The Recovery of Biblical Worship

The End of the Liturgical Movement
and the Recovery of Biblical Worship:
An Anglican Perspective

Bishop Anthony Burton

Throughout Christian history various liturgical movements have come and gone, each shaped by the theological climate of its day. In the early years of our century a school of thought about liturgy arose which was in some respects a response to a loss of confidence in the reliability of the Bible as a witness to the revelation of God. At the turn of the century, the biblical critical movement was already old but its assumptions were only then gaining popular understanding and acceptance. People were beginning to doubt that the reading of Scripture conveyed the mind of Christ. The Bible was increasingly looked upon as a collection of historical documents of different periods which lacked any underlying theological unity.

This caused a great spiritual crisis for many people. If you could not be confident that New Testament record about Jesus was true, how could you be faithful to him? One answer to this problem began to emerge from the contemporary monastic world: if you could discover how the earliest Christians worshipped, and better yet, if you could get hold of their liturgical texts and recreate their liturgies in their own words, you could get behind all the uncertainty of the Bible to worship God faithfully. Ancient liturgical texts promised an insight into the mind and practice of the apostolic period in a way that the Bible itself no longer seemed to do.

Thus what became known as the Liturgical Movement was an attempt to help the Church be more faithful in an age of uncertainty. But these seeds of its creation eventually proved to be the seeds of its undoing.

Until relatively recently it was not recognized that the critical textual techniques which were at the turn of the century being applied to the Bible would eventually start to be applied to the ancient liturgical texts. In recent years this has finally taken place, and now almost every insight into the life of the Early Church that the Liturgical Movement advanced has been brought into serious doubt. Increasingly scholars are finding that the Liturgical Movement was a movement away from Early Church norms – insofar as they can be established at all.

Of course it may not matter to you that the liturgical changes in our generation have been a departure from Early Church practices but it does mean that this movement, which identified renewal in liturgy with the recovery of Early Church practices, is now over. So we stand at the end of one liturgical movement awaiting the next, the principles of which have yet to be worked out.

I intend to argue that the next liturgical movement must begin with the Bible and recover the classical Anglican use of Scripture in worship. This beginning point, I will suggest, can make possible a reintegration of contemporary biblical and liturgical scholarship and provide a way forward from the current dead end of identity politics which has filled the vacuum left by the collapse of the Liturgical Movement.

At the outset I should make clear that in suggesting that most of the major liturgical changes of this century have been founded on a misunderstanding of the worship of the Early Church, I am not making a judgment about the value of any of the particular changes, most of which can be justified on other grounds. I believe it is important however to be clear about what is an innovation and what is the genuine revival of an ancient practice. While the value of the antiquity of a practice is debatable, there is no sense in debasing the coinage of antiquity altogether.


The nineteenth century had its own liturgical movement, taking various forms in various denominations. In the Roman Catholic world, it can be traced to Dom Prosper Louis Pascal Gueranger, a leader in the restoration of the Benedictine Order in France, who promoted the revival of Gregorian Chant and encouraged others to take an interest in liturgical research. In the Anglican world, this movement was one towards Anglo-Catholic ritualism, the revival of medieval ceremonies or the importation of contemporary Roman Catholic ceremonial together with a new sacramental piety. In both worlds, the Roman and the Anglican, the character of the revival was antiquarian, devotional and largely uncritical of old texts, rather than scientific and analytic.

The Liturgical Movement of this century was to some extent an heir of the nineteenth-century movement but it had a distinct character of its own. It is common to date its beginning to a paper which was read at the Malines Conference in 1909 by a Belgian Benedictine monk, Dom Lambert Beaduin.

The Movement began with no manifesto but rather in retrospect we can see the emergence of various initiatives which came to be gathered under its skirts. In 1905, Pope Pius X issued a decree in support of frequent communion. In the 1920s a number of important German works were written which argued against individualistic piety and the doctrinal character of worship. These new ideas about liturgy were popularized by the informal network of monastic orders throughout the Western world. In the United States the Movement was lead by St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, which began in the 1940s to publish the journal Orate Fratres, later to be called Worship. The Movement was formally recognized in 1947 by the Papal encyclical Mediator Dei. At the Second Vatican Council various ideas of the Movement were brought together and adopted by the Roman Catholic Church with the promulgation by Pope Paul VI of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on December 4, 1963. A Consilium was set up to implement this Constitution and so the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world became a Liturgical Movement Church.

In the Anglican Communion the trail was blazed by the new Church of South India which was formed in 1947 from the union of some of the dioceses of the Anglican Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon, with a number of other Protestant Churches in those countries. This new body commissioned in 1948 a common liturgy which was devised on the basis of Liturgical Movement principles. Notable features were the exchange of the Peace with the shaking of hands and the westward position of the priest celebrating across the altar towards the people.

The Rev’d Leslie Brown, the chairman of the committee which produced the rite, suggested the westward position because of the objections of one of his parishioners, a Hindu convert to Christianity, who objected to Brown’s practice of praying before a cross on the wall, which seemed to the parishioner idolatrous. Brown would later claim that, “my recalcitrant Hindu convert was the man who really put celebrating across the altar into the practice of the world Church”. Brown believed that there was precedent to this practice in the Early Church but, as we shall see, he was probably mistaken.

Eleven years later, Brown had moved from South India to Africa and, as the Bishop of Uganda, came to England to serve as secretary of the sub-committee which authored the influential Report on the Book of Common Prayer adopted by the 1958 Lambeth Conference which laid out principles for liturgical revision throughout the Communion. As R.D.C. Jasper was later to comment, “In view of Leslie Brown’s influential role, it is not surprising to find its eucharistic proposal to be a virtual endorsement of the structure of the CSI [Church of South India] liturgy.” And so the Lambeth fathers of 1958 effectively authorized the abandonment of the Common Prayer tradition in favour of the creation of new liturgies proceeding from new principles.

Armed with enthusiasm and a number of theories about the lost worship of the Early Church, Anglicans would start again at year zero. The actual tradition of the Anglican Church would become a whipping boy of liturgical decay: its doctrinal and spiritual integrity misconstrued as, in Bouyer’s words, “the island religion of a handful of erudite people practicing an aristocratic piety,” the product of an unhappy series of historical accidents.

In the Roman Catholic Church the liturgical movement liturgies were simply legislated by Rome regardless of local sentiment. In the Anglican Communion, the movement was instituted or imposed by individual bishops and clergy who were persuaded of its rightness. In part the grounds for its acceptance had been prepared by the Anglo-Catholic movement which came to regard the Liturgical Movement as an extension of its own work to recover patristic thought and ritual practice. Moreover by the 1950s some Anglo-Catholics had embraced various forms of mystical socialism and wished to reform the liturgy to serve its theology. For example, Fr. Hastings Smyth and the communist Society of the Catholic Commonwealth at Harvard regarded the Liturgical Movement as an ally in its fight to abolish the Book of Common Prayer which it regarded as a tool of the bourgeoisie. The Anglican Liturgical Movement was for many years an predominantly Anglo-Catholic affair since by mid-century the Anglican Evangelicals produced so few scholars interested in the subject.

The widespread skepticism about possibility of biblical revelation which stemmed from the popularization among the parochial clergy and laity of the biblical-critical enterprises of the previous century and a half eventually flowered into a post-modern impatience with theological argument itself. By the 1980s, the Movement which had previously been supported by both liberal and conservative Anglo-Catholics, came to be seen not as a high-church/low-church controversy but a liberal/conservative controversy. Scholarly criticism of the Movement fell victim to the culture wars, and was thus, for the most part, dismissed as reactionary. One of the tragedies of the Movement was that there was never a substantive dialogue between the advocates of the Movement and their critics.

One of the obstacles which the Movement needed to overcome was that the Prayer Book was looked upon as the keystone of the Anglican Communion. In 1948 the Lambeth Conference had resolved that the traditional Book of Common Prayer “has been, and is, so strong a bond of unity throughout the whole Anglican Communion that great care must be taken to ensure that revisions of the Book shall be in accordance with the doctrine and accepted liturgical worship of the Anglican Communion.” A Communion which had no magesterium (teaching authority) apart from the Prayer Book, and which traditionally had defined itself largely in terms of the Prayer Book’s doctrine and use, could not abandon the Prayer Book without putting something in its place. So leaders of the Liturgical Movement sought to turn its own principles into a substitute instrument of unity. In 1965, a committee struck by the liturgical consultation held after the Toronto Anglican Congress of 1963 produced the document The Structure and Contents of the Eucharistic Liturgy and the Daily Office which advocated a move away from the Prayer Book as the prime instrument of Anglican unity in favour of a common structure of eucharistic rite.

The progress of the Liturgical Movement was extraordinarily swift as it was speeded by the popular disillusionment of the 1960s with institutions of all kinds and a general enthusiasm for experimentation. From an historical perspective the pace of change was breathtaking. By 1988 the Mission and Ministry Statement of the 1988 Lambeth Conference remarked with evident satisfaction that the Prayer Book’s era “is slipping irretrievably into the past.” The observation was perhaps a bit rich for a movement which had retrieved from the past fourth century West Syrian anaphora but their confidence was understandable. In a forty year period, a four hundred year Anglican tradition of liturgical development looked like being eclipsed by a process of supplementation.

To that point, the literary deconstruction of the Bible had complicated many areas of the Church’s life but it had not yet questioned the Liturgical Movement as a whole. The Movement was seen to be based on the bedrock of antiquarian textual research which had not yet been subject to the kinds of literary deconstruction which had cast doubt on the idea of biblical revelation. Of course this kind of research was inevitable; when it finally came it brought the Movement to its current impasse.

We should be clear at this point not to identify the Liturgical Movement with liturgical scholarship which was one its best and certainly one of its enduring fruits. Nor must the Liturgical Movement be identified with liturgical renewal or development, both of which have a continuous history which arguably predates Christianity itself.


What was new about the Liturgical Movement? Historians of the Movement have tended to define it in very broad terms, to some extent claiming credit for a wide variety of interests which in fact predated the Movement. Certainly the Movement emphasized things such as the reading of the Old Testament, accessible language, and Tractarian ideals such as the recovery of the early Church as a model, Eastern Christian traditions, and an emphasis on proclamation and social involvement but in doing so the Liturgical Movement was merely participating in movements which had been going on for many years before.

There were, however, four features of the Movement which were genuinely innovative and came to define it: (a) a theory of the liturgy as the Church’s corporate action according to a given ‘Shape’ which was an essential feature of the worship of the Early Church; (b) An emphasis on community (and thus westward celebration) and individual participation in this corporate action; (c) an emphasis on celebration in worship, which was thought to be outgoing and communal and a correlative lessening of penitence which was thought to be introverted and individualistic; (d) the Eucharist alone as normative Sunday worship. All of these were established on the basis of an understanding of the practices of the Early Church which arose from a study of ancients texts.

A problem for the Movement was that it was impatient. It spawned liturgical studies as a discipline, but unhappily pretended to have arrived at definitive findings when this discipline was still in its infancy. The premise of these early studies was that there was a single liturgical rite of the Eucharist, initiated by Jesus, which the early Christian community shared, from which all later rites developed. The Movement claimed that on the basis of a comparison of a few ancient liturgical texts, one could reconstruct the original eucharistic liturgy of the Early Church, even though most of these texts were fragments which dated from centuries after this period, and came from different parts of the world.

As a consequence vast generalizations about the worship of the Early Church have been made which had since been found to be unsupportable.

To begin with, in recent years liturgical scholars have come to recognize that liturgical texts are particularly likely to have been edited. As one of the first scholars to recognize the problem of the unknown history of the liturgical fragments, F.L. Cross, put it:

Unlike literary manuscripts, liturgical manuscripts were not written to satisfy an historical interest. They were written to serve a severely practical end. their primary purpose was the needs of the services of the Church. Like timetables and other books for use, liturgical texts were compiled with the immediate future in view. their intent was not to make an accurate reproduction of an existing model.

The problems have been deftly laid out by Prof. Paul Bradshaw, who describes himself as “a self-confessed splitter in an area traditionally dominated by lumpers, who have tried to arrange the evidence so as to suggest that a single coherent line of liturgical evolution can be traced from the apostolic age to the fourth century.” Bradshaw takes issue with the generation of scholars who, to serve their theories, lumped together rites from different centuries, different countries, and different languages without having inquired why the texts that had been copied had been selected, edited and, in some cases, translated and combined. In hindsight it is amazing to realize that the most influential scholars of the Liturgical movement seem not to have given serious thought to how the circumstances and culture of the copyists might have affected their revisions. Bradshaw states bluntly:

“They have simply plundered what they wanted to fit the picture of the early Church that they were attempting to paint, without asking themselves why it ever came to be there in the first place, and what this might have to say about its value as historical evidence.”


The fourfold shape of the eucharistic action was a theory argued by Dom Gregory Dix who was undoubtedly the best know and influential liturgical scholar this century. There are few Anglican clergy in the English-speaking world who do not have in their libraries Dix’s famous, The Shape of the Liturgy which popularized in a witty and readable form many of the Liturgical Movement’s ideas. The book, which became a theological college staple, in large part shaped the thinking of two generations of Anglican clergy.

Dix’s theory, that a seven action shape at the Last Supper was condensed by the early Church to a four-fold action – taking, thanksgiving, breaking, and communion – has been universally adopted in newer Anglican liturgies. All newer eucharistic rites bear Dix’s imprint. But the theory has since been discredited. It is now argued that there were nine actions at the Last Supper (Dix missed the interpretive words) and the four actions were not of equal importance. Current liturgical thinking maintains that taking and breaking were purely utilitarian actions, and that the eucharist is basically two actions – thanksgiving, with eating and drinking. More than thirty years after the publication of Dix’s magnum opus, Urban T. Holmes would conclude, “Dix wrote movingly, sometime with no relation to the facts, occasionally drawing from sources which, as far as other scholars could tell, did not exit.”


The Liturgical Movement’s emphasis on the importance of a self-conscious relation to the local community as a characteristic of the Early Church suffers from the same textual problems we have already cited. It is compounded however by the difficulty of entering into the psychology and sociology of contemporary worshippers, much less ancient ones of diverse times and cultures. Ceremonially, the most important legacy of the Liturgical Movement has been the practice of the priest celebrating the Eucharist versus populum, facing the people across the Altar or Lord’s Table.

One can of course make strong arguments for this practice on theological, psychological, sociological and other grounds (for example precedent from the Reformation period) but the Liturgical Movement believed it to have been a recovery of Early Church practice, principally on the grounds of the architecture of a number of ancient churches.

The argument was first put forward in 1926 by a German scholar and more thoroughly in 1965 by Professor Otto Nussbaum. It was based on the layout of some fourth century basilicas in which the altar was located in an apse at the west end of the building, mostly those built by the Emperor Constantine and his mother St. Helena – such as St. Peter’s, Rome. Since it is universally acknowledged that Early Christians celebrated facing the East, it was thought that in these churches the celebrant must have faced the people. Exhaustive contemporary scholarship indicates that the celebrant did indeed celebrate over the altar but that the congregation was situated in the side aisles, men on one side, women on the other, their view of one another blocked by curtains. Moreover before what we now call the Prayer of Consecration began, the deacon would proclaim ‘Conversi ad Dominum!’ (‘turn to face the Lord!’) at which point everyone would turn to face East and raise their arms. So in these basilicas, the celebrant’s back was not to the people, but the people’s to the celebrant.

This instance raises some interesting questions about the selectivity with which the Liturgical Movement approached the practices of the Early Church. It tended to pick and choose the practices of the Early Church which served its interests and declare these to be norms. It had little to say about its less congenial discoveries of the Early Church – for example the ancient rite for the exorcism of curdled milk.


The Liturgical Movement’s desire to make worship less penitential seems also to have been arbitrary, since it took the ancient textual evidence for what transpired within the liturgy as representing a liturgical norm for penitence without conceding that it knew very little about the context in which these liturgies were used. There was, for example, no penitential rite in the Roman Catholic liturgy until the Second Vatican Council because it was expected that communicants would make their confession privately to a priest. If one were to take that rite in isolation from its penitential context one could make the same arguments.

To argue, as was repeatedly done, that the Book of Common Prayer was ‘too penitential’ implied the existence of a standard by which this evaluation could be made. Certainly such a standard is not to be winkled out of the putative writings of the heretical anti-Pope Hippolytus. Moreover the assumption that penitence and celebration are poles on a spectrum of liturgical mood is also doubtful. G.K. Chesterton’s tongue was only partly in his cheek when he quipped that the great good news of the Gospel was the discovery of original sin. Confession and absolution should properly be reason for joy.


The Liturgical Movement’s contention that it had somehow proven that the Eucharist alone was normative Sunday worship in the Early Church has recently has been drawn into question. Dom Gregory Dix taught that the Eucharist was the Early Church’s sole form of worship, and the development of the Offices of Prayer was part of the fourth century development of monasticism in response to the rise of Christendom. Dix maintained that the Offices were supposedly devised as a second-order service after the Eucharist to accommodate the influx to the Church of nominal Christians at this time. In his assessment, the Eucharist is ‘eschatological’ and communal, the expression of the Church’s corporate action oriented towards the Kingdom and therefore counter-cultural. In contrast the Daily Office turns away from the kingdom in concern for sanctifying the life of human society in general through an emphasis on personal edification and individual piety.

This highly influential interpretation has been questioned by the Jesuit liturgical scholar Robert Taft who states, “Historical sources…show how totally wrong Dix is in almost every aspect of this interpretation.” The distinctions Dix asserted turn out not to exist; instead there are profound continuities. The monastic movement did not arise in response to Constantine’s conversion but pre-dated it. However, according to Taft, who marshals a great weight of evidence, the Daily Offices turn out to be not a monastic innovation but an earlier development of Christian prayer. The supposed contradiction of eschatological orientation and personal edification also falls apart on examination: they lived happily side by side. Indications are that the Daily Office, even on Sundays, was just as central to the Church’s life as was the Eucharist, if ‘centrality’ can be measured by frequency, which is itself doubtful.

In some ways the Liturgical Movement’s naiveté in relation to the ancient texts is surprising since the kinds of concerns about the usefulness of the texts which has been raised by the latest generation of scholars have been around for hundreds of years. Milton, for example, argued in the seventeenth century against citations of St. Ignatius in support of episcopacy:

we do injuriously in thinking to taste better the pure evangelistic manna by seasoning our mouths with the tainted scraps and fragments of an unknown table.

And so we find ourselves at the end of one Liturgical Movement awaiting the beginning of the next. It is a moment of great opportunity. In the last thirty or more years, Anglicans have been trying to set aside the unique biblical dynamic and insights of the Prayer Book tradition by creating liturgies which were believed to have revived Early Church practices. Rather than examining what the Anglican tradition had to offer Catholic Christendom, our actual tradition was patronized and put out to pasture. But now that the antiquarian authorities have failed us, we will be forced to find new authority for our liturgies. The obvious candidate is the Bible. How the Bible can function as the animating and controlling principle of liturgy is something about which the Prayer Book tradition has a great deal to say.

There is no tradition more biblically intelligent in its approach to worship than the Anglican tradition. If there is a reason for the Anglican Communion to exist at all, it is to unlock its treasure chest and to share its wealth of knowledge about worshipping biblically in a living tradition.

Classically, Anglicans were insistent that we should not so much refer to Scripture as to defer to it, and its old methods have uncanny resemblances to much that is currently taking place in biblical scholarship. For example, the contemporary canonical school of biblical interpretation seeks to emphasize precisely the point of Article XX’s caution against expounding one place of Scripture “that it may be repugnant to another.” A new German post-canonical school seeks to understand the given meaning of the texts in light of the on-going re-reading of the texts in the history of the Church, in order to establish a re-reading for today which is continuous with the readings of the past. This school’s impulse has resonances in the classical Anglican insistence on interpreting Scripture in the light of Fathers and the creeds. The Bible needs to be interpreted in the household of faith, and this household exists across time. As a Canadian theologian, David Curry, has put it, in the Prayer Book tradition,

Scripture itself required interpretative principles – not just an interpretative community – for its own understanding. To speak of these things is to speak about how the church, in our reformed understanding and in critical continuity with our catholic heritage, places herself and stands under the authority of Scripture credally or doctrinally understood.

The contemporary interest in narrative has pre-modern echoes in the Reformation desire to have the Scriptures read continuously in lengthy passages morning and evening, that our imaginations might be converted.

Through this constant diet of Sacred Scripture not only does God speak in his Word to us, not only do we contemplate over and over again the central mysteries of salvation, but our own lives are gradually attuned to this rhythm, and we meditate again and again on the history of Israel, recapitulated in Jesus, that is also the saga of our own spiritual odyssey.

Prayer, as George Herbert put it, is “a kind of tune.” The older Prayer Book spiritual system was really a way of being taken up into Christ’s mind by entering into the mind of the Bible. In worship we were to glorify God by reflecting back his beauty, celebrating his own actions in his own words. And in doing so, we were to become Christ-like as gradually each worshipper learned to conform his individuality to the good of the Kingdom of God.

Classically, the worshipper was to enter the biblical text and encounter Christ immediately. Cranmer, as an old man degraded from his episcopacy and preparing to be executed by burning for the principle of worshipping biblically, describes this approach to worship this way:

When we hear Christ speak unto us with his own mouth, and shew himself to be seen with our eyes, in such sort as is convenient for him of us in this mortal life to be heard and seen; what comfort can we have more? The minister of the Church speaketh unto us God’s own words, which we must take as spoken from God’s own mouth, because that from his mouth it came, and his word it is, and not the minister’s.

Likewise, when he ministereth to our sights Christ’s holy sacraments, we must think Christ crucified and presented before our eyes, because the sacraments so represent him, and be his sacraments, and not the priest’s; as in baptism we must think, that as the priest putteth his hand to the child outwardly, and washeth the infant with his holy Spirit; and moreover, that Christ himself cometh down upon the child, and appareleth him with his own self: and at the Lord’s holy table the priest distributeth wine and bread to feed the body, so we must think that inwardly by faith we see Christ feeding both body and soul to eternal life. What comfort can be devised any more in this world for a Christian man?

In looking at liturgy primarily as a relation between a single period in Church history and the present, the Liturgical Movement’s perspective was greatly limited. It was unable to appreciate the credal and doctrinal emphasis in subsequent developments, especially in the Common Prayer tradition. Now at last we must engage these questions again.

It is not clear that we shall do so in the short term. At the moment, liturgy has been taken up as an instrument of identity politics, and the classical ideal of ‘common prayer’ has been supplanted by an accelerating process of fragmentation as each interest group demands a liturgy in its own image. Such a process must eventually exhaust itself, and only then will the Anglican Church as a whole, should it survive, recover its inheritance in a contemporary form. At that point, there may well be a reconvergence of liturgical and biblical studies.

T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding speaks of rediscovery this way:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.

We have as Anglicans an extraordinary treasury of wisdom on which to draw. For the Prayer Book tradition is, in Professor Robert’s Crouse’s memorable phrase, “the fullest expression of the consensus fidelium for Anglicans.” Now is a time for remembrance, a time to recall the Church her to her origin, not for reaction, but for remembrance and renewal in the recovery of our identity. It is time to return to our roots. Central to all Christian faith is a capacity to deal with the present and to hope for the future based on what God has done for us in the past. “Do this in remembrance of me,” was our Lord’s command as he instituted the sacrament of his sacrifice; that memorial of his saving act, which defines both our relation to God in the present, and our confident expectation of the future. Thus does the Holy Spirit bring to our remembrance all that Christ has taught us, to show us things to come, and thus to lead us into all truth.

The way of renewal, then, is the way of remembrance of things handed on: not a narrow traditionalism which would hold onto a certain fragment of tradition thoughtlessly and stubbornly but something more profound, more generous, which seeks to find the wholeness of all that God has done for us. For Anglicans it means a resurrection of the understanding, especially about the principle of the primacy of Scripture with respect to the essential things of salvation. At issue is whether the liturgy refers or defers to the understanding of Scripture as a doctrinal instrument of salvation.

When the Church takes account only of the present, she does nothing but change; if she looks only to the future, she does nothing but dream; only when she is conscious of being the living tradition of Christ is she truly renewed. When she considers the whole of time, past, present, and future, she gathers strength from the revelation she has received, she gives to the present, and so prepares for the tomorrow of God.

© Anthony Burton, 1998.

The Recovery of Biblical Worship