Project Canterbury

What Is the Liturgical Movement?

By Harold Riley.

London: The Church Union, no date.


What is the Liturgical Movement? What are its aims? What has it already achieved? Such questions frequently arise in the minds of Church people today. This pamphlet sets out to give some answer to them.

It is best to be clear about terms. The Liturgical Movement is not an organisation, but literally a “movement,” a revival which is taking place in Christian life, affecting in different ways and degrees the worship of the Anglican Communion, of the Roman Catholic Church, and of various other Christian bodies. It is a renaissance or reformation which, like the revival in Biblical studies, is affecting the whole life of Christendom.

And why “Liturgical?” Liturgy is the formal worship of the Church, the corporate expression of the faith of the Church in its approach to God. In a narrower sense “the Liturgy” has sometimes been used as a title for the eucharistic rite alone; sometimes it has been used to include the Divine Office also, with its Psalms and Lessons; in a broader sense it includes all the forms of corporate, official worship authorised by the Church. The Liturgical Movement therefore is concerned with the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian worship, and with the daily round of Divine Office, but it is also concerned with the whole approach of the Church to God in worship, with its reality and sincerity, and with its correspondence to the proportion of the Faith.

[4] The Liturgical Movement seeks to secure understanding on the part of the faithful of the meaning of the Holy Sacrifice, and their due participation in its offering; it seeks to show the integral connexion between Christian living and Christian worship; and to achieve such reforms in methods of worship as will further these ends. A distinguished Lutheran scholar has written: “The Liturgical Movement is doubtless the most important and the most promising current at work in the contemporary Church.”


The new interest in the meaning of worship may be reckoned from the year 1840, when the French Abbot Guéranger began his famous work “The Liturgical Year.” In practice in his monastery, and through his writings, he set out to restore the ancient plainchant of the Church services to its authentic form, and to secure among the clergy an understanding of the rites of the Church as they then were. He did not indeed foresee the extension of his work to bring a full participation of the laity in those rites, nor did he relate the liturgy to the social background of modern life as his successors have done. What he began was a learned revival, in which he was followed not only by members of his own Communion, but by distinguished Anglican scholars as well. In living memory, the names of Walter Frere and Gregory Dix have an honourable place among them, and others, still alive, continue their work.

To-day the Liturgical Movement has passed from the stage of asking what our services actually mean to that of asking in what form they can best [4/5] express what the Church should be doing in its worship. And to-day the revival is concerned directly with the practice of the Church, and not only with scholarly research. Before we consider how this works out, it will be well to see how much need for reform there has been.

The earlier students of liturgy tended to look back to the Medieval period as the Golden Age of worship; but as the study of earlier centuries has proceeded, it has become increasingly obvious that in many ways the Middle Ages saw a great falling away from the truest ideals of worship. For example, the exclusive use of the Latin language in the west, inevitable as it must have been in the formative period of modern European languages, gradually fostered the idea that the clergy alone needed to understand the words of Christian rites. At the best, the laity (except for an educated minority) could pray in their own words, relating their prayers as best they could to the general themes of the official rite; at the worst, the laity were mere onlookers. The Mass in an unknown tongue easily became the Mass said almost silently, unheard by the people. The things which they best understood were incidental ceremonies, such as the Elevation of the Host, or the Palm Sunday procession. The Mass became an opportunity for private devotion, rather than an obviously corporate action of the Church. The old ideal of all orders of the Church, priestly and lay, having their part, yielded to the idea that the priest’s work was to offer the Holy Sacrifice; the people’s part was to hear, or only to attend, the Mass when he offered it.

With this went a decay in the practice of frequent Communion, itself changing the focus of attention [5/6] from the action of the Mass, in the proclamation of God’s word and from Offertory through Consecration to Communion, to concentration on the eucharistic presence of our Lord as the object of devotion. When therefore more frequent Communion became more common in the post-Reformation period, it tended to be regarded as an act of individual piety, rather than as a partaking in a corporate act of the whole Church.

In the Church of England since the Reformation, sacramental worship greatly declined, and the “morning service” came to be Mattins, Litany and Ante-Communion—a form of service further shortened, to leave Mattins in sole possession in many places. The restoration of weekly Communion at an earlier hour, the best arrangement that the Oxford Movement could achieve in its earliest stages, itself seemed to suggest that receiving Holy Communion, and joining in the service at which it was received. were extras for the (more than usually devout. And the further restoration of Sung Mass as a later morning service still left the distinction between the early Mass for Communion (a comparatively private service in many people’s minds), and the corporate Sung Mass “for worship.”

The decay of understanding of the corporate nature of Catholic worship has had a further consequence. It has tended to put worship in a separate compartment of life, unrelated to the whole meaning of the life we live in this world. To all too many baptized Christians it has therefore seemed irrelevant to the main business of living, and they have quietly given up joining in the worship of the Church at all.

All this may seem an over-dark picture, and it [6/7] may be truly said that many devout Christians have achieved a truer understanding, and a more real integration of worship and life, than what has been written above would suggest. But it remains true that there have been distorting factors at work, which have stultified some of the most sincere efforts of Christians; it is with the reform of these that the Liturgical Movement is occupied.

One other element in the situation is of importance to members of the Church of England. Attempts have already been made to revise the present Prayer Book, the “Deposited Books” of 1927 and 1928 being the result. The time is not far off when new attempts to do this will be made, we may hope with happier beginnings and more satisfactory results; and it will be of major importance that any revisions which are made shall be in accordance with the soundest liturgical principles. In the meantime, the Liturgical Movement has therefore a vital educational task to perform.


We pass then to the consideration of some of the principles which should govern the conduct of Christian worship. Of these the basic one, which should control all else, is that the Church is the Body of Christ, and its worship is a corporate worship. That means that all members of the Church in their own order, all having their due place in the priestly and kingly Body of which Christ the King of kings and great High-priest is the Head, should be taking their proper part in the worship of the whole. They ought therefore to be able to understand what is being done, [7/8] and an increasing number of Roman Catholics are coming to see that this cannot be adequately provided for except by the use of the people’s own language. We may be thankful that in the Church of England we have had the use of the English language for four hundred years, though that very fact ought to remind us that language changes over the centuries, and to raise the question whether the time has not come for some revision of the language of our services, in the interests of greater intelligibility.

Services obviously lose the advantage of being in our own language unless they are audible. We do not need to hear the private prayers of the priest, as when he is engaged at the offertory, but the corporate prayers of the Church ought clearly to be heard, and to be heard clearly. But it is all too often forgotten that this means that not only should the priest be audible, but that the laity should be so also. Too often, for example, the word Amen comes no more than as a gentle sigh from the congregation. Our people need to learn to speak out and to sing out with confidence, making their responses so that the priest can hear them as well as they can hear him. At said Masses they should join in all the responses, and also join with the celebrant in all those parts that they sing at a sung celebration—the Creed, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Gloria. They should also sit when the epistle is read, since this is something to which they should listen, and stand for the gospel, as a mark of reverence for its proclamation, both at said and at sung Masses.

Our worship will be inadequate unless it reflects the faith of the Church, and the meaning of its life, in due proportion. In the Holy Sacrifice of the altar, [8/9] the focal elements are four, corresponding to the things which our Lord himself did at the Last Supper: Offertory, Consecration, Fraction and Communion. Of these four elements, two are preparatory: the Offertory a preparation for the Consecration, and the Fraction a preparation for the Communion. In the Consecration we bring our gifts in oblation to God, for his blessing on them, in the Communion he makes his great Gift to us, conferring his blessing on us. The Liturgical Movement has therefore laid great stress on these four actions, and above all on the Consecration and Communion.

In some churches, the attempt is made to underline the significance of the Offertory by having an Offertory procession, with representatives of the laity bringing the bread and wine to the altar. In others, those who are to receive Holy Communion themselves place a host in a ciborium before the Mass starts. Whether these particular methods are used or not, it is important that the people should realise that in the Offertory we bring to God the bread and wine which are the symbols of our own lives, for it is not only the eucharistic Body of Christ which is to be our oblation to God, but through it the Church which itself is the Body of Christ, which in union with him must be truly offered.

The Consecration begins with the little dialogue “Lift up your hearts. We lift them up unto the Lord. Let us give thanks unto our Lord God. It is meet and right so to do;” and concludes with the “Amen” at the end of the Prayer. To say the Great Prayer is the distinctive office of the priesthood, but at its beginning and end the people are therefore associated with the priest who speaks in their name.

[10] The Fraction naturally follows next, but unfortunately the only provision at present made in the Prayer Book is for it to take place at the words “He brake it” at the Consecration itself. It is much to be desired that in any revision of the Prayer Book, provision will be made for it after the Consecration, and before the Communion.

It is everywhere recognised by adherents to the Liturgical Movement that it is desirable whenever possible that there should be communicants besides the celebrant, and that whenever possible people should receive Holy Communion in the Mass itself, instead of immediately before or after, as has been the debased custom in many places on the Continent. The Communion is an integral part of the Mass, and it is only a second best when the Mass is celebrated without communicants. This is no doubt sometimes necessary, but it is important that people should recognise that the fullest way of entering into the meaning of the Mass is to receive Holy Communion at it. The final prayers of thanksgiving, both in the Prayer Book and in the Roman Missal, assume the reception of Holy Communion, and their existence should be a constant reminder that this is the norm, from which non-communicating attendance, justified as it is, is a departure.


The principles of the Liturgical Movement have already altered the practice of worship in many parishes in varying degrees. The desire to give a more corporate expression to worship has already affected [10/11] architecture, music and ceremonial. In order to bring the congregation into a closer relation with what is done at the altar, new arrangements have in some places been made, especially in new churches, with the altar closer to the congregation, and with the choir either behind the altar, or in a gallery apart. The altar itself has become more clearly the centre of worship, and the place of sacrifice, by its being relieved of gradines and decorations which have often made it appear that what was important was not the altar-table, but the array of candles and flowers that could be put behind it. So far as is possible, churches affected by the Movement are so arranged that the high altar is the only one which is seen in the nave, and the unnecessary complication of side-altars which are not needed except as little shrines is avoided.

Together with this bringing of the altar nearer to the people, there has often gone the practice of celebrating the Mass across the altar, facing the people; and when this is done, a considerable adjustment of ceremonial becomes necessary. Some ceremonial actions, such as turning to the people for the salutation “The Lord be with you,” become otiose; and the altar candlesticks have to be sufficiently unobtrusive not to obscure the view of the congregation. This arrangement is a restoration of the order of the early centuries, and has the virtues of simplicity and directness; it is not of course possible in many churches without drastic reconstruction. There are advantages both in the eastward and in the westward [11/12] position, and it is not yet possible to say what will be the ultimate verdict of the Church’s mind upon it.

As regards the text of the services, the rites for Holy Week have already been revised for the Roman Missal. For example, the Palm Sunday ceremonies have been greatly simplified, with the emphasis on the Procession rather than on the blessing of the palms. Four of the old five prayers for the blessing of palms have been omitted, and the ceremony of blessing them is to take place in view of the people, and not away from them at the altar. On Maundy Thursday, the emphasis has been put back on to the Mass of the day, instead of on the altar of repose, which had become the usual focus of devotion. On Good Friday, the old idea of a “Mass of the Pre-sanctified” has given way to that of a simple distribution of Holy Communion at the end of the liturgical service of the day. On Holy Saturday, the vigil character of the altar service has been restored, with a concentration on the two chief Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Many incidental reforms have been included in the services for this time, all directed at achieving greater simplicity and clarity of meaning, and relation to modern life. A great number of simplifications have also been introduced into the rules for the recitation of the Divine Office, and further reforms are officially foreshadowed.

In the Church of England, it is certain that the newly-constituted Liturgical Commission will be [12/13] sensitive to the warnings of liturgical scholars, and that any reforms proposed by it will have the advantage of the extensive and penetrating study of liturgy that has gone on, both within and without the Anglican Communion, since the last attempts at revision were made. Any proposals are, so far as one can tell, likely to be both more radical, and more consistent with the past history of Christian worship, than have been made at earlier stages. To give one example, if it is desired to restore psalmody to the eucharistic rite, and to provide an Old Testament lesson as well as an epistle and gospel, these changes would necessitate some re-shaping of the present rite, but they would be wholly in accord with the practice of the Church in its early centuries.


The Liturgical Movement, however, has not merely come from the more accurate scholarship of the learned; it has its roots also in the deep pastoral sense of many priests and people that the worship of the Church should not merely be a monument to the deep instincts of worship of past generations, but should express in the most fitting form the worship of the modern world. That means that liturgy and life must be so related that the former gives direction and purpose to the latter, and that the relevance of what we do in church to what we do with the rest of our lives must be manifested in our services. The nineteenth-century institution of Harvest Thanksgivings [13/14] may even come to be seen as a precursor of closer association between worship and the earning of daily bread, for it has been suggested that there should be special Masses for industrial and commercial groups and needs. These, however, would always be for special occasions, for at the basis of the whole Liturgical Movement it the insistence that the Sunday Mass is that of the whole Christian family joining together “in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body” of our Lord.

In any general movement such as that we have been considering, there will always be varying emphasis and interests. The outstanding fact is that over so wide an area there is a great re-awakening to the significance of the corporate worship of the Church. Even if in the course of it mistakes are made, there is every reason for thankfulness in the knowledge that a great renaissance is taking place, and that it is bringing us back to a deeper appreciation of the supreme activity for which we were created—to worship God.

Project Canterbury