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.


  • 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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *