Teaching Liturgy and forming liturgical leaders: history, theology, spirituality and practice

In our ‘sometime Pray Tell  series’ of approaches and practices for teaching liturgy at the MDiv level, here is another version of fitting liturgy into the often overcrowded curriculum of preparing students for ordination.

First, a word about the context in which the following liturgy courses are taught: I teach at a Canadian school, on a Faculty of Theology embedded in a liberal arts university college (Huron University College, about 1200 students) which is part of a large research university (University of Western Ontario, about 32,000 students, in London, Ontario). Huron was the founding school of the whole university, begun in 1863 as a theological college for the training of Anglican priests. There are three other religious institutions which are part of the Western umbrella: St. Peter’s Seminary (a Roman Catholic diocesan seminary for London, which draws students preparing for priesthood, lay ministry and the permanent diaconate); King’s University College, a co-ed public Roman Catholic University College also affiliated with Western; and Brescia University College, a women’s college affiliated with Western begun in 1919 by the Ursuline Sisters. Students can take classes at Western and at other university colleges, and MDiv students from Huron have often gone to St. Peter’s to take classes.

While Huron is officially an Anglican school, there is some ecumenical mix in the MDiv, and particularly in the MTS and the MA degree programs, as well as the several certificate programs offered through Huron and the undergraduate degree program in theology (Huron also offers Islamic Studies). The MDiv requires one liturgical studies course for all its MDiv students, and a second course for the Anglican students covering presiding (which is sufficiently generous in time to also be a course in the sacraments). This means that all the sub-fields and nuances of liturgy are crammed (and that seems an apt word) into a one-half term class (= in US parlance, one semester). This course has been called “Introduction to Liturgical Theology” for many years. Some details about the course:

  • The students have theoretically taken a year of scripture and a year of church history before entering the course, many have also taken systematic theology or are doing so concurrently with this liturgical studies course.
  • I continue to be surprised at the reality that the course is truly introductory for so many students. From the word ‘liturgy’, to the surprise that it is a broad and interdisciplinary field, this is a new world for many. This means that the course begins by mapping the field (beginning with the umbrella of sacramentality), including an overview of the ecumenical liturgical movement(s), and a theological grounding for the study of sacramentality and liturgy (particularly incarnation and paschal mystery – which bridges to their systematic theology studies). For this section, and later topics, I use my own book written to map the field (Sacramentality Renewed), along with a number of essays from different voices.
  • Next, we move to an introduction to the shifts in the historical study of liturgy (linking liturgy to scripture studies and moving from philology alone to material culture and various comparative studies). I have found Teresa Berger’s Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical Historyas well as parts of Liturgy’s Imagined Past/s  (edited by Berger and Bryan Spinks) helpful in shaping a different approach to viewing history rather than events that once happened and are therefore fixed.
  • The course moves to applying that to one sacramental example to trace how history is theology (this fall, it is the history of the eucharist). Here I have tried several different ‘textbooks’ for this section, and have returned this year to Gary Macy’s older, but clear The Banquet’s Wisdom: A Short History of the Theologies of the Lord’s Supperaugmented by a variety of articles focusing on narrower applications of each historical period of theological development. This term, we are also using Max Johnson’s collection of primary sources, Sacraments and Worshipas a resource and additional text.
  • After the somewhat rushed overview of eucharistic theology (almost exclusively western because of time considerations), we move to a contemporary review of multiple eucharistic theologies which allows for an introduction to a number of different liturgical theologians and historians, here deliberately an ecumenical mix including some of the newer voices in sacramental theology from evangelical circles (as well as issues of culture & liturgy, liturgy & ethics, and contemporary issues in churches today)
  • Ritual studies is introduced by several assigned readings, a limited amount of class discussion time, and through a guided liturgical ethnographical exercise in visiting a liturgy not of their own tradition (the ethnographic tool is adapted from the work of several former GTU colleagues, including Mary McGann and Bill Cieslak).
  • Some pastoral application happens in conversation and questions (this course is part lecture, part seminar), as well as in a concise application to the actual liturgies (in this case eucharistic liturgies) in the Book of Common Prayer (1962 Canada), the Book of Alternative Services (1985 Canada), and other rites books determined by the ecumenical or international make-up of the class. For Canadian Anglican students, this application is complicated by the fact that they must learn two different rites (BCP and BAS).
  • The basics of all Huron classes (learn how to speak, learn how to write clearly and concisely) are supported by a series of reading reflections which include class presentations.
  • The third assessment (after attendance, preparation and participation and the ethnographic exercise) is either a final research paper (the option chosen by the majority) or a project that is focused on taking the material in this class and translating it to adult education in a parish
  • The multiplicity of authors assigned through the term engages students with the ecumenical breadth and depth of ongoing writing in the field – a ‘textbook’ would not work in a class covering all these different aspects.

The second course, entitled Liturgical Leadership, applies history, theology, and ritual studies to the actual doing of the rites. Because of the generosity of time (I have had to previously teach this in one and a half hours a week, this is a full 3 hours a week), we have time to separate each sacramental rite by a “review” (which for some is an introduction), to that rite in its theology and ritual shape, before actually doing the rites. The course covers:

  • a review of the impact of the social sciences on the field of liturgical studies, focused on presiding (embodiment, nonverbal language, etc)
  • Reviews eucharistic shape and theology (especially if there has been a gap in time from when the students to the introductory course) before several applications of eucharistic liturgies
  • reviews the rites of initiation (including the catechumenate very briefly) before doing an initiation in class
  • sets the celebrations in a variety of feasts and seasons
  • reviews and then models a wedding
  • reviews and then models anointing of the sick and ecclesial rites with the dying
  • reviews and then models private confession
  • reviews anad then models funerals

Because of the student body and time limitations, this course is focused on Anglican rites. Several non-Anglican students have taken it in my time here, and when they are in the course, the pattern of theological and ritual introduction-the doing of the rite-and the group conversation following always include a comparison of similarities and differences between the Anglican rites and other ecclesial patterns.

The rites are ‘done’ (understanding that these are not actual sacramental ecclesial rites as necessary elements for validity are missing) as fulsomely as possible so that the roles of lay liturgical leadership, diaconal, and presbyteral roles are all covered, the sense of timing and moving from one liturgical unit to another can be experienced, and the shifting from the dynamic of one-to-one to one-to-many that is part of each liturgical rite can be engaged. As is usual in these courses, the students are videotaped and must review the tapings, plus there is a guided critique and discussion following each rite. The pattern of preparation, execution and reflection on the leading of liturgy is designed to be a model for use in the parish. The texts are limited – the primary texts are the liturgical books themselves in addition to several essays, plus Julia Gatta & Martin L. Smith’s Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessionsas well as The Study of Liturgy and Worship edited by Juliette Day & Benjamin Gordon-Taylor.

There are, in addition to these two courses, a number of electives offered over a three year pattern, which many students avail themselves of, including The Liturgical Year, Rites with the Sick, Dying, and Dead, Rites of Initiation, Eastern Christian History, Grieving in Public (Disaster Rituals), and Contemporary Eucharistic Theologies. 


  1. Thanks for posting this Lizette. The course on Liturgical Leadership is something sorely needed in French seminaries. Every year seminarians come to my community for their ordination retreat (future deacons and future priests) and they nearly always ask for training (I use the word deliberately, it’s what they’re looking for) in the liturgical aspects of their ministry. What they need of course is what you teach: formation in liturgical leadership and presiding. I can’t possibly do that in a few hours during the few days they spend here, but I try do do what I can! And whenever I get the chance, I explain to bishops that seminaries should be doing this. The inevitable answer is that is urgent to do nothing. They’re clearly afraid of conflicts within seminaries, and seminarians becoming obsessed with rubrical minutiae. But of course the lack of formation produces just that, although the conflicts may get put off until they’re in parishes. They try to pick up what they can from various websites, heavy on rubrics and light on theology (including pastoral theology). It’s the People of God who get to deal with the results.

  2. Thank you Lizette. I’m interested that you mention ‘newer voices in sacramental theology from evangelical circles’, something I’m not really familiar with. Would you be able to share more about that please?

    1. Hi Martyn – I’ll have to confess that part of my inclusion of some of these resources is because they are interesting to me, and part is to make a statement against the bias of reformed Christian students who think sacamentality is something for ‘catholics’ alone… So, for example, Simon Chan, “Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community”, 2006; Hans Boersma, “Heavenly Participation: the weaving of a sacramental tapestry”, 2011; Graham R. Hughes, “Reformed Sacramentality” 2017 are resources I’ve used. With a couple MA students, I have used the massive scope of James K. A. Smith’s three volume set (“Desiring the Kingdom”, “Imagining the Kingdom”, and “Awaiting the King”) but they are a bit overwhelming for what I need in the introductory course. I’m using the word ‘evangelical’ fairly freely – some would claim the title, others would prefer ‘reformed’….

  3. Thank you Christopher – I taught “celebrational styles” with one of my Jesuit professors for 5 years at the school formerly known as JSTB – there was a little push back from students, but overwhelmingly it was a positive experience for all of us. I think having a chance to learn the rubrics (or the options within the rubrical field), and carefully making those choices, along with issues of inculturation, language, and more, are really helpful – I know I do not have to convince you, but in parishes it comes down to needing to know both HOW to do the liturgy and WHY we’re doing it this way. The latter is something lay leaders want to know, and I’ve witnessed the crash and burn too often….

  4. Thanks for the post, Lizette! I hope you’re doing well!

    When I was studying for the MDiv, Lizette you might remember which, my theologate did not have a liturgical/sacramental theologian on its faculty at the time. This gave me an opportunity to branch out and think creatively of how I wanted to fulfill my program’s course components. (Also, during this time, I served as the student liturgy coordinator and it was also during the flurry of welcoming the new translation of the Roman Missal. Doozy.)

    In the course breakdown of the MDiv, lay students choose between either a preaching or a lay presiding course; I chose the latter. (In fact, the three other lay students in my MDiv cohort took preaching – I was the only one who took lay presiding.)

    I was fortunate enough to propose a special readings course on liturgical theology and inculturation course with Ricky Manalo, CSP and Mark Francis CSV. Later, to fulfill my “practical” liturgy course, I proposed another special readings course with Mary McGann, RSCJ on the art of liturgical prayer and presiding. For this, we used Robert Hovda’s Strong, Loving and Wise and Kathleen Hughes RSCJ’s Lay Presiding. (Eventually, I did get exposure to crafting a scriptural reflection within the course.) She even encouraged ethnographic research on presiding styles at different churches.

    As I reflect back, what made it valuable was that McGann assigned the prolegomena of all the Rites for me to be familiar with, especially for those, as a lay person, I wont be leading. This has helped me not only in my own understanding of baptismal dignity, and the communal, hierarchical nature of liturgy, but of why we do what we do and how the liturgy teaches us much more than what any book or syllabus can.

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