I just finished reading an excellent book called The People’s Work – A Social History of the Liturgy, by the Rev. Dr. Frank C. Senn. As you look at that subtitle, two words (history and liturgy) probably immediately tell you that I’m being a nerd, and this book is actually really boring. But bear with me; this is an interesting and readable book, and worth hearing about.
This book outlines the story of how Christian worship developed since the days of the New Testament. As a “social history,” this book pays particular attention to the way worship practices (liturgy) were influenced by the culture of the world around, or were a rejection or other sort of interaction with said culture. It does present some theological background and explanation for some aspects of liturgy, but that is not its main purpose. You don’t need to be a seminary student to understand this book.
What’s in this book?
To summarize the contents of the book, I’ll list the chapter titles and my brief summary of the content of each.
Chapter 1 – Socially speaking, what kind of group was the Christian assembly? Pre-existing models for forming a local church include a Jewish Sect, a Household, a Club or Cultic Association, and a School. But ecclesia (church) as a “Shadow Empire” really brings it all together: the local churches understood themselves as part of a larger universal body or whole.
Chapter 2 – Sacraments and Cult. The “cultus” of Christianity, especially the Sacraments, have many Jewish and Greco-Roman counterparts to inform their development.
Chapter 3 – Apocalypse and Christian liturgy. The book of Revelation is a reflection of the liturgy, and the apocalyptic culture of Early Christian worship continued into monasticism.
Chapter 4 – Times, Occasions, and the Communion of Saints. The Calendar and Hours arose for theological and practical reasons; never merely aping or replacing Pagan holidays.
Chapter 5 – Sacred places and Liturgical art in Late Antique Culture. Sacred space developed in the sharp contrast to Pagan preference, and sacred art developed in sharp contrast to Jewish preference.
Chapter 6 – People and places for different liturgies. The development of the Orders of Ministry and the standardization of liturgical rites and church architecture were all mutually influencing.
Chapter 7 – Church music through the Carolingian Renaissance. Music and singing developed in such ways as to combat Paganism and heretics, expand beyond Jewish origins, as well as to beautify worship yet seeking new ways to include the lay people.
Chapter 8 – Vernacular elements in the Medieval Latin Mass. Worship in local languages was frequently rediscovered through new hymns or carols or other resources. Protestants only continued that practice; they didn’t invent it.
Chapter 9 – The Medieval liturgical calendar. The liturgical calendar was developed with few pre-Christian influences remaining.
Chapter 10 – The Eucharistic Body and the Social Body in the Middle Ages. Beliefs and practices surrounding Holy Communion impacted the social bonds of Medieval European society.
Chapter 11 – The dissolution of the Social Body in the Reformation Communion. The Eucharist lost its place of social centrality during the Reformation, especially to the State.
Chapter 12 – Death here and life hereafter in the Middle Ages and Reformation. Medieval and Reformation doctrines and liturgies concerning death and burial were among the most radical changes of their day.
Chapter 13 – The ecclesiastical captivity of marriage. Marriage long held a mixed secular and sacred position, and in the Reformation the Church and State were emphasized by different traditions.
Chapter 14 – Liturgy and confessional identity. Liturgy, as the performance of theology through worship, was a critical tool for establishing the Reformation or Counter-Reformation.
Chapter 15 – Popular devotions, Pious communities, and Holy Communion. Popular (or “paraliturgical”) devotions, hymn singing, Pietist meeting groups, and attitudes toward receiving Communion in the 17th-18th centuries revealed a growing sense of emotionalism and individualism.
Chapter 16 – Worship Awakening. Revivalism in the USA, largely driven by culture, codified the emotional and individualist notion of worship and made it consumerist (what I get out of it, rather than what we put into it).
Chapter 17 – Liturgical Restoration. The Enlightenment beginning in the mid-1700’s made the liturgy rationalistic and asserted more state control over the church. Liturgical restoration has been slowly ongoing ever since.
Chapter 18 – Liturgical Renewal. Liturgical renewal is a movement that has focused on the congregation’s participation in worship… often controversial but ecumenically successful.
Good points about the book
Whether you’re a Roman Catholic well-established in the Mass and the Hours and the Rosary, a Pentecostal who can’t imagine a legitimate worship service without speaking in tongues and prophetic utterances, or anywhere in between, there is a tendency to take one’s worship tradition for granted. It’s not just about “why” we worship the way we do, there’s also the question of “how” our tradition ended up the way it did. The Prayer Book I use wasn’t around in the 13th century. The way your church baptizes people isn’t identical to how the Early Church baptized people. This book traces the development of many aspects of worship – sacraments, ministry, music, calendar and seasons, and others – through the course of history.
This book’s 18 chapters are also organized by topic and arranged chronologically, so if there’s something in particular you want to read about, it’s pretty easy to dive in to the chapter(s) you need, and skip the rest.
Frank Senn wrote this book in an informal manner. He doesn’t use more technical terms than he has to. And when he does use them (especially Latin words like gradual or sanctus) he explains them right away.
Bad points about the book
However, once a technical term has been defined, Senn feels free to use that term without re-explanation through the rest of the book. If you’re reading each chapter all the way through, this won’t be a problem, but if you come to this book aiming to study the Protestant and Revivalist worship culture of America, you may run up against a few references to material in earlier chapters without explanation or footnote. Not that that’s a terrible thing, it just makes it harder for someone new to the subject to cherry-pick their way through this book.
My only disappointment with The People’s Work is the Epilogue. There he briefly introduces the “emergent church” movement and offers a brief definition of the “liturgical retrieval” that they tend to practice. And then, without much explanation or argumentation, he asserts his opinion that the future of Christianity in the Global South is going to be characterized by emergent liturgical retrieval. It’s an oddly incongruous conclusion to draw after spending most of 18 chapters tracing a continuous development of worship practices for nearly 2,000 years.
If you’ve never thought much about worship practices before, this is a good first book to pick up on the subject. If you think you know a lot about worship, but haven’t read many (or any) books on the subject, this is still a good first book to delve into. The author is an attentive scholar, careful to keep his opinions out of the way (until the epilogue), giving a fair hearing to Roman Catholics, Revivalists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Pentecostals alike.
If you really want to dig into the subject of liturgy and worship, this is an excellent resource for giving you the scope of Christian worship without getting bogged down in too many technical details. Pair this with a book that explores liturgy from a theological/spiritual perspective, such as Liturgical Theology by Simon Chan, and you’ll have yourself a fantastic start into understanding the basics of why worship takes place the way it does.