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Origines Liturgicæ,

or Antiquities of the English Ritual, and
A Dissertation on Primitive Liturgies.

by William Palmer of Worcester College Oxford, 3rd Edition 1839.

Transcribed by John D Lewis
Murdoch University
Perth, Western Australia.
AD 2000








IN treating of the liturgy, I would be understood to use the term in that restricted sense which it generally bears in the writings of the ancients as denoting the service used in the celebration of the eucharist. In the eastern churches, that service (though sometimes known by other appellations) has long borne the title of the "divine" or "mystical" liturgy. In the west, the eucharistic office has most commonly been called "missa;" but the term liturgy has also been frequently applied to it.

The study of ancient liturgies is one, which from various circumstances has made but slow progress. It can hardly be said to have commenced until the sixteenth century, when the liturgies of Basil, Chrysostom, James, Mark, and others of eastern origin, were first printed. Before this time, though some writers commented on the offices of their own churches, they were unable to compare various liturgies together, and thence to elicit the truth. At that period, none of the learned men of Europe, even though profoundly versed in general theology, and in the writings of the Fathers, were able to [4]

 give any satisfactory information relative to these ancient remains, or to form any just or distinct notion of their merits. It was not until the middle of the seventeenth century, that light was first thrown on the Greek liturgies by Goar, in his edition of the Euchologium; and although that work is far from perfect, no one has since enlarged the sphere of its information, or corrected its errors. In this century also, Thomasius published the ancient Roman Sacramentary of Gelasius. Pamelius in the preceding century had edited that of Gregory, which was now illustrated with learned notes by Menard. In the eighteenth century the Roman Sacramentary of Leo was discovered. And not long before, the writings of Gavanti, Bona, Le Brun, Martene, and Muratori gave much information relative to the Roman liturgy. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the ancient Gallican liturgy was rescued from oblivion by Bona, Thomasius, and Mabillon. In the early part of the eighteenth, Renaudot first gave to the world much satisfactory information relative to the liturgies of Alexandria and Antioch, which had been hitherto almost entirely unknown. Thus it was not until the eighteenth century, that the materials of knowledge were supplied in such abundance, as to enable the student of liturgies to take an extended and unprejudiced view of his subject.

Combined with these circumstances were. others, which have much impeded the study of liturgies, and have tended to excite unreasonable prejudices against them. The learned writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who in their own provinces of literature remain unequalled, were yet generally destitute of that sort of knowledge which would [5]

 have constituted them sufficient judges of the merit of liturgies; and hence their opinions were most contradictory on this subject. This circumstance alone was sufficient to impede the study of liturgies; for when the most learned men were divided on the merits of those remains, it seemed an endless labour to investigate the truth.

The controversies of the time also involved this subject in obscurity. Some persons deemed their doctrines supported by the ancient liturgies, and hence thought themselves obliged to contend for their genuineness, and the integrity of their text. Others proved that they contained many things more recent than the time of their reputed authors, remarked with triumph the variations of different manuscripts, and concluded that they were perfectly uncertain, if not altogether spurious. From these causes an opinion prevails amongst a large portion of the learned world, that the ancient liturgies are of little or no value. The following pages are intended to shew, that there are some means of ascertaining the substance and order of Christian liturgies during the primitive ages; and to facilitate the study of those venerable monuments, by directing the reader’s attention to such remains, and in such a channel, as seem best calculated to merit his notice, and reward his labours.

It seems to have been often assumed by the learned, that there was originally some one apostolic form of liturgy in the Christian church, to which all the monuments of ancient liturgies, and the notices which the Fathers supply, might be reduced. Were this Hypothesis supported by facts, it would be very valuable. But the truth is, there are [6]

 several different forms of liturgy now in existence, which, as far as we can perceive, have been different from each other from the most remote period. And with regard to the apparent propriety of the Apostles’ instituting one liturgy throughout the world, it may be observed, that it is quite sufficient to suppose all liturgies originally agreed, in containing every thing that was necessary for the due celebration of the eucharist; but that they adopted exactly the same order, or received every where the same rites, is a supposition equally unnecessary and groundless.

I have not therefore attempted to reduce all the liturgies, and notices of the Fathers, to one common original; but have rather sought for the original liturgies by a reference to acknowledged facts. The following is the course which I have pursued, in endeavouring to ascertain the nature of the primitive liturgies. Considering that the primitive church was divided into great portions, known by the appellations of Patriarchates, Exarchates,2 or [7]

 national churches; and that the supreme bishops in these districts (where there were such bishops) had generally sufficient influence in latter ages, to cause their own liturgies to be universally received by their suffragans; I thought it advisable, in the first place, to examine the liturgies of such supreme churches, and inquire whether they appear to be derived from primitive antiquity. If it seem that some other liturgy was used before the existing formulary, I have endeavoured to trace it out. And finally, I have consulted the writings of those Fathers who lived in the immediate neighbourhood, and by means of them endeavoured to ascertain the extent of country through which each liturgy was used, and the antiquity to which we can trace its order and substance. This plan I have followed in all instances, except where there was no supreme church to guide me in the investigation; and I have [8] then had recourse to those remains which appear with reason to represent the original local liturgy.

After a careful examination of the primitive liturgies of the Christian church, it appears to me, that they may all be reduced to four, which have been used in different churches from a period of profound antiquity. The first may be entitled the great Oriental Liturgy, as it seems to have prevailed in all the Christian churches from the Euphrates to the Hellespont, and from the Hellespont to the southern extremity of Greece. The second was the Alexandrian, which from time immemorial has been the liturgy of Egypt, Abyssinia, and the country extending along the Mediterranean sea towards the west. The third was the Roman, which prevailed throughout the whole of Italy, Sicily, and the civil diocese of Africa. The fourth was the Gallican, which was used throughout Gaul and Spain, and probably in the exarchate of Ephesus until the fourth century. These four great liturgies appear to have been the parents of all the forms now extant, and indeed of all which we can in any manner discover; and their antiquity was so very remote, their use so extensive in those ages when bishops were most independent, that it seems difficult to place their origin at a lower period than the apostolic age. The liberty which every Christian church plainly had and exercised, in the way of improving its formularies, confirms the antiquity of the four great liturgies; for where this liberty existed, it could have been scarcely any thing else but reverence for the apostolical source from which the original liturgies were derived, that prevented an infinite variety of formularies, and preserved the [9]

 substantial uniformity which we find to have prevailed in vast districts of the primitive church.

There can be little if any doubt that Christian liturgies were not at first committed to writing, but preserved by memory and practice. However, this did not prevent a substantial uniformity from being continually kept up. Each church might very easily preserve uniformity in its own liturgy; and if all who had originally received the same followed this plan, a general uniformity would be the result. That each church preserved continually the same liturgy is certain. It is impossible to peruse the notices supplied by the Fathers, without perceiving that the baptized Christians were supposed to be familiar with every part of the service; and continual allusions are made to various particulars as well known, which it would be impossible to explain, except by referring to the liturgies still extant. The order of the parts was always preserved, the same rites and ceremonies continually repeated, the same ideas and language without material variation, transmitted from generation to generation. The people always knew the precise points at which they were to repeat their responses, chant their sacred hymn, or join in the well-known prayer. If, then, each church preserved uniformity in its own liturgy, a general substantial uniformity would be found after the lapse of some centuries, in the liturgies of those churches which had originally received the same order. Thus, when we compare the liturgies of the patriarchates or exarchates of Antioch, Cæsarea, and Constantinople, as used in the fourth and fifth centuries, we find a substantial uniformity pervading them all. Those parts which are common [10] to all, are found arranged in the same order in all. The principal rites are identical. They agree in their principal ideas. Every thing, therefore, concurs to prove the original identity of all three. Nearly the same may be said of the liturgies of Rome, Milan, and Africa; and of those of Gaul and Spain. We have therefore the best reasons for affirming, that the catholic church from the beginning has always preserved an uniform order of liturgy. But this uniformity did not exclude improvement and variety. The bishop of each church appears plainly to have possessed the authority of improving his own liturgy by the addition of new ideas and rites: and the exercise of this power, either individually or collectively, accounts for the variations which we find in those liturgies now extant, originally derived from the same model. Nor does. it seem that variety of expression, under certain regulations, was excluded at any time by the Christian church. When we examine the remains of the Roman, Italian, Gallican, and Spanish liturgies, we find that they all permitted a variety of expression for every particular feast; always retaining, however, more or less of fixed and permanent matter, and uniformly preserving an identity of order, and the same series of parts. It appears to me that the practice of the western churches during the fifth and fourth centuries, in permitting the use of various "missæ" in the same church, affords room for thinking that something of the same kind had existed from a more remote period. For it does not seem that the composition of new "missæ" for the festivals excited any surprise in those ages, or was viewed as any thing novel in principle. Hence I [11]

 think it probable, that it had been the early custom of many western bishops, to use more or less variety of expression and idea on each particular festival; while they carefully preserved the primitive and well-known order and substance, which had been delivered to them by their predecessors. This sort of variety is still visible in the English liturgy, where different collects and prefaces are used for different festivals, while the main order and substance still remains.

The period when liturgies were first committed to writing is uncertain, and has been the subject of some controversy. Le Brun contends that no liturgy was written till the fifth century; but his arguments seem quite insufficient to prove this, and he is accordingly opposed by Muratori and other eminent ritualists. It seems certain, on the other hand, that the liturgy of the Apostolical Constitutions was written at the end of the third, or beginning of the fourth century; and there is no reason to deny that others may have been written about the same time, or not long after. Whoever compares the account which Cyril, in his fifth mystical Catechesis, gives of the thanksgiving in the liturgy of Jerusalem, with those of St. James’s liturgy in Greek and Syriac, will be strongly inclined to think, that St. James’s liturgy was already committed to writing in the time of Cyril, or before the middle of the fourth century.

Various obstacles are to be surmounted, before we can form a correct judgment of the value of existing liturgies. As these formularies were in continual use, they necessarily received various additions, and changes, to adapt them to the circumstances of [12]

 successive ages. Some prayers became obsolete, and were omitted. Words and names and prayers were introduced, and acquired importance from the rise of heresy, from civil commotions, or some other cause. These things would induce a rapid and superficial observer to suspect mutilation or corruption, where there were very few difficulties in reality, that could not be made to yield to patient investigation and competent knowledge. The variations of manuscripts afford a ready argument against the text of existing liturgies. Some of these contain a portion of the liturgy, others the whole; some contain rubrics, and others do not; some prescribe the prayers and duties of the deacon and priest, others those of the priest only. In some, peculiar rites are introduced; in others, again, parts of the service are not written down, but left to the memory. All this has arisen merely from the different opinions with regard to convenience, which different persons entertained; and is calculated to confirm the antiquity and authenticity of the main body of the liturgy, which is preserved by all manuscripts.

The value of liturgies in affording evidence of the true nature of Christian faith and morality, would be very great, if we could refer unhesitatingly to the monuments in our possession, as exhibiting the text used during the most primitive ages. They must, however, under any circumstances, have a share in the great body of Christian evidence; and where we can shew them to have been used by certain churches, they must be considered as the public formularies of such churches, and therefore more authoritative than the sentiments of an individual. [13]

 In proportion as we can trace back their text or their substance into antiquity, their value and importance increase. When their text has been traced to the primitive ages, and we are enabled to bring the sentiments of ancient divines in confirmation of their doctrines, we may receive a satisfaction and confirmation in faith, which cannot perhaps be so fully and completely derived from primitive evidence in any other way. For it was chiefly, if not only, in the mystical liturgy of the eucharist, that the primitive church spoke without reserve of all the sublimities of Christian faith. When the catechumens and infidels, who were permitted to hear the lessons and sermon, had been dismissed, there was no longer any thing to impede the disclosure of those profound truths, which the faith of the ignorant and undisciplined could not yet receive. It was then, that in the fulness of faith and love and confidence, the brethren offered up prayers to God, and saluted one another with the holy kiss. Then the bishop, having prepared the bread and the cup, addressed the people, and exhorted them to "lift up their hearts," and "give thanks" to their heavenly Father. After which he offered thanksgiving and blessing to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for all his goodness and mercy to the human race; and, having consecrated the elements, concluded the thanksgiving and prayers with a doxology, to which all the people answered, Amen. This order varied a little in the different liturgies, but its parts are found in all, as the reader will perceive by the following pages.

All this, however, was only heard and known by the baptized or perfect Christians; for it was a [14] 

remarkable part of the primitive discipline to conceal from all others the mode of administering the sacraments. The learned Bingham has given a particular account of this in book x. chap. 5. of his Antiquities of the Christian Church; to which I refer the reader for abundant information on the subject. The method of celebrating baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist; the nature and effect of these ordinances; the sublime doctrine of the Trinity; and the Creed and Lord’s Prayer; were only communicated to converts about the time of their baptism. Christians were absolutely prohibited from revealing this information to catechumens or infidels; and whenever the early Christian writers speak on such topics, (except when controversy compels them to a different course,) there is usually some reserve in their manner, some reference to the peculiar knowledge of the faithful, and, very frequently, allusions so figurative and remote, as none but a baptized Christian could have understood.

This primitive discipline is sufficient to account for the facts, that very few allusions to the liturgy or eucharistic service are found in the writings of the Fathers; and that on the more solemn part of consecration, &c. they are almost entirely silent. I would entreat the reader to bear this in mind, if, in perusing the following pages, he should think the passages which I have collected from the Fathers, too few, or too indistinct, to warrant the inferences which I have deduced from them.

1 I have been informed that his Lordship delivered several private lectures, entirely on this topic, to a class of theological students in this University.

2 As I shall frequently have occasion to make use of these terms in the following work, I will now briefly explain them to the reader. The primitive church was ruled by bishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs. The bishop of the chief city in each province was entitled metropolitan or primate, and afterwards archbishop, and had a certain jurisdiction over the bishops of that province. He ordained them—received appeals from them in ecclesiastical affairs—presided in provincial synods of bishops—visited the dioceses or paroiki,a of each. See Bingham’s Antiquities, &c. book ii. c. 16. The bishop of a metropolis of a civil diocese, which comprised several provinces, was called archbishop, or exarch, and afterwards patriarch; and had much the same sort of jurisdiction over all the metropolitans of that diocese, as each of them had over the bishops of his own province. See Bingham, c. 17. The office of metropolitan is probably as ancient as the apostolic age; that of patriarch is likewise very ancient, though we do not find it mentioned by that name till the council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451. However it certainly existed long before that time, as it seems that the bishop of Alexandria had this sort of jurisdiction in the third century. See Bingham, book ii. c. 16. §. 3. In fact, every bishop, as a successor of the apostles, had a certain, degree of influence and authority in the whole church; and they who joined to this, the importance which was derived from the dignity, power, and opulence of the metropolitan or capital cities over which they presided, acquired such a degree of weight and influence, that bishops and metropolitans voluntarily admitted their jurisdiction. The Roman empire about the time of Constantine was divided into thirteen civil dioceses, each of which was ruled by a governor called exarch, vicar of the empire, or prefect. It does not appear that there was a supreme bishop or patriarch in each of these dioceses. The exarchs or patriarchs of the church in the fourth century, were those of Alexandria, Antioch, Cæesarea, Ephesus, Constantinople, Thessalonica, Rome, Milan, and Carthage. To which were added afterwards Jerusalem and Justiniana. See Bingham, Antiq. book ix. Basnage, Hist. de l’Eglise, tome i.

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