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Celebrating Liturgica Music

Medieval Worship

It is impossible to adequately understand the changes that occurred in the liturgical practices of the Reformation and the Protestant churches that developed from it, without having some understanding of the medieval conception and practice of liturgics in the Western Roman Rite out of which they sprang. This process took place over many centuries, culminating in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

There were many components, but among the most important were a) the development of a personal piety on the part of the average lay person in place of corporate participation in the liturgical and eucharistic action; b) the distancing of the laity from the clergy physically (by the introduction of the high screen separating clergy and laity, among other things), and sacramentally, and c) the development of various services that undercut the corporate nature of the Eucharistic and liturgical action.

Gregory Dix, upon whom as an Anglican we will be dependent, summarizes it this way: "If we put all these things — the isolation of the priesthood of the priest from the corporate offering; the false theory of a separate value of the sacrifice of the mass from the sacrifice of Calvary; the elimination of the layman's 'liturgy' of offering and communion, which makes the holy communion (in practice) a part of the celebrant's 'liturgy' and nobody else's; the reduction of the laity's part in the rite to 'seeing' and 'hearing' (the latter being reduced very much in importance through the use of Latin, which placed an over-emphasis on 'seeing' the consecrated sacrament); — and in consequence of all these, the placing of the whole devotional emphasis in the rite on the consecration and conversion of the elements — if we put all these things together, we can see what the medieval liturgical development is doing. It is steadily building up the material for all the doctrinal controversies about the Eucharist in the sixteenth century." [1]

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Emphasizing Personal Piety

The development of personal piety on the part of the laity grew out of the scholasticism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that centered on the debates about the relation between the elements (bread and wine) and the Body and Blood of Christ, and how the mystery was effected. This pietistic development in reaction to the changing theological understanding of the Eucharist moved the laity further away from the Eucharistic action and to infrequent communion (a practice absolutely foreign to the early Church which had been developing since at least the eighth century).

An added consequence was the separation of the role and action of clergy from that of the laity, so that the liturgy, and specifically the Eucharistic action, was no longer celebrated together (i.e. co-celebrated) but celebrated by the clergy on behalf of the laity. The Western Roman Rite developed into three forms: the pontifical Mass, "a form recognizably derived from the way of doing the Eucharist practiced in the pre-Nicene church" [2]; a high Mass which was an eighth century simplification, but one that tended to emphasize the place of clergy rather than of laity; and finally the low Mass. The low Mass was performed publicly with laity in attendance, but said in a low voice, quite short in length, and mainly a convenience for the clergy to celebrate the liturgy frequently, and within which the laity seldom received communion.

The result of all these changes in theological understanding of the Eucharist and the corresponding liturgical modifications replaced the ancient corporate worship of the Eucharist with a personal subjective devotion on the part of each worshipper. In the place of the reception of the Eucharist, what grew up was a set of Eucharistic devotions, frequently developed and taught to the laity by the clergy. These devotions set forth meditations to be followed by the laity in place of entering into the Eucharistic action, and in place of participating in the Eucharistic prayers (which were in Latin and generally not understood).

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The Change in Understanding the Eucharist

The practical consequence was that "all this devotional exercise is suggested by and accompanies the eucharistic action, but is no part of it. It goes on entirely within the individual worshipper's own mind. Meanwhile the liturgical action, performed exclusively by the priest and server, proceeds in front of the layman in complete detachment from him." [3] Not only were the laity being excluded from the action, they were given a different role to play, almost the opposite of the role of the laity in the early Church.

In terms of faith and practice, as well as theology and doctrine, the most significant result of all this change in Eucharistic theology and rite was the loss of the eschatological conception of the Eucharistic rite for the Western church. Instead of a focus on the Resurrection and Ascension (transcendent, timeless and eternal aspects of the faith), the emphasis shifted to the Passion of Calvary (an event within history). While the clergy still said the Eucharistic prayers that contained the timeless and eternal, the laity did not hear or understand them, and their focus was on a suffering body nailed to a cross, and in meditations on the suffering of Jesus.

The Passion is totally in the past because it is in history. There are only two ways for the Church to participate in an historic Passion in the past: either mentally by remembering and imagining it, or by some sort of repetition of it. In other words, if the Eucharist was to have any reality outside of the mental remembering, then there was a need for a fresh sacrifice. This forced the medieval understanding of the reality of the Eucharistic sacrifice, that the priest sacrifices Christ anew at each Mass.

This was the theological and liturgical understanding that the Reformers were taught and possessed prior to the Reformation, and having rejected the notion of the reality of the Eucharistic sacrifice, they had no recourse but to enter into the historical passion by remembering and imagining it.

"There was no other way by which the reality of the eucharistic sacrifice could be preserved on the medieval understanding of it; yet the unbroken tradition of liturgy itself continued to state a different viewhere was no escaping the idea that the priest sacrifices Christ afresh at every mass. However hard they tried to conciliate this view of the matter with the doctrine of the Epistle to the Hebrews of the one oblation for sins, perfect and complete (so far as history is concerned), on Calvary. The medieval theologians, and the party of the English Reformation, never quite got away from the necessity of defending the reality of the eucharistic sacrifice.

"The Reformerstook the other alternative. Since the passion is wholly in the past, the church now can only enter into it purely mentally, by remembering and imagining it. There is for them, therefore, no real sacrifice whatever in the Eucharist. The external rite is at the most an acted memorial, reminding us of something no longer present. There is nothing but a 'figurative' meaning in such phrases as 'to eat the Body and drink the Blood' of Christ, which are, as Cranmer so often insisted, no longer here but in heaven. At the most we are then especially moved by the tokens or pledges of a redemption achieved centuries ago to rejoice and believe that we have been redeemed long ago on Calvary, and to renew our allegiance and gratitude to our Redeemer. We have 'communion' with Him when we take the bread and wine as He bade us to do 'in remembrance' of Him, because the mere obedience stimulates devout emotions and aspirations, and thus deepens our purely mental union with Him which we have by conscious faith.

"All that constitutes the eucharistic action on this view is the individual reception of the bread and wine. But this in only a 'token'. The real eucharistic action (if 'action' is not a misleading term) takes place mentally in the isolated secrecy of the individual's mind. The eucharistic action is thereby altogether deprived of its old corporate significance; it is practically abolished even as a corporate act. The external action must be done by each man for himself; the real eucharistic action goes on separately, even if simultaneously, within each man's mind.

"The old conception had been of the church in its hierarchic unity entering into Christ's action, by the cooperation of all its various 'orders' (each having its own 'office', as St. Paul conceived it), and so in His action 'becoming what is eternally — His body'. The new conception is of a strictly personal mental reflection upon His action in the past. We cannot enter into it, since as a matter of history the passion is unique and finished." [4]

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The Dilemma for the Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The dilemma for the Reformers, and in fact for the Western Roman Church in the Counter-Reformation following the Reformation, is found in the impasse which had been created in the Western liturgy caused by having created a strong devotional emphasis on the Passion, and yet having to deal with the idea of attempting to repeat it by the action of the priest in the Mass. The dilemma was heightened by the fact that the text was still essentially true to the work of St. Gregory and Alcuin (see the article on Western Latin Liturgics), and still continued the "old and simple ideas" about the Eucharist they had faithfully maintained and passed on in their liturgical works. Again, according to Dix, to find a solution:

"...What was required was a careful reconsideration by the Church of the questions of what the Eucharistic action is and how it is performed; and that all that was needed to find a way out of the impasse was a return to the liturgy itself and to its teaching. This would have offered an appeal behind both the medieval absorption of eucharistic devotion in the passion and the medieval teaching about the 'sacrifices of masses'. Most unfortunately neither side took this line at all. Instead, each of them clung to one horn of the medieval dilemma. The Reformers retained and even emphasized the medieval restriction of the significance of the Eucharist to the passion without its eternal consequences. The Counter-Reformation restated the medieval teaching about the sacrifice in a more defensible form, and fortunately with such vagueness as to permit of the reopening in quite modern times of aspects of the matter which the medieval teaching obscured or ignored."

"The advantage of the Counter-Reformation was that it conserved the text of the liturgy which dated in substance from long before the medieval development. With this it preserved those primitive statements which indicated the true solution of the medieval difficulty, even though it was a long while before the post-Tridentine church made much use of them for the purpose. The Protestants on the contrary discarded the whole text of the liturgy, and especially those elements in it which were a genuine monument of that primitive Church they professed to restore. They introduced in its place forms which derived from and expressed the medieval tradition from which their own movement sprang." [5]


Benjamin D. Williams

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[1] Dix, Gregory, The Shape of the Liturgy, Seabury Press, New York, 1982, p. 598.

[2] Ibid, p. 599.

[3] ibid, p. 607.

[4] ibid, p. 623.

[5] ibid, p. 625.