Thinking allowed

Liturgical Basics

There is a whole list of topics that I hope to introduce into ‘Thinking Liturgy’. Before doing that I want to sketch out a little liturgical history and a little liturgical interpretation. It will only be a sketch because some of it will be the basis of some of those future articles, so the detail will be postponed until those articles are written. But it’s only fair that readers should see a little of one of the key premises.

Let’s start with a little — only a little — history.

For many readers, I expect that liturgical history is neatly encapsulated by Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy. This pivotal book, first published in 1945, outlines Dix’s thesis that the fundamental form of the Eucharist was a ‘Four Action’ shape of Offertory, Consecration, Fraction, Communion — or if you prefer, Taking, Blessing, Breaking, and Sharing. Dix suggested that all the various forms of the Eucharist could be traced back to this original pattern universally used in the earliest Church, itself deriving directly from an initial seven actions found in the New Testament accounts. This concept of a Four-Action shape was very influential in post-War liturgical revision and it can be seen in the work of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England from the publication of Series 2 in 1966, through Series 3 in 1973 to the Alternative Service Book 1980 and on to Common Worship in 2000. In these two later books the concept is modified somewhat, so that two of the four actions are regarded as more significant and two as less so: ‘taking’ is preparatory to ‘blessing’ and ‘breaking’ to ‘sharing’.

More recent liturgical scholarship has questioned Dix’s premise (as did some at the time). There is really no evidence that there was a single original eucharistic structure, let alone that it follows Dix’s Four-Action shape. In particular, Paul Bradshaw, in his book Eucharistic Origins lays out what we have as the earliest evidence of the Eucharist. There are essentially three points to make, and the first two effectively demolish Dix’s shape. First, that actually there is very little evidence; and secondly that the evidence we do have is diverse — in the earliest surviving records different groups do different things. Eventually some of these patterns and practices merge or disappear under various influences. But as far back as we can go, practice is even more varied than it later became, and there is no reason to think that a single model underlies this.

For our purposes, I want to draw out a third point. This is what I like to call the ‘Monty Python got it wrong’ comment. Monty Python is not necessarily renowned for theological accuracy, but in one of their comedy sketches the Pope summons Michelangelo and castigates him for his painting of the Last Supper which contains several major inaccuracies; Michelangelo, rather than repaint the picture, suggests that it be retitled the Penultimate Supper on the grounds that there must have been one, and there is no record of what happened at it; the Pope retorts (in a line that has stuck with me for 35 years) ‘the Last Supper is a significant event in the life of our Lord; the Penultimate Supper was not’. Clearly, as John Cleese’s Pope says, the Last Supper was a significant event. And it clearly has an impact, a major impact, on our eucharistic thinking. But my contention is that it isn’t true to say that earlier suppers, earlier meals, were not significant.

These meals, and the scriptural record of some of them, are the background to the early Christian Eucharist. In Jesus’s earthly ministry, he ate and drank with his disciples and others; or to put it another way, when his disciples and others ate and drank Jesus was present with them. And after his death, his followers continued to experience his presence; most especially they experienced his presence when they broke bread together.

In this blog, I want to explore what this means for us today. How does this affect what we think we are about when we celebrate the Eucharist, and how does it affect the way that we go about celebrating the Eucharist? What does it mean for our words and actions, for our hospitality, for our teaching and mission? What does it mean for our architecture and church ordering even?

Other points of view are of course possible, and we shall explore some of those too.

1 comment

  • James says:

    Thank you, Simon, for highlighting these historical questions. It would be interesting to invite someone like Margaret Barker to offer some reflections on Eucharistic origins from her study of the Temple cult (e.g. is the Passover archetype the most helpful in understanding how the Eucharist developed?). John Baldovin’s studies of early urban Christianity also challenge us to rethink how significant the Last Supper actually was in the Eucharistic consciousness of the early church. These things are not just of historical interest. They have consequences for the way the Eucharist is celebrated today – especially where a matey, family-focussed, superficiality (based on a possible misreading of history) has trivialised it over the past 40 years and diminished its epiphanic and revelatory character. If we are praying for justice and celebrating the redeeming character of God in the Eucharist, how can we be open to the objective holiness of the one who doesn’t conform to our neatly devised (and culturally conditioned) notions of solidarity and community? Keep the questions coming!

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