Teaching Liturgy: Where Do I Begin?

Teaching liturgy today is both a wonderful opportunity and a challenge. There are so many possibilities! Where does one begin? We asked a number of excellent educators to give us a snapshot of where they begin, and why. Here are some of their responses:

In recent years, I have moved away from liturgical “knowledge production” as such in my teaching, and certainly in the first session of the core introductory liturgy course, here at Yale titled “Foundations of Christian Worship.”  Instead, I try to capture my students’ interest, and thereby their imaginations and energies, for the subject-matter of liturgical studies.  [The students who are there for the first session include “shoppers,” i.e. students who are simply taking a look at the course, in order then to decide whether to take it or not; for most of our students, courses in liturgical studies are optional rather than required].

So these days, I begin briefly with a sketch of what liturgical studies attends to, stressing how I was lured to this particular scholarly field, among all the other theological fields, because liturgical studies allows me to do (almost) everything:  history, theology, Bible, ecclesial life and contemporary practice, music, art, architecture, cultural studies, etc.

I then invite students to take a look at a YouTube video that shows a contemporary liturgical events.  In the last two years, my video of choice has been the “JK Wedding Entrance Dance”.  When I ask students to reflect on what they witnessed in this lighthearted video of a very non-traditional wedding entrance and why liturgical studies might be helpful as a conversation partner when trying to understand what is going on here, I find that most of the students present are eager to engage these questions.  Since Yale Divinity School has many different denominations represented, I try to cast the net widely, especially in this first session, so that students from seemingly “non-liturgical” churches understand that liturgical studies engages their worship too.

Teresa Berger teaches at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.


I have the privilege of teaching both undergraduates and graduates at Catholic universities in the Midwest of the United States.  When I teach my undergraduate “Christian Worship” survey course, I normally start by trying to establish what worship might be as a human activity exhibited in many formats and religious traditions and then move to worship practices in Judaism, Greco-Roman state religion, and the mystery religions as contexts for understanding the worship practices of Jesus and the early Christian movements.  I tend to use the framework of “Sanctifying Time, Space, and Life” to categorize the practices we examine.  When I teach graduate students, I normally start by adverting to three major approaches in liturgical studies — historical, theological, and social scientific — and then indicate how the course will attempt to present and synthesize the three perspectives based on the topic we’ll be covering (e.g., Liturgy of the Hours, Rites of Healing, etc.).

Michael Joncas teaches at the University of St. Thomas and at Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary.


I always begin with how the assembly is seated. This wasn’t always so, as parishes usually have an idea for a new piece of liturgical furniture – often a new altar- and at first I was happy to go along with that (I love doodling new designs!).

Gradually however I came to realise that unless we can help a congregation to become a liturgical assembly —  i.e. to gather in a configuration which gets them out of audience mode and into full and active participation — all the new furniture in the world won’t do much good.

A congregation seated in straight rows looking ahead to a liturgical ‘stage’ up front is a group of people waiting to be informed or entertained, not an active community of faith about to do together the work of the people of God. Let’s get them looking as though they mean business, and the rest will follow.

Richard Giles teaches occasionally at a theological college in Durham, U.K., and in parishes upon invitation.

12 comments

  1. Thanks, Rita….the YouTube video is wonderful….would love to hear Ms. Berger’s class on that. You three professors have a huge challenge ahead of you given today’s world.

    Again, don’t want to get off task but Fr. Joncas reminds me of a specific liturgical challenge – teaching liturgy to priest candidates. Reminds me of another talk by Gabe Huck which underlines what many of us have been saying about translation as a symptom – the real threat is liturgical leadership. From a presentation – Formed by the Word, July, 2009 – http://celebrationpublications.org/sites/default/files/conference_presentations/Gabe_Huck.pdf

    Main point:
    – “quoting from SC #14 – Yet it would be futile to entertain any hopes of realizing this unless the pastors, in the first place, become themselves thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy, and undertake to give instruction about it. A prime need, therefore, is that attention be directed, first of all, to the liturgical instruction of the clergy.”
    – ritual has two hearts – we do it by memory; there is no audience
    – Per Roman Guardini – “those whose task it is to educate and teach will have to ask themselves whether they themselves desire the liturgical act or know of its existence, what exactly it consists of, neither luxury or oddity, but a matter of fundamental importance.”

  2. Step One: define “liturgy”.

    One often needs to deal with the mixed assumptions and perceptions which the students bring to the class. It is important to clarify that not all communal or all Christian worship is liturgy and that liturgy relates to but is not the same as private devotions, no matter how large a group participates. There is also a need to deal with the difference between liturgy and its expression in high culture and distinguish the two. National or regional cultures do not have ownership of liturgy either. For Christian liturgy, the origins, additions, and developments need to be mentioned from the beginning.

    An offering: “Liturgy is the official public worship of an organized religion.”

    I think Richard Giles offers a very promising approach.

  3. Huck, “Those who are able and summoned give these
    gifts within the assembly and do so without ever losing that sense that the whole assembly is here doing its work. No audience, no spectators.”

    My own phrasing has been, “Anything which turns the assembly into an audience is counter liturgical.”

  4. I just want to say what a joy it is to see such a smile on Mike Joncas’ face. I don’t give a rip what my RotR comrades think, but from one ’51er’ to another, and what with the stuff he’s endured, I’ll never forget that he’s been faithful to his calling, and he proved that to me a couple of decades ago by affording time to sit with an upstart confrere and sharing his compositional wisdom.
    Don’t contend with joy. Makes one suspect.
    (whisper voice) Mike, don’t ever disavow OEW. I was there right next to you at Chicago 79 NPM. It will always have a place at the table.

  5. I can’t imagine why I would want to take a course in liturgy to learn about what Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, Methodists and Quakers do unless I was shopping for a more entertaining religion than that of my current faith.

    I’m blessed that I am generally content with the liturgy of the Catholic Church even though on occasion my liturgy cop mentality distracts me from worship, my main reason for being present.

    I would think that all Catholic colleges and universities should offer a required course to all students that would cover the faith, philosophy, theology, history, tradition and approved variations in Catholic liturgy.

    Few Catholics ever receive that instruction and most don’t know why they attend Mass other than the fact that they have been told by their parents that they must attend on Sundays and, maybe, Holy Days.

    1. “I can’t imagine why I would want to take a course in liturgy to learn about what Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, Methodists and Quakers do unless I was shopping for a more entertaining religion than that of my current faith.”

      This seems to me a rather limiting point of view, something of a “consumer” mentality. Learning about worship in other traditions, as I see it, is not at all the same as “shopping around.” By developing a wider frame of reference we may come to understand what is our own that much better. But, more importantly, we also understand other people better. Or are you also completely uninterested in Jews, Methodists, and anyone who isn’t Catholic?

      As for entertainment, do we learn foreign languages because we’re bored with English? Do we learn history because we’re no longer entertained by current events? Of course not. We learn about these things because they are part of our world, and we want to be people who understand a great many things. Wisdom comes through study, undertaken with sincerity.

      I am reminded of the comment I sometimes hear while I am at an art museum when someone says “Oh, I would never want that in MY living room!” Of course this can be a lighthearted comment. But the point is that most of the world ISN’T in our living room.

      I can see wanting to understand one’s own tradition first, but once you have your bearings, a broad acquaintance with other traditions of worship can be a truly fascinating and enlivening study.

  6. Ray – would suggest that you take one of these courses by the aforementioned professors. You might find out why they start with the meaning of ritual, liturgy, etc. (separate from any specific confessional expression) and then gradually move to the specific Catholic expression (which is oh so very diverse and historical). The point of a university education is to learn about others, the world, meanings, etc. – not a fundamentalist, rigid, apologia or even catechism (much less focus only on memorizing data). Rather, it is to open doors/windows so that students have the keys to unlocking their own faith, ritual, experiences; analyzing this, and arrive at their own conclusions.
    Would wager that each of these teachers do an admirable job of fulfilling your last paragraph.

  7. Ray – here is a recent presentation by Richard Gaillardetz, theologian, who is heading to Boston College next year. Posted this on another thread but it documents the period you have focused on but gives historical documentation to the trends that impacted the church: http://ncronline.org/news/faith-parish/every-day-chruch-should-give-birth-church

    Summary:
    – “This brings me to the conclusion of my own account of the principal shifts in American Catholicism over the last four decades. I must confess that this narrative was in part fueled by a recent essay by George Weigel that offered a quite different narrative of these past four decades. In his narrative the church of the 70s and 80s was characterized by a flimsy and irresponsible application of conciliar teaching accompanied by an episcopal practice of cultural accommodationism that needed to be corrected by John Paul II’s insistence on fidelity to “settled teaching” and his robust confrontation with the toxic cultural currents of our age. Obviously, I have offered a different narrative. My own narrative revolves around a tension between two legacies: the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II. In principle, I do not believe they are opposed to one another. But in practice one still finds in our church, those eagerly invoking the vision of the council, and others who claim as their principal inspiration, the legacy of John Paul II.”

    – “The principal task of the pastor in their view is to instruct and admonish. However well-meaning they may be, the paternalism inherent in this model of authority affords no place for genuinely listening to or learning from the people they are supposed to serve. Neither is there much room for entertaining respectful criticism for, in this pastoral framework, criticism is equivalent to disobedience and disobedience cannot be tolerated. What is needed is a profound re-imagination of the basic dynamics of ecclesial authority. “

    1. “…criticism is equivalent to disobedience and disobedience cannot be tolerated“

      Yes, I can remember when the people in the parish sought to encourage the pastor to follow the rubrics of the RM, the pastor became indignant. It was not until the “Instruction on the Eucharist” was published that the parish was allowed to receive the tradition of our rite. Thank God for the Holy See!

  8. My social science model of religion (e.g. liturgy) is religious capital (i.e. wealth) = cultural capital (e.g. beliefs and values) + social capital (institutions and their social networks) + human capital (skills, e.g. virtues) + spiritual capital (the asset of a personal relationship to the divine, e.g. prayer). For capital, think accumulated labor as resources rather than money.

    Liturgists tend to focus upon cultural capital, probably because there are plenty of cultural artifacts, including those from history. Until recently, sociologists and psychologists neglected culture and history in favor of studying people in our country and students on campus. Liturgists need the opposite corrections of studying social, human, and spiritual capital.

    Richard Giles approach to liturgy is very refreshing because he emphasizes social capital, i.e. institutions and their networks.

    Institution means any standing pattern of behavior, large or small. The parish is an institution, so are Sunday Masses, greeters, the choir, etc. Multiple particular social networks are generated by parish registration, by Sunday Mass attendance, participating in the choir, etc. The word “community” glosses over the importance of concrete relationships: it easily becomes a belief, value or sentiment devoid of the real relationships of social networks.

    Giles understands that decisions we make about each particular institution, e.g. seating arrangements, influences standing patterns of behavior, and the quantity and quality of social networks.

    The evidence is that religious social capital (as measured by church attendance, and the concrete networks generated by it) has powerful effects upon health, life satisfaction, religious and civic volunteerism, religious and civic philanthropy. More so than non religious networks. We should study and understand the social capital associated with liturgy, each particular institution, e.g choir and its associated network.

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