A Helpful Primer for a Daunting but Important Book on Liturgy

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music4 Comments

These days, I meet more and more worship leaders interested in exploring the history and thought of Christian liturgy, and it’s hard to recommend works that both do justice to the forms and evolutions of Christian worship across time and remain brief. One landmark work, Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, is a daunting and massive tome (which I haven’t read in whole) that I wish, for the sake of unschooled inquisitors like me, were more brief. Well, I’ve at least found a helpful primer for Dix’s work that I wanted to share with you all.

While searching for other things, I stumbled upon this wonderful article by William Tighe summarizing the history, impact, and major arguments of Dix’s 700+ page groundbreaking volume. Originally published in 1945, Dix’s work has never gone out of print and has successfully influenced liturgical studies all the way down through the present. I have only jumped in and out of Dix’s work myself, but I found Tighe’s article supremely helpful in getting at what appears to be the big picture of The Shape of the Liturgy. Go read the article, but here are a few excerpts that help summarize things.

On the major themes/arguments of the book:

If The Shape of the Liturgy has one dominant argument, it is that the Eucharist is not primarily a ritual by or through which individual communicants come to have an individual experience of “communion with the Lord.” It is the corporate “coming” of Christ to the faithful, through the Eucharist of the Church, his Body. It is a deepening of the union of the faithful with him in his Body, his Body being both the Church and the Eucharist.

On one of the book’s more interesting and remarkable insights (we need to read Dix and judge whether we believe it’s accurate):

An important theme concerns the “four-action shape” of the classical Christian Eucharist. The argument runs as follows. At the Last Supper, before the supper Christ took bread, blessed it, broke it, and distributed it.Afterthe supper he took a cup of wine, blessed it, and distributed it. Subsequently, the apostles and their immediate successors combined the “bread ritual” at the beginning of the meal (“This is my body, which is for you; do this for the remembrance of me”) with the “cup ritual” at the end of the meal (“This is my blood of the New Covenant . . . do this for the remembrance of me”) and separated them from the meal itself, which continued for several centuries as the “church supper” or “agape meal.” Thus, the Eucharist assumed the form that it subsequently followed in all primitive Christian traditions: the celebrant (1) takes bread and wine, (2) blesses them, (3) breaks the bread, and (4) distributes the blessed or consecrated elements to the communicants.

This way of looking at the Eucharistic action was one of Dix’s more remarkable insights, and if correct, it would have major implications for those Christian traditions which believed that following the practice of the (very) early Church, so far as this could be known from the Bible or the earliest Christian writings, was a good thing.

On the impact of the book:

It also gave rise in some circles to an ongoing “quest for the perfect liturgy” that resulted in incessant liturgical experimentation. It also gave rise to the view (which was not the author’s) that the worship life of the Church had gone astray at a very early date and needed radical overhauling at the behest of liturgical “experts.”

On what Tighe discerns as one of Dix’s most concrete hopes for the book for the Anglican tradition:

Dix would have preferred an ongoing, long-term period of controlled liturgical experimentation within the Church of England, under the loose supervision of its bishops (but without according them any real authority to regulate it), in the hope that by doing so, not only would it have a liturgical expression more faithful to the Christian Tradition, but also it would come to a clearer sense of its own identity.

Tighe goes on to talk about the controversies it stirred in the Anglican tradition because of Dix’s assertion that Thomas Cranmer’s eucharistic theology was closer to Zwingli than either Luther or Calvin (which we might be able to understand, given Dix’s vantage point as an Anglican with major sympathies for Rome). Having studied Cranmer heavily over the last few months, I concur with many Anglicans’ criticism of Dix for this association. But while those Anglicans (of the more Anglo-Catholic persuasion) probably would want to see Cranmer as more Roman Catholic, the most recent observations (which will hopefully be published in the next few years by Cranmer scholar Ashley Null) point to Cranmer’s eucharistic views as closest to Calvin. (This is a bit anachronistic, though, because Calvin would have had less influence on Cranmer than Calvin’s influencers, like Martin Bucer.) What is obvious, though, is that Cranmer didn’t have a Zwinglian, “symbolic,” view of the eucharist–he believed in a real, spiritual (though not physical) presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table.

Tighe discerns that The Shape of the Liturgy wasn’t written as a “manifesto for liturgical reform,” but as a contribution to a new and exciting discipline of study which had emerged in the 1940s–comparitive religion. Hence, Dix is keenly interested in the Jewish/Semitic origins of the Christian eucharistic rite.

One of Dix’s more regularly quoted observations about the Book of Common Prayer as originally constructed by Thomas Cranmer was that it was “the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone” (p. 672). The fact that Dix was not fond of this doctrine (according to Tighe) makes his observation that much more striking, and liturgy-investigators like me and others would do well to carry this observation into our mining of those original Prayer Books of 1549 and (especially) 1552.

Tighe then ends the article with a three-paragraph summary outline of the book. Very helpful. I, for one, plan on printing this article and tucking it into my copy of The Shape of the Liturgy as a reference.

4 Comments on “A Helpful Primer for a Daunting but Important Book on Liturgy”

  1. the Book of Common Prayer as originally constructed by Thomas Cranmer was that it was "the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone"

    Dix is wrong there. EVERY genuinely Lutheran liturgy every made is 100% centered around justification sola fide. It is our dominant guiding light, theologically and doxologically. Odd how he missed that, but maybe he just doesn't view our attempts as "effective."

  2. Zac, thanks for this post. I always love your posts. I'm using some of your posts as discipleship material for our church's praise team.

    Side note- is it possible to add a search function to your site? I think that'd be pretty helpful.

  3. Steve: great idea. I've been thinking about that for a while. I'll try to figure out how to make that happen.

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