The other day I began a short series on Christian liturgy from its earliest days.

Those who missed that instalment might wish to read it before continuing with this post.

Source material is taken from W.D. Maxwell’s 1937 book A History of Christian Worship: An Outline of Its Development and Form, available to read in full online (H/T: Revd P. Aasman). Page references are given below. I have also added my own comments.

Before examining developments from the latter part of the fourth and the fifth centuries, I offer these observations:

1/ It is surprising how quickly a general liturgy developed so quickly and how eternal it has been. It is a far remove from what we normally consider to be ‘authentic’ house meetings.

2/ Those who anticipate reading about a public confession of sin during this era will be disappointed. That development did not come until later.

3/ Protestants concerned about ‘Romish’ practices emerging in their churches will find it interesting to read that these were part of the three main patriarchates from the beginning.

4/ Traditionalist Catholics wondering why the ‘modern Mass’ — Novus Ordo (New Order!) — developed the way it did will also find this series beneficial. Would that the bishops, priests and religious had explained these developments better and in more detail during the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, post-Vatican II reforms were pushed through with little consideration for the laity. Even today, Pope Francis refuses to encourage the occasional Latin Mass.

Early Church patriarchates

Church persecution by the Roman Empire ended in 380 AD. Constantine had converted to the faith.

Three main patriarchates existed at this time (pp. 34-37):

1/ Antioch (Syria), which also governed the Church in Jerusalem;

2/ Alexandria (Egypt);

3/ Rome, which really was only the church in that region. Roman ecclesiastical authority did not cover the rest of Western Europe at that time.

Churches in the rest of Europe are historically called Gallican, whether they were located in what we know as the British Isles, Germany, France or Spain.

Incidentally, Gaul — today’s France — developed well documented rites and later became known as the ‘eldest daughter of the Church’ (la fille ainée de l’Église). Catholics who take Church history in secondary school or at university will know this fact. Those who are familiar with France and have Catholic friends there will also have heard it many times over. Even a lapsed French Catholic is proud of this. (This post will not be considering the separate papacy in Avignon, which came much later.)

Clementine Liturgy the model for Eastern Rites

Antioch (Syria) began using the Clementine Liturgy after 380.

This liturgy is contained in Book VIII of the Apostolic Constitution, ‘a manual of ecclesiastical life’. Although minor variations existed and further developed, Maxwell says that it can be considered ‘the parent rite of all the Eastern liturgies’ (p. 26).

Some of these liturgical elements are also present in Roman Catholic Mass and certain high church Lutheran and Anglican services.

Although the Clementine order of service is much the same as the first liturgy which existed through the early part of the fourth century, there are two differences worth noting (p. 27):

– Vesting the celebrant during the Offertory with a ‘splendid vestment’ prior to his saying the prayers of consecration;

– Placing the Kiss of Peace, previously part of the post-Communion liturgy, before the Offertory.

Litanies and prayers at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word appear to have been optional as was the Lord’s Prayer said before the final prayers of the Liturgy of the Upper Room.

Another interesting development is the arrangement of the church and the clergy during the service. Many Protestants reading the citation below will find it typically ‘Romish’ and ‘busy’, however, this came about a millennium before the Reformation and was codified in the Church of Antioch. Maxwell cites a passage from Book II of the Apostolic Constitution which summarises the Clementine Liturgy (p. 28). It says (emphases mine):

When thou assemblest the Church of God, do thou, O bishop, like a captain of a great ship with all understanding command the assemblies to be made, giving directions to the deacons, as to sailors, to assign their places unto the brethren, as to embarking soldiers, with all care and reverence.

And, in the first place, let the building [basilica with apse] be oblong, pointing towards the east, having at the east sacristies at both sides, like a ship. And let the bishop’s throne be in the centre [i.e. of the apse at the east end], and let the seats of the presbyters be on both sides of him, and let the deacons stand by, well equipped in light raiment. For they are like sailors and overseers of the rowers on each side of the ship.

The rowers were the members of the congregation: men sitting on one side of the church and the women on the other. Bar the segregation of sexes in most of today’s churches, the building’s layout has essentially remained the same except in ultramodern diversions from tradition.

The notion of the bishop being a ship’s captain extended to the order of the sermons given after the Scripture readings (p. 19):

let the presbyters exhort the people, one at a time, but not all of them; and last of all the bishop, as becomes the captain of a ship.

So we see that, as early as the fourth century, a hierarchy was clearly established, at least in Antioch.

The deacons also dismissed the non-communicants at the end of the Liturgy of the Word in a particular order by their religious class. Children also left at this point, although the liturgy encouraged their vocal participation in responsorial prayers until then:

more especially let the little children answer.

Bible readings during the Liturgy of the Word were many (p. 28). Not only that, but they were also lengthy. In order, they came from the Law, history, Job and the Wisdom books, the Prophets, Acts, Epistles and Gospels.

During the Liturgy of the Upper Room, deacons assigned to the congregation ensured order was maintained, that no one fell asleep or spoke. The congregation stood during this part of the service (p. 30). Those readers familiar with early American history will have noted that Protestant church services then were also very long; a beadle walked around with a long stick poking those he deemed to be irreverent. Times had not changed much over the centuries.

Clementine Liturgy and the modern service

As part of the Liturgy of the Upper Room, a deacon offered a general intercessory prayer, surprisingly similar to our current Prayers of the People. The deacon prayed for ‘the peace and welfare of the world’, ‘the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’, the diocese, bishops, presbyters, ministers and rulers, the welfare of the earth as well as the sick, prisoners, exiles, children and humanity in general (p. 30).

Another aspect of the Offertory will be familiar to those who have seen today’s celebrants of Catholic Mass and high church Protestant services wash their hands ceremonially with water (p. 30). This is not an empty or pompous gesture. It signifies ‘the purity of souls dedicated to God’.

As is still true today where a celebrant says the preface of the consecration prayer (before the Sanctus), the content continues to glorify God, acknowledging Him as the author of all creation and praising His many wonders, benefits and mercies.

After the Sanctus (‘Holy, holy, holy’), the celebrant of the Clementine Liturgy recited the prayer of consecration which, like today, recalls the main events of Christ’s life on earth and a Gospel-based account of the Last Supper, before expressing the hope of His coming again to us in glory. He also prays that the elements of bread and wine offered for consecration are worthy of the Lord (p. 31).

Another aspect of the Clementine Liturgy which is particularly apparent is a hymn or psalm during the distribution of the Eucharist, as it was called. Psalm 34 was standard then. It features the words ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good’ (p. 33). Today’s Catholics often sing a hymn of this name based on that psalm.

Eastern liturgical developments after the fourth century

After the fourth century, other aspects of worship took hold in the Eastern churches. These are now also common to Roman Catholic Mass and some Protestant services:

– Private prayers and confession among the clergy robing themselves in the sacristy before the service begins. During the era of the Clementine Liturgy, another clergyman censed the congregation with incense (p. 37);

– A set — and reduced — number of readings, often two (an Epistle and Gospel) but sometimes a third from the Old Testament, Acts or Revelation for certain feasts or seasons in the Church calendar (p. 38);

– The introduction of the Creed, which the Western and Roman churches did not yet have.

– Elaborate processions created for the reading of the Gospel and the Offertory (p. 40);

– Intinction of the Eucharist (p. 41). The celebrant dipped the bread into wine then gave it to the congregant in a spoon.

The Eastern churches also introduced a screen or curtain which could be closed during the readings prior to the Gospel and during the consecration prayer (pp. 38, 39). Some older Catholic churches — probably since remodelled post-Vatican II — also had heavy velvet curtains for this purpose.

Iconography began to gain importance as it decorated the solid screen. The congregation contemplated the images whilst following a deacon who stood in front of the screen directing worship. These solid screens had a central door called the Royal Door, which, in some churches, had an additional veil or curtain over it (p. 39).

The celebrant’s manner of prayer recitation, particularly during the consecration, changed to one that those familiar with Latin Mass will recognise. He said the prayers in a murmur to heighten the sense of mystery in his communication with God. He spoke at full voice only when he reached the ends of prayers so that the congregation would have a better idea of where he was in the service (p. 39).

With the end of persecution, music began to appear during worship (p. 39). Initially, one or two cantors sang, reminiscent of a synagogue service. However, this aspect of liturgy evolved as music became more complicated and choirs took over. In some churches, choirs represented the people’s responses; the congregants were largely silent. Some choirs, such as those in the Russian Church, were hidden. Others, such as the Greeks’, sang from the dome in the nave (p. 40).

Finally, fewer members of Eastern churches took the Eucharist. Few people received it weekly (p. 39). Maxwell does not explain why.

Divine mysteries

Those who belong to Eastern Orthodox churches are accustomed to long services. However, Maxwell tells us that the liturgy from the Clementine onward has been carefully designed not to bore but to lift the congregation into a higher state of wonder and awe. He adds that the sense of a Real Presence is part of this heightened mystery (p. 33).

I would like to add an explanation of incense, which many decry as ‘Romish’ or passé. In my 2012 post on Mary’s Magnificat and the meeting with her cousin Elizabeth (pregnant with John the Baptist), I discussed the role of Zechariah (Elizabeth’s husband) in the temple:

Zechariah was one of the priests ‘on duty’ at the temple one day when, by chance, he was chosen to perform the prayerful devotion of burning incense which dated from Old Testament days: fragrant scent which would ascend to God as, the faithful anticipated, would their prayers and praises to Him.

It is a shame that so few churches use incense today, including Catholic and Anglican ones.

Whatever happened during the Eastern church service held (and still does hold) a symbolic or mystical meaning (p. 41). As such, church members grew in piety because they felt as if they had been lifted to a heavenly realm.

To those who might criticise, Maxwell offers this riposte (p. 41):

Symbolism is meaningless only to the uninstructed or unimaginative mind.

… there is little in this worship, when properly understood, to offend against reason; and Christianity has always made most enduring progress by an appeal both rational and emotional. The intellectual appeal must be there to give the emotional stability and permanence, but it dare not be exclusive. Elaborate symbolism in Christian worship is not to be mistaken for gaudy and formal display; to the instructed worshipper each action and symbol is pregnant with meaning. The Puritan John Bunyan properly insisted that there is an Eye-gate as well as an Ear-gate to the City of Mansoul [Man’s Soul]. Christian worship at its best provides a way for man’s whole being and nature to approach God, and opens many channels of grace through which God draws nigh to man.

Some will strongly object, however, for those of us who appreciate the mysterium tremendum of the past will find comfort and affirmation from Maxwell’s words.

Tomorrow: The Roman and Gallican liturgies from the 6th to 10th centuries