Varieties of liturgical studies, 1: Liturgical history

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

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.


  1. Having an understanding of liturgical history, actual history and not a sanitized account, is often, sadly, contrasted with having faith or accepting the liturgy in a religious way. I believe, on the contrary, that the study of history is integral to a right understanding of the liturgy; if we don’t take history seriously, we build on fantasies of the past. Thanks, Kim, for illuminating the foundational importance of liturgical history for liturgical studies.

  2. “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.”

    If one is thinking in terms of an evolutionary model, some species of liturgy that were very appropriate for certain sociological niches, may not be appropriate for today. They might even have not been appropriate for all the places in which they were used in the past.

    Many liturgies developed in court and monastic settings because those settings had great resources (human and financial) to assist in that development. Their spread beyond their original settings may have had much to do with the lack of resources elsewhere.

    Of course all this is complicated by the problem of historical sources. Not only is data missing from geographic areas and time periods but also from social locations. Much of the surviving evidence comes from elite social locations, not only court and monastic but even the cathedral. The average Christian’s experience of liturgy might have been very different from its experience in elite locations..

    The historical study of Scripture first focused upon the texts in relative isolation but relatively ignored the social and cultural situations which shaped the production and transmission of the texts. It seems to me that the study of Liturgy is a little behind in making this transition. Perhaps that has a lot to do with my limited language skills. Fr. Taft often made the point that language skills were essential to the study of liturgy, both the languages of the liturgies themselves and also the language of the scholarly communities. In Scripture studies, a sociological historical approach began early in Germany, perhaps it’s the same in liturgy.

  3. The average Christian’s experience of liturgy might have been very different from its experience in elite locations..
    To be sure. I would still like to know what parish liturgies were like outside Rome. Let us say in a small farm town outside the city in the first few centuries. We have so very little information. Almost all of it from papal liturgies which are only a fraction of the Church’s liturgical experience.
    I find it very hard to believe everyone throughtout Italy was copying the court-style masses in the Roman basilicas.

    1. Well said, Dunstan.

      It would be interesting to know more about what liturgies were like in Rome apart from the stational liturgy of the papal court, i.e., the tituli of the city and the martyrium shrines. The fact of the matter is that we have extremely little to go on prior to the fifth century — and then there is still a relative paucity of data until the mid-sixth.

  4. Dunstan and Cody,

    Ramsay MacMullen’s Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400, published in 2009 by SBL, focused upon the archeological data for church buildings of this period. They were mostly suburban cemeteries where the cult of the martyrs was practiced; there were far fewer churches in the center city.

    Those in the center city were far too small for the Christian population and served only the elite. Large portions of these “cathedral” churches were given over to the clergy, e.g. the many presbyters and deacons.

    “The scale of the martyr-cult is clear both in the ample remains of memorial churches and in their number. This was where the action was. This was where the priest or bishop met with his congregation in the largest numbers – so the physical remains indicate in the west and the written descriptions show in the eastern cities.”

    MacMullen argues the these “roofed over cemeteries” were more popular since they included more social classes. They were closer to paganism since they included the meals with the dead of pagan piety. In regard to Rome, Constantine “memorialized communion with the dead in those six huge basilicas (in suburbs) each with a capacity equaling or close to that of St. Peter’s itself. That fact invites reflection.”

    Much of our theorizing about the liturgy is based upon its “cathedral” form for the Eucharist, the rites of initiation and the liturgy of the hours. But the vast majority of Christians rarely went to those “cathedrals.”

    This book is an excellent example of the interdisciplinary nature of the study of liturgy combining archeology with social history. Wonder what has been the reaction among historians of the liturgy?

    As a social scientist who, unlike a social historian, does not hesitate to bring social theory and modern sociological data to the table, I see MacMullen’s data differently.

    Has anyone read this book?.

  5. Knowing that we are on an historical journey that isn’t over is so important in maintaining perspective.

    Sandra Schneiders has commented that “we are probably the first generation in history to know that we are historical agents.”

    She identifies five dysfunctional attitudes to history:

    1. The earliest historical account is the best;
    2. There exists in the past some classical, paradigmatic golden period;
    3. Historical changes are superficial modifications of some enduring essence;
    4. No one period of history is more pertinent or valuable than any other;
    5. History refers only to the past.

    I think we all sometimes have one or more of these attitudes.

    I can’t find her article online, but it’s called “Reflections on the history of religious life and contemporary development”, in Turning points in religious life, edited by Carol Quigley. Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics: 13-34. 1988.

    1. Graham,

      Thanks very much for this article!

      Less we become discouraged by Schneider’s usual brilliant critique, she presents a positive model of dealing with history in Finding the Treasure (2000), Chapter 2 Religious Life as an Organic LifeForm (41-98)

      Critiquing the above critiques in terms of the later model I would say:

      1. In the biological evolutionary model the earliest examples while in some way defining the appearance of the lifeform are not necessarily its only or even best examples.

      2. While there may be certain golden ages (situations) for a species, the picture at the genus and family levels, etc may be very different. Golden ages at one period of history do not necessary predict golden ages at future periods.

      3. While the biological model allows for something like a common essence, the modifications are anything but superficial. Indeed overtime modifications may allow for a redefinition of the lifeform. However the lifeform is not endlessly modifiable, at some point a sufficient mutation suggests the need for recognizing a new lifeform.

      4. Of course for the understanding of the lifeform one needs the whole organic picture

      5. Finally the past or even the present state of a lifeform is not its total history; for that we would have to have the future which might include many substantial new variants, golden ages, etc.

      Having not seen the 1988 article, I don’t know if she deals with the lifeform model there. It seems that the 1988 article plus here 2000 lifeform article might be an interesting way to think about comparative liturgy.

      Perhaps another argument for multidisciplinary perspectives on the liturgy.

      1. It seems that the 1988 article plus here 2000 lifeform article might be an interesting way to think about comparative liturgy.

        Yes, that would be an intriguing discussion. Liturgy is after all a living thing.

        Perhaps another argument for multidisciplinary perspectives on the liturgy.

        … and perspectives on the theology of salvation upon which the liturgy rests, which brings us to two of the fundamental, big-picture questions in the history/theology/science interface:

        How special are we and how special is Christ to us and to the universe?

        What does theology have to say about our extinction before the end of the world, or perhaps more interestingly, about our continuing to evolve, perhaps into some other species of Homo? There is no reason to think that the one to ten million year average life span that has applied to other species down the ages should not apply to us; after all, 99 percent of all species that have ever lived are extinct.

        And what if we colonise space, thereby increasing our chances of survival? Christ has a special relationship to humankind and by extension to the rest of creation. But what about other sentient moral life that may exist in other places in the universe, or may yet evolve here on earth? Do they need (a) Christ, and what does the answer to that question say about Christ?

    2. Please confirm or correct my understanding of what seems to be a double negative, Schneiders says it is dysfunctional to believe that no one period of history is more valuable than any other.

      That seems to reduce to saying that there is usually a period of history which is more valuable than others.

      Should item four read [as a dysfunctional statement]:
      “One period of history is more pertinent or valuable than any other”?

      Or is the point that there often IS one period of history which is more pertinent?

  6. Jack & Graham – good points. You remind me of my historian craft……the best histories are interpretation built on facts. Some histories ultimately fail because their interpretation is:
    – not accurate to the facts;
    – can be obviously seen as apologetical or agenda driven
    – can fail because new facts are discovered that significantly changes the initial interpretation
    – revisionist historians run a real risk if their interpretation is not based on accurate facts but on a current ideology e.g. C. Beard’s US history that saw all history as driven by economics (that is only one nuance among many when interpreting history)

    Here is another interesting topic (EF as one of two forms; not a concession and what SP means) that we have addressed repeatedly – the impact of SP on liturgy.

    Read this extended article/interview by J. Allen –

    Gets to some of the recent blogs in which “orthodox” is seen as THE correct interpretation of liturgy; it addresses some who appeal to the “spirit of VII” to justify any interpretation.


    “When Pope Benedict XVI installed the old Mass in 2007 as an “extraordinary form” of the Roman rite, it was therefore understood as an olive branch for the Lefebvrite movement.”

    “For many places it’s regularized what was previously deemed exceptional. Prior to the motu proprio, priests had to have special permission to celebrate the Tridentine form. Now priests don’t need special permission, because while the Tridentine form isn’t necessarily normative, it has its place in the larger context of the liturgical life of the church.”

    “The motu proprio is serving a niche, a need felt by a small number of the faithful.”

    “….the extraordinary form can help shape the regular liturgical experience — not by taking on its trappings or externals, but by calling attention to the importance of celebrating faithfully…

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