This is the first of four posts on the approaches to the liturgy that liturgical studies uses and on how they are integrated into one discipline. It was inspired by a question about the relationship between liturgical history and liturgical theology from a student who had been told that liturgical scholars study only the history of the liturgy.
I see there being three main divisions to the field of liturgical studies, each of which can be approached according to multiple methods of its own. The three main divisions as I see them are liturgical history (sometimes called liturgiology or “study of the liturgy”), ritual studies, and sacramental theology. Each impinges on other fields of study and there is also a considerable amount of overlap between these divisions; “liturgical studies” itself is almost an interdisciplinary field. In this post I’m going to talk about liturgical history, but I intend to make two more to talk about ritual studies and sacramental and liturgical theology, which are my main areas of research.
Liturgical history or liturgiology studies the history of practice and interpretation of the liturgy. The emphasis is on practice, because the underlying assumption of liturgical studies is that what the Church does — not merely what its members say or what they think they are doing — is important to doing theology. The presupposition of such study is that the Spirit is guiding the liturgical practice of the churches, even though many works on liturgical history do not say this in so many words. This practice is often imperfectly represented by handwritten or printed texts, historically as today, so the liturgical historian must be willing to question what actual practices the texts reflect.
Liturgical history is in some ways the foundation of liturgical studies as a field of its own, and is the reason why those who work in the other two subdisciplines still think it is of immense importance to understand liturgical change and development as a foundation for understanding the liturgy as it is today.
In other words, the belief that the Church’s actual practice over time — not just theological writings about this practice — is the foundation for a true understanding of humanity’s relationship with God is what sets liturgical studies apart from other fields of theology.
Liturgical history can be done by time period (early, medieval, Reformation, modern) or by practice (initiation, eucharist, liturgy of the hours, pilgrimage). In either case it is concerned with the origins and development of liturgical practice. Much of the study is done by the comparative method, developed by Anton Baumstark. This method acknowledges that there are gaps in the historical record and tries to fill in these gaps by comparing one ritual in various places at the same time or one ritual in the same place over a period of time.
For example, we have very little direct evidence of what was done for initiation at Rome in the early fourth century, but we do know what was done in Milan and North Africa in the early fourth century, and we know what was being done in Rome by the early middle ages. We know that in general worship at Rome tended to be similar to Milan and North Africa (whereas Jerusalem and Constantinople had very different traditions). So scholars try to fill in the gaps in our knowledge by looking at the evidence near Rome at the right time period and that in Rome at a later period. Paul Bradshaw’s Search for the Origins of Christian Worship is an indispensable primer to the modern practice of this method.
The historical method also helps scholars determine when and where a document or practice came from. If we find a manuscript fragment of a part of a eucharistic prayer, for example, we can look at specific parts of the prayer that tend to vary by region to help us determine where the prayer might have originated. One interesting example is the pre-sanctus: the part that immediately proceeds the “Holy, Holy Holy Lord” acclamation. This line introduces the acclamation as the praise of the angels, which the earthly assembly is privileged to join. The angelic hosts’ names and descriptions are distinctive from one region to another, however. For example, consider the following pre-sanctus prayers (translations from Jasper and Cuming’s Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed):
East Syriac (Addai and Mari, p. 42): “Your majesty, O Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings adore; myriad myriads of angels, and ranks of spiritual beings, ministers of fire and spirit, together with the holy cherubim and seraphim, glorify your name, crying out and glorifying…”
Egyptian (St. Mark, p. 64): “Beside you stand thousands of thousands and myriads of myriads of [armies of holy] angels and archangels. Bside you stand your two most honorable living creatures, the cherubim with many eyes and the seraphim with six wings . . . . Everything at all times hallows you, but with all that hallow you receive also, Lord and Master, our hallowing, as with them we hymn you and say . . .”
Roman Canon (p 163): “…through whom angels praise your majesty, dominions adore, powers fear, the heavens and the heavenly hosts and the blessed seraphim, joining together in exultant celebration. We pray you, bid our voices also to be admitted with theirs, beseeching you, confessing, and saying . . .”
Clearly, these three regions have distinct variations on this significant (and very beautiful) line.
Case study: contemporary importance of the historical approach
One contemporary, pastoral application of liturgical history has been in Rome’s answer to the question posed by the eucharistic prayer known as Addai and Mari, which is still used by the Assyrian Church of the East. This very ancient anaphora (or eucharistic prayer) does not have an institution narrative, which is the term for the “words of Christ” which are spoken over the gifts on the altar. This section begins by recalling the Last Supper (“On the night he was betrayed…”) and goes on through the words of consecration over the elements (“This is my body …. This is my blood”).
The absence of these words in a eucharistic prayer still used by a living Christian community caused some understandable consternation in Rome, since the Western theological tradition has considered these words to be those that effect the consecration of the Body and Blood of the Lord. (See for example Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIIa, 75, 7 ad 1; IIIa, 78.) For this reason the East Syrian churches in union with Rome, such as the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syro-Malabar Rite Catholic Church, have added an institution narrative to the prayer of Addai and Mari.
The painful situation of the Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians, because of war in their homeland and diaspora elsewhere, has often kept them from being regularly able to receive communion from their own priests. Because of this, in 2001 Rome released a document (“Guidelines for admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East”) allowing members of these two churches, in pastoral necessity, to receive communion from the pastors of the other body. In some cases, of course, this would mean that Catholics would be receiving communion that had been consecrated without the speaking of the institution narrative or words of Jesus.
Addai and Mari is considered valid, according to this document, even without the words of Jesus. The prayer “is notable because, from time immemorial, it has been used without a recitation of the Institution Narrative.” Addai and Mari, as the document continues, “is one of the most ancient Anaphoras, dating back to the time of the very early Church; it was composed and used with the clear intention of celebrating the Eucharist in full continuity with the Last Supper and according to the intention of the Church; its validity was never officially contested, neither in the Christian East nor in the Christian West.” In other words, scholarly consensus on the antiquity and integrity of this prayer was one major consideration (although not the only one, and there is great fruit for reflection in this brief document) which led to its acceptance by Rome.
This leads to the question of what the historical study of the liturgy is for, and I cannot do better than quote Max Johnson’s introduction to his new edited collection, Issues in Eucharistic Praying in East and West:
[N]o one is suggesting that Eucharistic prayers today should be composed without narratives of institution . . . . Anyone who thinks that this is somehow the contemporary agenda behind historical liturgical scholarship today is simply wrong, though it is clear that not long ago history was considered not only instructive but also normative, that somehow the earlier a text might be, the more authoritative it was for contemporary liturgical practice. But liturgical historians do not work that way anymore . . . . The gradual development of liturgical practice involved the positive refinement and enrichment of earlier ways of thinking, speaking, and acting, even if it also tended to bring along with it elements of impoverishment and distortion. But it is only when we have a clearer pictures of the stages of that evolution that we are in a position to make any judgments about which of these trends were of genuine lasting value and which represented a loss of something significant from earlier times.
It seems to me that this kind of evaluation ideally functions as a meeting point of the three subdisciplines of liturgical studies, and that is something I hope to explore in the fourth part of this series.