The past few posts have looked at how Christian liturgy developed from the first century through the ages: early Christian liturgy, that of the East as well as the Gallican and Roman rites in the West.

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.

Rome began extending ecclesiastical influence throughout Western Europe in the ninth century. By the 11th century all Western churches followed the Roman rite. That said, the Roman rite, initially austere and brief, had incorporated elaborate elements of the Gallican rite used elsewhere in the West. One of these was recitation of a Creed. The Roman rite adopted the Nicene Creed for this purpose (p. 65).

Also of note is that few liturgical changes took place between this time and 1570, when the post-Trent Tridentine Mass was instituted. In fact, Maxwell observes that there is little difference between the two.

Lack of understanding

One of the major problems with the Roman rite was the secondary role given to the deacon.

In the Gallican rite the deacon directed public worship. In the Roman rite he became an acolyte, assisting the priest during Mass (p. 66). A number of the priest’s prayers were also said in a low voice which was inaudible to the congregation. With no one in front to direct their worship, they found the service confusing.

Another factor in a lack of understanding was that most people did not understand Latin. The liturgy was no longer meant for public participation (p. 66). Choirs took over the responsorials.

As most Christians no longer understood what was happening at Mass, they began to reinterpret it. One example was the elevation of the consecrated Host which held undue importance for them, to the extent that many left church after that point (p. 65).

To help explain the liturgy the theologian Amalarius of Metz wrote an explanation of it in the ninth century (p. 67). It was faithful to the symbolism of the very first church services. Amalarius’s analysis is still used today in explaining the liturgy to churchgoers.

Infrequent Communion

Receiving Communion had been done rarely since the early centuries of the Church, including the East. Church councils tried to encourage frequent Communion but to no avail.

By the sixth century churchgoers were required to receive the Sacrament on the major feasts of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. By 1215, the requirement was reduced to annually at Easter (p. 65).

The Cup was also withdrawn from the laity by 1215, possibly earlier.

Types of Mass in the Middle Ages

Different types of Mass began appearing in the Middle Ages.

Until this time, most Masses were concelebrated. However, there were not always adequate numbers of priests for this to happen. Consequently, Mass was adapted according to local need.

High Mass

This has been the most historically traditional form of church service in Christianity. A bishop is the main celebrant with other clergy assisting him.

Locally, a priest says Mass, assisted by a deacon, subdeacon and servers.

A choir sings responsorials as well as hymns or psalms.

After the ninth century it was rare for Communion to be given to the congregation at this type of Mass (p. 64). This changed in the 20th century with clergy or eucharistic ministers stationed at different points in the church to accommodate large congregations.

Low Mass

At Low Mass the priest has no deacons or subdeacons. He is assisted by servers.

There is also no choir, which meant that prayers are said, apart from certain ones which were always sung.

People were able to receive Communion at Low Mass during the Middle Ages (p. 64). They still are, but in that era, that was the only occasion when they were allowed to do so.

Missa Cantata

This was a Mass with a priest, servers and a choir.

Because a choir is present, the whole Mass is sung.

Communion was not generally given to the congregation during this era (p. 64).

Dry Mass

In Latin the name for this type of service is Missa Sicca.

It is a Low Mass with no consecration of the elements. The Bread and Wine are reserved from a prior consecration and distributed to the congregation.

Dry Mass is celebrated on Good Friday in both Western and Eastern Churches. In the latter, it is called the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified (p. 64).

Maxwell tells us that Dry Mass was the prototype for early Anglican and Reformed services (p. 65). I would add that today’s Anglican Communion service is very much like Low Mass in structure.

The Prone — not a Mass

The Prone was not a Mass but a service similar to traditional Protestant ones where there is no Communion. It was particularly popular in France and Germany.

Maxwell would refute that, saying there is no evidence for it (p. 66), however it was said in the vernacular.

The format was in Latin through the Gospel reading. Then, the priest spoke and prayed in the local language.

The Prone had the following sections after the Gospel: the Creed, sermon and exhortation, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer or a lengthy paraphrase of it.

Frequency of Mass and special intentions

During the Middle Ages Masses were said with increasing frequency.

As it was seen as a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice, the Church held that Mass had a specific spiritual value with our Lord. The more Masses celebrated, the more of this value was accumulated with God (p. 67).

It was at this time that special intentions for a particular Mass became popular. This is still done today in the Catholic Church. A Mass might be dedicated to missionaries, disaster victims or in memory of someone who has recently died (excluding the funeral Mass).

However, from the Dark Ages through mediaeval times, aberrations and abuses began to occur on the part of both laity and clergy. The earliest known one was the custom of a Mass intention to bring about someone’s death. The Synod of Toledo banned this practice in 694 (p. 68).

Laypeople brought their special Mass requests to priests, who told them how many Masses would need to be said in order for their prayers to be answered (p. 68). This meant that praying for a soul to be released from Purgatory would require a set number of Masses whilst a good growing season in the fields would require another.

With all the Masses that needed to be said every day, churches and cathedrals needed room for the various priests to say them at any one time (p. 68). This was the reason for having side chapels, each with an altar.

Eastern churches, on the other hand, have but one altar.

Confession between clergy only

The Confiteor and Misereatur, the confession of sin and prayer for mercy, was introduced after the Kyrie in the Middle Ages (p. 69).

However, it was only said between the celebrant and his clergy or servers.

This remained true until Novus Ordo appeared in the late 1960s.

Other notes

Incense was now used not only during the Gospel reading but also at the Offertory and the Elevation of the Host (p. 70).

Bells were introduced during the Prayer of Consecration to signal to the congregation where the priest was in his recitation (p. 70). The absence of the deacon directing worship made the bells necessary.

The Kiss of Peace was done during the Agnus Dei, just before Communion. It was no longer a public greeting and was restricted to the clergy at the altar (p. 70).

Mass concluded with the celebrant reading what was called the Last Gospel, John 1:1-14. The congregation responded with ‘Deo Gratias‘ (‘Thanks be to God’).

What angered the Reformers

We know that simony — the purchase of ecclesiastical office, indulgences and other spiritual things — was rife during this time.

We also know that people were frustrated with a Mass that they did not understand.

The early Reformers were also appalled at the infrequency of Communion among congregations.

They also took issue with illiterate priests who were unable to deliver the Scripture readings or preach a sermon. Instead, these priests extemporised on the lives of the saints (p. 72).

However, Maxwell takes issue in the way that the Reformers revamped the liturgy. He says that it was ‘largely negative’ apart from Bucer’s efforts in Strasbourg and Cranmer’s in England (p. 73). He takes them to task for not knowing about the earlier Gallican rites or the Eastern liturgy.

That said, he acknowledges the great uplift the Reformers gave to worship in making it accessible to and understood by everyone.

Next time: the early Lutheran rite

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