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Protestant Liturgics

Protestantism in its myriad contemporary forms is mostly known for not being liturgical. Of all the major Protestant bodies, only the high Anglican in England is liturgical in the historic sense of the term, although the Lutherans and Episcopalians (in America) consider themselves liturgical in a broader sense of the term.

The question arises: if Christianity came into being with a clearly defined form of liturgical worship with origins in Judaism, and if all forms of Christianity were liturgical up until the Protestant Reformation, why is there so little liturgical worship and music in Protestantism?

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The fact is that the Reformers made a clearly conscious decision in the area of liturgics and liturgical music, as they did in theology and doctrine.

Liturgical music did not come into being as a musical form for aesthetic purposes. It developed within the Judeo-Christian tradition as both a core part of the worship experience, and as a means of enhancing or beautifying that experience. The experience uniformly centered around a universal event: the Eucharist. That is to say, while the Orthodox liturgy or Roman mass contains other elements (such as corporate prayer, scripture reading, and homily or sermon, most of which can be traced back to the structure of the Jewish synagogue service), the focus and movement of the service is toward the consecration of the elements to become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. This sacramental orientation is fundamental to the liturgical nature of traditional Christian worship.

One of the principal notions of the Protestant Reformation was the attempt to refute sacramentality. With that came a necessary reduction or loss of the liturgical sensibility. Within a short time after the beginning of the Reformation, many Protestant denominations rejected liturgical worship along with sacramentality and adopted a different ethos and approach to worship. Most Protestants know little about the dynamics of the Reformation, especially regarding liturgical worship and the connection of doctrine and practice. They may acknowledge a feeling of awe and mystery when they enter a great cathedral, and may be greatly moved by glorious liturgical music. But they recognize that these are foreign to their Protestant practices.

In his book, The Shape of the Liturgy, Gregory Dix, himself a Protestant, makes a very clear contrast between Protestantism and Puritanism which can help clarify this. He points out that the Lord never condemned the elaborate ceremonial worship of the Jerusalem Temple, and that not only did the Apostolic Christians worship there, but second century Christians still found it natural to think of Eucharistic worship in terms of the ceremonious worship of the Temple. In Western society and culture we are generally unaware of these historical realities, and so Dix's description may help:

"The truth is that the English puritan's crusade against all forms of sensuous beauty in worship has had more effect than we realize upon our notion of the worship of the primitive church. It disconcerts us to find that that church did not share the puritan theory of worship so far as corporate worship was concerned. No small part of our liturgical difficulties in the Church of England come from confusing two things: Protestantism a purely doctrinal movement of the sixteenth century, confined to Western Christianity and closely related to certain doctrinal aspects of fifteenth century Western Catholicism, from which it derived directly by way both of development and reaction; and Puritanism which is a general theory about worship, not specifically protestant nor indeed confined to Christians of any kind. It is the working theory upon which all Mohammedan worship is based. It was put as well as by anybody by the Roman poet Persius or the pagan philosopher Seneca in the first century, and they are only elaborating a theses from Greek philosophical authors going back to the seventh century B.C. Briefly, the puritan theory is that worship is a purely mental activity, to be exercised by a strictly psychological 'attention' to a subjective emotional or spiritual experience. For the puritan this is the essence of worship, and all external things which might impair this strictly mental attention have no rightful place in it. At the most they are to be admitted grudgingly and with suspicion, and only in so far as practice shows that they stimulate the 'felt' religious experience or emotion. Its principal defect is its tendency to 'verbalism', to suppose that words alone can express or stimulate the act of worship. Over against this puritan theory of worship stands another the 'ceremonious' conception of worship, whose foundation principle is that worship as such is not a purely intellectual and affective exercise, but one in which the whole man body as well as soul, his aesthetic and volitional as well as his intellectual powers must take full part. It regards worship as an 'act' just as much as an 'experience'. The accidental alliance of protestant doctrine with the puritan theory of worship in the sixteenth century may have been natural, and was as close in England as anywhere. But it was not inevitable. The early Cistercians were profoundly puritan, but they were never protestant. The thorough Protestantism of the Swedish Lutherans, with their vestments and lights and crucifixes, has never been puritan.

"The puritan conception of worship may be right or wrong in itself But from the point of view of history we have to grasp the fact that there was little in antiquity to suggest to the church that it was even desirable for Christians." [1]

Protestantism has very limited liturgical traditions and a small body of liturgical music for a reason. The early Protestant reformers, having rejected historic Christian sacramentality, struggled mightily with the liturgical rite, and changed it substantially to match their new "reformed" doctrine and theology. Within forty years of the Reformation, many Protestant sects had created entirely new and different liturgies which were in harmony with the newly defined theology and doctrine.

The real focal point of the sixteenth century Reformation controversies was not early Christian liturgical worship or even the New Testament it was the medieval Western rite of 1500, which was the only liturgical rite that the Reformers had ever used. The liturgical, theological and doctrinal debates of the Reformation took place within this limited context. The result on the part of the Protestants was to re-create worship by significantly modifying, or even re-creating, the liturgy. This effort was very challenging, and the new liturgies were very different than what had gone before. Most of the "old liturgical music," therefore, was replaced by new compositions that met the current need. Luther, for example, composed hundreds of new hymns. Naturally, if there is no litany in the service, the Kyrie is replaced by something else, etc. Dix points out that it was in fact the very struggle to change the liturgics of Protestantism that caused many of the new sects to move toward Puritanism by moving worship to the level of an intellectual experience with little or no ceremonial form.

The Protestant churches, which initially kept liturgical forms and music that were consistent with Roman liturgics, gradually saw many of the forms change over time as theology and doctrine itself changed in Western Europe. Many of the motivations of the Reformers were well intended. The medieval Roman rite had reached a point where the role of the people had been reduced or lost. The celebration of the Eucharist had been reduced to something to watch rather something in which to participate.

Decisions made at the time of the Reformation about sacramentality and worship substantially changed the Protestant approach and practice of liturgics.

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Bejamin D. Williams


[1] Dix, Gregory; The Shape of the Liturgy; Seabury Press, New York, 1982, p. 312.

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