reformation of the sixteenth century in Europe and successive "aftershocks" in other places in the centuries that followed.

The roots of this thirty-five year period of liturgical change can be found in two seemingly disparate movements. The more obvious is a series of scholarly and highly "traditional" efforts in many Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches dating back almost exactly one hundred years before 1965. In England, Scotland, and Continental Europe, during the late nineteenth century, attempts began to return to earlier worship patterns. There was a renewed interest by Protestants and Anglicans in practices advocated by such sixteenth-century Protestant reformers as John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Knox. There was also a revived interest in seventeenth-century Puritans, eighteenth-century Methodists, and in elements of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English worship. In the Roman Catholic Church, the impact of the sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation was challenged in the late nineteenth century with a revived interest in the high Middle Ages and later an appeal to the Patristic era. In the twentieth century, supportive developments in biblical studies (the so-called "Higher Criticism"), ecumenism (as in the World Student Christian Federation and the World Council of Churches), and neo-orthodoxy in the Reformed and Lutheran Churches combined to encourage this liturgical movement, which rapidly crossed the Atlantic to North America. The transatlantic move significantly changed certain of these traditions, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, where there was added an urban, societal dimension very much under the influence of the Benedictine community's publication of a new journal, Orate Fratres, founded by Virgil Michael in 1926 and later to become Worship. This is an important connection in relation to the second set of influences on liturgical renewal in America.

This other set of influences may be described as social and cultural. The assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States signaled a new form of countercultural consciousness, the civil rights movement, which produced its own very powerful liturgies: processionals ("marches"), hymns (freedom songs and African-American spirituals), symbols (handclasps), martyrs (such as those just named and others), sacred sites (the bridge at Selma, Alabama; and the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his stirring "I have a dream" speech), and the emergence of black churches (Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal) as seminal social forces. Next there arose another paraliturgical form of social and ritual consciousness, the anti–Vietnam War thrust and the related "flower children" youth movement symbolized by Woodstock. This, too, developed its own cultic patterns. Inevitably all of these cultic/cultural developments influenced the churches' culture and cult as embodied centrally in their liturgies.

What has come to characterize liturgical life worldwide in the Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches in the several decades since 1965 may be even more pronounced in these churches in the United States. To a lesser extent one might also describe in the same way developments in Judaism, even though significant differences in cultural contexts would have to be addressed.

For many, the word "liturgy" brings to mind elaborate rituals and complex, fixed ecclesiastical texts and traditions. The Greek antecedents of the word, however, would seem to suggest a broader meaning. The two Greek stem words laos ("people") and ergon ("energy") combine to provide its usual translation, "the work of the people," or "that which the people do." This demonstrates the difference between the more narrow but common concept—ritual activity largely in the hands of the clergy—and the broader concept of the recurring activity of the whole people of God.

In 1965, the Roman Catholic Church's Vatican Council II completed its work. Its initial deliverance, Sacrosanctam Concilium, was approved overwhelmingly by the council on November 23, 1963 (movingly and perhaps significantly, the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy). That document set off a virtual chain reaction of reformed liturgies, not only in the Roman Catholic Church but also throughout the Protestant world, since many of those churches recognized in its provisions much of their own earlier reformations from the sixteenth century forward. All aspects of liturgical action—textual, architectural, ritual, aesthetic, musical, and catechetical (having to do with baptism)—illustrate this astonishing, almost tectonic set of shifts.

How then can the shape of these liturgical changes be described? The description will refer to three basic traditions: Protestant–Anglican–Roman Catholic, Orthodox-Oriental, and Jewish. In each case the crucial areas of liturgical change will be analyzed as the Sunday/Sabbath service, language and participation, and music and ritual.

Protestant–Anglican–Roman Catholic

Whereas for centuries the Protestant/Catholic "standoff" has been evidenced by an emphasis on reading and preaching the scriptures on the Protestant side as opposed to an emphasis on the celebration of the Mass on the Catholic side, with the Anglicans (Episcopalians) not surprisingly moving to one side or the other and sometimes both, it is now increasingly agreed by both sides that the normative Sunday service should include both Word and Sacrament on a weekly basis, and in that order. This idea is not yet shared by the Baptists, other free churches, or the socalled megachurches.

As a result of the Catholic Church's Vatican Council II, the worldwide body of Catholic English-speaking churches rapidly shifted from Latin to a modern form of English (prepared and proposed by a consultative body of bishops known as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, founded in 1963), effectively "leapfrogging" the classic Elizabethan English of many, if not most, Protestant churches. The effect of this was to impel U.S. Protestant churches to revise their texts from that older English into more modern forms, which was done under the guidance of ecumenical bodies that have always included Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant representatives, namely the Consultation on Common Texts (founded in 1964) and more recently an international group, the English Language Liturgical Consultation (founded in 1985). The Worshipbook (1970) of the Presbyterian churches was the first officially sponsored attempt to make such a linguistic shift, although George MacLeod's Iona Community had pioneered in this respect ever since its founding in 1938. This move immediately provided for a much more vocal and understandable level of participation by the laity. This goal is nicely expressed in a phrase from the Roman Catholic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy as "full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations" (para. 14). And behind this goal there lies an even deeper aspect of liturgical change in these late decades of the twentieth century, a sense that worship is basically a communal event rather than an occasion for individuals to meditate or simply express their personal, individual piety and receive personal support and encouragement.

Inevitably this shift in language and participation, as well as revisions of structure, required new musical forms, from folk to pop to hymns and chants. This became particularly evident due to the equally surprising ecumenical adaptation of the new Roman Catholic Order for Scripture Reading at Sunday Mass (Ordo Lectionum Missae, 1969 and 1981), a three-year cycle. Throughout Protestant and Episcopal churches in the United States (and now internationally), by virtue of the work and influence of the consultation just named, this impulse has resulted in a large corpus of hymnody to complement and encourage the ecumenical adaptation of the Roman Catholic system and now known as Revised Common Lectionary (1992). At the ritual and aesthetic levels it can only be briefly suggested that just as the Catholic side has simplified and declericalized its ceremonial aspects, so the Protestant side has taken on the use of symbols, symbolic gestures, and ceremonial behavior such as vestments, color, and movement.


Orthodox-Oriental churches have been more reluctant to move in any of the ways just described—perhaps for reasons of ethnic identity, overlapping jurisdictions not always being in close touch with each other, and a high degree of conservative consciousness regarding the divine liturgy (Sunday). The lower level of participation in the above-mentioned ecumenical-liturgical movements can also be attributed to ancient disputes with Roman Catholicism and Orthodox nonacceptance of Protestant bodies. However, in the 1990s there was considerable effort to translate the liturgy into various forms of English, and especially to encourage the vocal and sacramental participation of the laity. Music and architecture were also involved. This is largely true in the Orthodox Church of America (in which the Russian church is the principal party in that it is self-governing in the United States), followed by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, which also participates in the Orthodox Church in America and its related Standing Committee of Orthodox Bishops.


Differing pictures emerge from the three major associations of synagogues: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.

Orthodox Judaism is fairly fixed in the Hebrew language and liturgical forms inherited from various European communities. On the other hand, Reform Judaism, which largely abandoned most of that in favor of a kind of American inculturation (much of which understandably resembled American mainline Protestantism), seems now to be actively recovering more traditional liturgical practices, for both synagogue and domestic use. The centrist Conservative synagogues seem also to be moving in the same direction, though this is not as drastic, since this community has always maintained the use of some Hebrew and traditional ceremonies and calendrical observances. Here, too, there is a growing interest in providing catechetical and liturgical materials for interfaith marriage, known as teschuvah.

Many of the Jewish and Christian communities in the late twentieth century in the United States have taken massive and remarkably similar strides to recover much that is authentic in their own traditions from earlier centuries, and not because "old" is necessarily "best," but rather because tradition itself is a living and changing experience of adaptation. Many of these communities' adaptations are in fact conscious responses to changing cultural structures, but also in the context of their own historic cultic context. Just as life is always the context of liturgy at its best, so also it is the deepest conviction of these religious traditions that liturgy must always be the primary context for the life and practice of believers.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Chanting; Civil Rights Movement; Communion; Ministry; Music; Practice; Prayer; Preaching; Religious Communities; Ritual; Rock Masses; Sociology of Religion; Spirituals; Vatican II.


Austin, Gerard, ed. Eucharist Toward the Third Millennium. 1998.

Davies, Horton, Bread of Life and Cup of Joy. 1993.

Hoffman, Lawrence, and Bradshaw, Paul F., eds. The Making of Jewish and Christian Worship. 1991.

Pecklers, Keith, S.J. The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America. 1998.

Saliers, Don E. Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine. 1994.

Spinks, Bryan D., and Iain R. Torrance, eds. To Glorify God: Essays on Modern Reformed Liturgy. 1999.

West, Fritz. Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionaries. 1997.

White, James F. A Brief History of Christian Worship. 1993.

Horace T. Allen, Jr.

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Liturgy and Worship

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