skip to main content

Celebrating Liturgica Music

Reformation Liturgics

The Reformation reshapes Christian worship

In truth, there is no such thing as “Protestant liturgics.” Instead, there are several different categories under this heading: (1) Evangelical/Lutheran liturgics; (2) Anglican/Episcopal liturgics; (3) Reformed liturgics; and (4) Anabaptist/Free Church liturgics.

The reasons for this stems from (1) the way the Reformation was carried out, and under whose auspices; (2) the theology of the Reformer(s) involved; and (3) the political situation in the country where the Reform was done.

The liturgics of the Evangelical/Lutheran reformation and that of the Anglican/Episcopal reformation are both based in a sacramental understanding of the universe, which sees the gift of salvation and of grace mediated to the recipient through the sacrament properly administered. Because of this understanding, the concept of worship as being a spiritual and a physical event (i.e., an incarnational understanding of worship), both of these traditions maintained the visual, aural, tactile (and sometimes olfactory) elements which had been handed down from the medieval Church: candles, vestments, altar, cross/crucifix, chanted/chorally led services, the physical elements such as the sign of the cross, kneeling for certain portions of the service and for the reception of Holy Communion, the celebration of the liturgical year, the provision of a lectionary, processions, ceremonies which are not commanded by the Gospel for the celebration of the sacraments (the sign of the cross at Baptism, the use of rings in the marriage rite, the christening garment, etc.) and sometimes (rarely) the use of incense. In both of these traditions, the day was still hallowed by the celebration of Matins (Morning Prayer) and Evensong (Evening Prayer). In both of these traditions, the provision was made for private confession and absolution. Many people who use that designation to describe themselves do not consider many of these things at all “protestant” (and, indeed, even in the churches descended from these Reforms, not all of these things have endured to this day). Nonetheless, it is obvious from a thorough examination of Evangelical/Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopal liturgics that they have solid roots in the medieval Western liturgies.

In both of these traditions, the concept of the ministry as ordained by God was very strong. In the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, this meant the continuation of the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon, ordained by the laying on of hands by a bishop who had, himself, been ordained by a bishop. The Evangelical/Lutheran view, deriving its understanding of the ordained ministry more from Scholastic theology than from the history of the Church, maintained that the ministry was in fact unitary; that every priest is a bishop, and that bishops are only priests who have the oversight (episkope) over other priests. In some Lutheran countries, the oversight ministry was exercised by superintendents; in others (Norway, Sweden, and Iceland); the title bishop was retained. The post-Reformation Evangelical/Lutherans did not maintain the diaconate, though it would be re-invented in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Not incidentally, the Evangelical/Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopal reformations were the cause of a great deal of liturgical music. Both of these traditions fostered the concept of music as the “handmaiden of theology,” and maintained choral institutions at universities and large urban churches. For this reason, the treasury of sacred music intended specifically for the liturgy (both Eucharistic liturgy and the Liturgy of the Hours) was greatly enriched by the composers of these traditions.

In stark contrast to these movements, the Reformed theologians took the Church in a direction diametrically opposed to the Church of the Middle Ages. The work of the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, for example, completely altered the liturgy, abolished most of the church year, did away with the lectionary concept of Scripture reading (replacing it with a continuous reading of whole books of the Bible), destroyed the images and vestments in the churches, and kept “as little ceremony as possible” (these are the reformer’s own words). He also reduced the celebration of the Eucharist to four times a year, which was to become the standard for many Protestants who were, in fact, not of the Reformed branch of the Reformation. To insure that the four celebrations of the Lord’s Supper had nothing to do with the traditional church year, a system of “quarterly” communion was set up, on the first Sundays in March, June, September, and December. As opposed to the historic liturgies of the East and West, Zwingli had as his intention a reenactment of the Lord’s Supper as recorded in the Holy Scripture. On the many Sundays when the Lord’s Supper was not to be celebrated, Zwingli observed a liturgy of the Word, derived from the medieval “Prone,” (a form of prayer, which included a sermon).

Of the Reformers, Zwingli was the most ardently anti-sacramental. His concept of the sacraments as nuda signa, (signs only, not conveyors of grace) was not shared by his French counterpart, John Calvin, or his Scots counterpart, John Knox. In fact, the first Scots Confession said of Zwingli’s teaching, “We utterly damn the vanity of those who affirm sacraments to be nothing else but naked and bare signs.” TheCalvinistPresbyter-ian understanding, for example, of the Lord’s Supper is listed in the same document: “We spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we be one with Christ, and Christ with us.” Unlike Zwingli, the work of Calvin in Geneva and that of Knox in the Church of Scotland, had printed orders of worship.

There are many areas of coincidence between Evangelical/Lutheran and Reformed worship, but the visual and physical differences were profound. Several other striking differences include the increase of intercessory prayer, the strong and constant interest in extemporary prayer, and the role of music in worship. Zwingli actually forbade the use of music in public worship. Calvin fostered the use of the congregational singing of the psalms through the vehicle of the metrical Psalter (the work of Clement Marot, Theodore Beza in the texts and Louis Bourgeois in the music), but even he insisted they be sung, not in harmony, but in unison and unaccompanied by instruments.

Finally, the Reformation produced the family of churches, which are identified as Anabaptists (i.e., those who rebaptize adults who had been previously baptized as children). The primary thing, which split the Anabaptists from both the Lutherans and the Reformed, was their total rejection of infant baptism as unscriptural and unreasonable. They also understood the Lord’s Supper to be a memorial of the passion of the Savior, but not a means of grace. The movement laid great emphasis on simplicity of life and communitarian values, many of which caused them to be persecuted by Lutherans and Reformed as well as Roman Catholics. The liturgical forms observed by the Anabaptists are many and varied, but always simple and with a great deal of exhortation. The concept of “sacrament” was replaced by that of “ordinance,” doing something commanded by the Lord Jesus—but something that was an example or demonstration of the faith of the person observing, not a means of grace that the Lord would use to change his followers. Because of the “represtinational” character of the Lord’s Supper in this tradition, one often sees the coupling of the Lord’s Supper with the Washing of the Feet, followed by a “Love Feast” (agape), following what seemed to be scriptural testimony. While hymnody was developed among the Anabaptists, the use of choirs and of musical instruments was forbidden.

By observing these basic characteristics of the Protestant movement’s different understanding of what worship is, it becomes very clear that there is no such thing as “Protestant liturgics.” Rather, each of these traditions developed in a different way, with a greater or lesser connection to the worship of the medieval Western Church. It is necessary to examine each of them separately in order to understand how worship changed in the several traditions.


J. Michael Thompson

- Back to Top -