Liturgical Reform in the Twentieth Century

It struck me, as I was reading about funeral liturgies, how much my reading of late kept discussing the liturgical reforms of the twentieth century.  I realise that many Christians will be aware of these reforms – the outworking of Vatican II for Catholics, the move away from the Book of Common Prayer for Anglicans, and other processes of change in other denominations – without having much understanding of how or why this has happened.  It prompted me to dig out an essay I wrote a few years ago for a unit in Anglican Identities; while its focus is on Anglican liturgical reform, I thought it might give some useful background and context.

I have edited out the footnotes and so forth for this format, but can always follow up a reference from the original paper if anyone is really keen.  

Liturgical change in the Anglican church of the twentieth century is a complex phenomenon with many aspects.  One thing which it is important to recognise is that it did not arise spontaneously; rather it was – in England at least – a development and continuation of disputes about “ritualism” in the nineteenth century, and the push for reform associated with that, which pushed the boundaries of Anglicanism.  These disputes concerned some liturgical texts – notably prayers for the dead and forms of Mariolatry – but they were much wider, encompassing questions of vestments, ceremonial actions (such as the mixed chalice), objects such as incense, and so forth.  The disputes about these matters were serious enough to lead to a Royal Commission, and Royal Letters of Business instructing the church to consider liturgical reform.  It was in response to this push from government that revisions to the liturgy in England were proposed in 1920.

However, once reform was being considered, it was influenced strongly by a “wider stream” of historical research and method.  This intellectual climate of the time encouraged consideration of original liturgical sources and critical thinking about the liturgy.  This may explain in part why one of the first reforms proposed in England was a fresh translation of the Psalter.

Anglican reform has also been profoundly influenced by a much broader “liturgical movement,” which has impacted heavily on Roman Catholicism as well as the various Reformed denominations.  Anglican thinking about liturgy has been vastly enriched by scholarship in these other traditions.  Modifications of liturgical texts have been only a small part of a much bigger picture within this ecumenical trend.

More subtly, there has been a view of liturgy as being essentially an experience rather than a text.  There has been a rejection of the idea that liturgy should be “mostly intellectual,” and a view that where this has happened it has been a mistake, and in part a response to the Hellenic philosophic context of the early church.  In contrast, there has been a renewed emphasis on freedom, spontaneity and joy in the creation of liturgy, and a view that liturgy is healthy only when the “priestly body, the worshippers and their minister,” live in the power of the Gospel and so express that Gospel naturally in the context of their lives.  It is also interesting to note the importance of allowing congregations a role in the creation of liturgy, rather than leaving it to committees.  The preface to the English Alternate Services Book put it well; “Words, even agreed words, are only the beginning of worship…a ladder, not a goal.”

The embryonic liturgical norms – Scripture and the primitive Church

Where the twentieth century liturgical reformers considered liturgy as an experience of the worshipping community, it was necessary to agree on some sort of standard for a normative experience.  The vast majority made appeal to a dual standard of Scripture (noting particularly the New Testament and the instructions of Jesus) and the primitive undivided church.  This was seen to be far preferable to a standard “imposed by the crown in England some four hundred years ago.”

The reason for this preference is in large part the concern that the didactic purpose of liturgy be fulfilled.  It was seen to be necessary to revise the liturgy in ways which would convey the meaning of Scripture clearly.  To this end, it was recognised that teaching takes place not only through words but also actions and symbols, and there was concern to reduce excessively verbose liturgies and rehabilitate symbolic action.

At the same time, the historical study of the Scriptures and the liturgical documents of the early Church also held implications for the reform of the liturgy, for example in the relegation to non-use of the imprecatory psalms, or reducing the prominence in the lectionary of epistles considered less likely to be authentic letters of the apostles.

Members of the body – ministers, congregations, and changing roles.

The renewed concern for liturgy to conform to Scriptural standards challenged the pattern of participation in most liturgies.  There was concern for effective participation of congregation, as the “offering and worshipping community (who) must show this in what they do and how they do it.”  This understanding draws on the Pauline understanding of the church as one body, with each member having an important contribution to make.  This shifted the emphasis from the priest as celebrant of the Eucharist to the assembled faithful people.

This led to some practical changes in the culture of the Eucharist; for example, it came to be seen as important that the words of the liturgy be available for the congregation to follow and participate more easily.  By the 1980s this had progressed to include concern for typography and lay out of the liturgy on the page, with the recognition that this impacted on the experience of the liturgy. Still later the question of reducing the reliance on books, and a greater sense of worshipping as a gathered community by use of a single screen with text and suitable images projected onto it, could also become a consideration as the technology became widespread.

The Scriptural emphasis on the congregation as a worshipping whole led to fresh consideration of the place and function of confirmation in the life of the church.  It has become more common to admit those who have not been confirmed, including very young children, to communion.  There continues to be discussion about how best to use the rite of confirmation in the life of the church, when a Scriptural emphasis leads to the view of the sufficiency of baptism, particularly for those who are baptised when they are mature enough to answer for themselves.

This thinking did also introduce a new element to several liturgical texts.  In baptism, marriage, and ordination rites, there is now (in A Prayer Book for Australia, as well as other recent liturgies) the inclusion of a promise of support from the congregation, which did not exist in the Book of Common Prayer.

Over the course of the twentieth century there has also been significant development in thinking on the role of women in the church.  The marriage service has been changed so that it no longer requires a vow of wifely obedience.  The rite for the “churching of women” has fallen out of use.  Early in the century there were attempts to compose a service for the ordering of deaconesses; while initially unsuccessful, such an order was eventually created.  Since then women have been admitted to the full three-fold ministry of the Church; and while this has not been universally accepted it has become widespread.  While some of the impetus for this has been provided by wider cultural change and the impact of feminism, there has also been recourse to Scripture and the practice of the very early Church to justify these reforms.

Skeleton of a liturgy – structure and form

Change to the words of the liturgy has two aspects.  One is the words themselves.  Another is the liturgical structure into which they are placed.  The twentieth century has seen much consideration of this structure; the ordering of different elements of the liturgy, with attention to the experience of the congregation, whether the liturgy “works” and encourages participation (within a reasonable time limit).  This consideration has increased in part as a response to the decline of non-communicating attendance at the Eucharist.  If the norm for the congregation becomes full participation, it becomes more important that the liturgical experience serves the congregation well.

This liturgical experience has non-verbal dimensions as well.  All of the senses are involved in the experience of worship, and so liturgical change has taken into account questions such as those to do with the Eucharistic bread, and the importance that it be received broken, and the importance of a common cup.  Similar concerns surround the discussion of posture at worship, or the ability to receive the bread in the hand rather than in the mouth.  This last is not an esoteric question; it is raised because of clear concern that reception in the mouth downplays the unity of the people, elevates the presbyteral ministry to an inappropriate view of “holiness” and fosters a sense of unworthiness and being second class in the lay people.  Again this shows the prominence of concern for liturgical experience.

In a similar way, changes to the interior lay out of the church, the location of the altar and the position of the presiding priest, are predicated on a concern for full participation of the community in the celebration, and the removal of subtle indicators of distinction between congregation and priest.

Responses to a changing social environment

As has already been noted with regard to the changing role of women, change in the church and in the liturgy is not disconnected from the world.  The twentieth century saw dramatic changes in secular society which have impacted on liturgical thinking.

The social climate at the time of the compiling of the Book of Common Prayer was “aristocratic and controlled.”  Attitudes to authority have changed greatly since that time, and forms of prayer which normalised such a society are no longer helpful.  The church has had to grapple with areas of knowledge which have challenged theology and Scriptural understanding; the Liturgical Commission, in its report for the Lambeth Conference of 1958, made clear the importance that liturgical change should be expressive of such new knowledge.

Attitudes towards sin have encouraged shifts in a number of liturgies; marriage is no longer prefaced with the advice that it is “ordained for a remedy against sin.”  Further, there is a different pastoral concern being emphasised in changes to the ministry with the sick; rather than using a liturgy which gave the impression that sickness was punishment for sin, there is a desire to speak of faith in God for healing.  Pastoral concern for the process of grief has also emphasised the element of comfort in the burial service.

There is also the question of language.  Vernacular English has shifted sufficiently that a generation who have been raised unchurched are no longer able to make sense of unmodified Book of Common Prayer liturgies.  There is a desire not to put up high barriers to entry into participation of the life of the congregation, and the language of the liturgy had become such a high barrier.  It gave the impression that those who were used to the liturgy were a sort of élite, and as a result, as early as the Lambeth Conference of 1908 there was a call for “the change of words obscure or commonly misunderstood.”  This is an outworking of the insistence that the language of the church should be “understanded of the people,” as well as the realisation that English must preserve a vocabulary in which to speak clearly of concepts of great theological richness and depth.

Army chaplains during World War I and afterwards also gave valuable input to discussions of liturgical reform, since the liturgies of the church were not suitable to their wartime context or the pastoral needs of those they ministered to.  They asked for liturgy that was “simple, real and short.”

Congregational life has also changed dramatically.  No longer are the members of a congregation a stable community bound together by proximity, and living what modern western people would consider very intimate lives.  The reality now is that our congregations are “people…on the move.”  They gather over large distances, may have no contact with one another outside of Church, and not all will attend regularly.  They are not likely to gather for worship more than once on a Sunday, or on other days of the week.  Patterns of family life have changed and the generation gap is felt more keenly.  This holds a number of implications for the liturgy, if the concern is the congregational experience of it.  Liturgical elements which emphasise gathering and communal participation carry a much heavier burden of creating a sense of organic community.  Since most people will not attend a service other than the Sunday Eucharist, it must do more to meet their needs (for example, the inclusion of readings from the Old Testament).  Since attendance is much less regular, the benefits of sequential reading of Scripture are much diluted, and a thematic approach to the choice of readings becomes more useful.  It also becomes helpful, in some respects, to transfer important days in the calendar which do not fall on a Sunday to the nearest Sunday (for example, Ascension Day) as otherwise they have no impact on the community at all.

The responsiveness of liturgical forms and texts to changing social situations in this way is not arbitrary or simply to be fashionable.  It is in obedience to the evangelistic imperative; the good news is not proclaimed effectively when it is proclaimed in such a way that it is unrecognisable to those for whom it is intended.  It is not pastorally responsible to assume that even at “regular” Eucharistic celebrations or worship gatherings, everyone is a Christian; and all of those who are, are invited by the effective proclamation of the good news to deepen their Christian commitment.  Religiosity and aesthetics, therefore, are not an acceptable substitute, and an inadequate reason for preservation of forms of liturgy which no longer fulfil their purpose.

Relationships between different churches

So far this discussion has considered the situation in the English-speaking west.  The twentieth century has seen considerable reform of Anglican liturgies from churches in other settings.  Forms of liturgy which “work” in a western setting, or which undergo only shallow enculturation to another context, may be unhelpful in that context.  The Anglican Church in Asia and Africa has found it necessary to form liturgy quite distinct from English liturgy, in order to really bring the gospel to life for its members.  Liturgy formed in these contexts is able to develop in parallel with the common problems of those societies and the formation of an authentically Christian style of living in response, much as has already been considered for the western context above.

There has also been considerable input into liturgical change from the ecumenical movement.  The use of the Book of Common Prayer, with some very distinct liturgical practices, in effect put the Anglican church in a position of “ecclesiastical isolationism.”  As the desire grew to worship with Christians of other traditions, and as some of those traditions were recognised as being in full communion with Canterbury (traditions as diverse as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, and the Scandinavian Lutheran Church), a richness of liturgical thought and scholarship was provided to the Anglican Church.

Liturgy as providing both structure and flexibility

The Anglican Communion now holds in tension great diversity of interpretation of Scripture, doctrine, churchmanship and personal devotion.  Modern society has come to accept individualism and consumerism as normal, and this has changed the approach which people take to worship as well.  In 1906 the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline concluded that “The law of public worship…is too narrow for the religious life of the present generation.  It needlessly condemns much which…many of her most devoted members value…the machinery for discipline has broken down…It is important…that (the law) should admit of reasonable elasticity.”  The Lambeth Conference of 1908 followed this with the formulation of principles for liturgical revision, which included “fuller provision of alternatives in our forms of public worship,” and “provision for greater elasticity in public worship.”

As a result, liturgies have become more flexible to allow for congregations or individuals to worship according to their preferences.  Examples of this include prayers for the dead as an optional practice, alternate forms of Great Thanksgiving prayers, and an optional observance of fasts.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Anglican Church already had an established repository of liturgical text, the Book of Common Prayer, even if in practice it was seldom used as it had been intended.  The development of trends in the Church from the preceding century, the influences from unfolding theological scholarship, the worldwide Anglican Communion in all its diversity, ecumenical conversation partners and the zeitgeist of the secular world, threw the adequacy of that resource into question.  It was no longer found suitable Scripturally, theologically, didactically or pastorally.  The various liturgical texts which have been written over the twentieth century have sought to address this, but not by consideration of the texts in isolation.  It is recognised that the liturgy is there to serve the people of God, in their worship of God, and as the people have changed, it has been necessary for liturgical culture and norms to change with them; changes in text have been only one aspect of this.  This approach has been beautifully summed up in this way:  “It is for the Prayer Book to keep as close as may be to the living and growing soul of the Church; not for that living and growing soul to make a virtue of keeping close to a Static Book.”


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