Development of the Western Liturgy

Early Christian Worship

The classic description of the life of the infant church given in Acts 2:41-47 mentions a variety of communal activities: teaching, fellowship, meals, communion, prayer, sharing possessions, and praise. This passage reveals more of the nature of the first Christian community than of its organization, a nature which was serious, exuberant, dedicated, and public. Apparently it was inconceivable that one could follow Christ in a private or individualistic way. Accordingly, communal worship spontaneously arose, first in the context of the Temple and the homes. Because this was viewed as a service or work for God, it is natural that the Greek word “leitourgia” was chosen to name the communal worship of the early Christians. To the Greeks “leitourgia” meant “any service rendered to the community at personal expense, or at least without remuneration” (E, 928), and was used in both the Septuagint and the New Testament (e.g. Luke 1:23; Romans 15:16; 2 Corinthians 9:12) for public worship and service to God. Thus in the church it was transformed from meaning the service of one to the community to meaning the service of the community to one, God. It is from this word that we derive the word “liturgy”, which refers to this official, public worship by the whole Christian community.

As the passage from Acts would indicate, early Christianity was characterized by the active involvement of the whole community, in worship as well as in other aspects. There was no concept of the liturgy as an act that clergy alone performed, although it is equally clear that no layman (except the heretics) would presume to lead in worship. Christian worship required the participation of the whole church led by the clergy. The New Testament tells us next to nothing, however, about the form of the services, and it is to extra-biblical sources that we look for this information.

The Didache, dated late in the first century, is the first record of how the early church worshiped. Confession was prescribed before the Eucharist (W, 197). A Eucharistic prayer is included which seems to include congregational responses, and contains thanksgiving for the cup, thanksgiving for the bread, and a prayer for the unity of the church, each followed by a response. Communion was then served, followed by a brief thanksgiving litany. This order is unusual in putting the cup before the bread.

It is Justin Martyr in his First Apology (c. 150) who gives us the first account of all the aspects of worship which may be outlined as follows (J, 26):

Readings of Apostles and Prophets
Address by the President
Intercessory Prayers
Greeting with a Kiss
Bread and Wine Brought to President
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Praise
“Amen” by People
Collection for Widows and Orphans (S, 30)

Although it was not Justin’s intent to give a detailed account of the liturgy in this, an apologetic work, his brief sketch is complete enough to see that this service contained the basic elements of the later liturgies. While there clearly were written prayers at this time (e.g. the one in the Didache), it is also clear that there was a great deal of discretion allowed to the officiating clergyman, or president, as Justin calls him. The Prayer of Thanksgiving and Praise, which in later times (called the Canon) would become shrouded in mystery and minutely specified, here is freely composed by the president “as much as in him lies” (J, 26). The Intercessory Prayers seem to have been an important part of the liturgy, as Justin briefly describes the subjects they addressed. It is noteworthy that the confession enjoined by the Didache is absent. Otherwise, how the Offertory was collected, the Communion received, and other details handled are unknown. On the basis of later documents it would seem, however, that the Offertory consisted of a procession by the congregation to the altar table to present their gifts of bread and wine which were then used for the communion. Likewise it is likely that from an early date the people gathered around the altar table for communion.

In the early third century Hippolytus of Rome gave an account of the liturgy in The Apostolic Tradition (J, 31 and S, 34) which is almost identical to Justin’s. The Sursum Corda and the Fraction are added, while he omitted any mention of a collection for the widows and orphans. Cyprian, in Carthage, included the Lord’s Prayer after the Consecration of the bread and wine. Tertullian confirmed the practice of several readings followed by prayer before communion. During this century there was the beginning of the transition from Greek to Latin in the liturgy and some ceremonies surrounding the carrying of the gospel book and setting out the bread and wine. Major ceremonial processionals were absent, but the people themselves brought the bread and wine for the Eucharist to the altar at the Offertory. Overall, at the end of the third century the service was universal and simple in its basic form, flexible in its implementation, inclusive of all in its performance, and led by the clergy.

In looking back over the sources for the first three centuries a two-fold division of the liturgy can clearly be seen: the readings, sermon and prayers constituting one part; and the kiss, Eucharistic prayer, and communion constituting the second. At times one part would be used without the other and when both were joined, catechumens were dismissed after the intercessory prayers. There is general agreement that the first part is a development of the Jewish synagogue service, which included scripture reading alternating with psalms, teaching, and prayers. The second part must have developed out of a fellowship meal to commemorate the Last Supper and combined a regular meal with the sacrament of bread and wine. In time, as the congregations grew, the meal was neglected and the sacrament was preceded by the readings and prayers.

When all this is combined, a typical third century service can be reconstructed:

Liturgy of the Catechumens

Old Testament Reading
Epistle Reading
Gospel Reading
Intercessory Prayers

Liturgy of the Faithful

Kiss of Peace
Sursum Corda
Eucharistic Prayer
(Lord’s Prayer)

Rapid Development

In contrast to the gradual development of a relatively simple service in the first three centuries, the fourth century was a time of rapid and extensive change. Luther Reed’s opinion is that “probably no period of the Church ever witnessed such great changes in so brief a time.” (R, 35) With the Peace of Constantine the church suddenly moved from a persecuted minority to a valuable part of society. As Constantine handed some civil duties over to the church, the bishops were seen as corresponding in rank and importance to the highest civil officials. Consequently they were granted the cultural symbols of such positions: titles, ceremonial dress, a gold ring, and the privileges of a throne, processionals with lights and incense, and being greeted by a kiss on the hand. With the disintegration of the western empire, the social role of the clergy became more necessary and more prominent, accelerating current trends toward embellishing their office.

All this had a profound effect on the liturgy. As the church began to build large and impressive buildings, the liturgy was expanded consistent with the expanded role of the church. The Gloria in Excelsis, and other hymns and prayers, were added in the early part of the service. The Sanctus was inserted between the Sursum Corda and the Eucharistic Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer found a permanent place after the Consecration and before Communion. The Intercessory Prayers after the sermon were removed, however, and replaced by a monologue prayer by the priest within the Eucharistic Prayer. It was felt that was a more efficacious position due to its greater proximity to the holiest part of the service, the Consecration. There was a great movement toward extravagant processions by the clergy, in all their dress and with the lights, incense, and attendants, resulting in the Introit, Gospel Procession, Recession, etc. Chateaubriand summarized this development thus: “Incense, flowers, vessels of Gold and silver, lamps, crowns, lights, linen, silk, music, processions, festival days, passed from the altars of the vanquished to the altars of the victor. Paganism attempted to borrow from Christianity its dogmas and its ethics; Christianity despoiled paganism of its ornaments.” (R, 35)

But with social acceptance and rapid growth came theological controversies. The bishops needed many more clergy to serve the growing numbers and increasing size of the churches. The bishop could no longer be in touch with all the people in his jurisdiction, but many of the new clergy were poorly educated and were susceptible to doctrinal errors. This could create a problem in the prayers of the liturgy and eventually was solved by providing fixed texts for all the service. This century saw a major shift in the theological emphasis in the eucharist, being seen less as a joyful fellowship and more as an awesome, even fearful, presence of God. The Prayer of Consecration gained more stature as the event which made this service an acceptable sacrifice to God. There was more attention to the worthiness of the people to receive communion, and screens were installed to separate the holy sanctuary from the people.

All these changes in theology and the liturgy had a profound effect on the tone of the service. It began to be characterized by lavishness of ceremony, fear and awe in the Communion, and formal precision in its order. As laymen became less involved in the prayers and processions, worship increasingly became an action performed by the clergy for the people. The simple fellowship of believers in a home around the table with their pastor was gone. What was gained in splendor, awesomeness, and theological accuracy was lost in clarity, intimacy, and adaptability.

In the centuries that followed, various liturgies took shape around the major episcopal sees. In the west, Rome far overshadowed all other cities, but different liturgies grew up in various regions of the old empire: Milanese, or Ambrosian, in Northern Italy; Mozarabic in Spain; Celtic in Ireland and Scotland; and Gallican in Gaul. The Roman liturgy was by far the simplest and most conservative, with few innovations of style or content. They faithfully adhered to the basic service outlined above. Klauser’s observations of Roman prayers would also apply to the liturgy as a whole. Its strengths were in giving good expression to basic dogmatic truths through “well-balanced sentences with resonant phrases and a majestic rhythm.” (K, 40) The weaknesses of the Roman service were an appeal to the intellect in which imagination and feeling were neglected, language too lofty for the common man, and lack of biblical reference in the prayers. These characteristics were “manifested equally in their dislike of an excess of emotion and vague sentimentality, of their severe though powerful sense of style, and in the dignified manner in which they presented their liturgy…” (K, 37) “The primitive Roman liturgy was on the whole almost puritanical in its severity and brevity.” (K, 82)

Not surprisingly, in the more rural areas and away from the sense of high Roman literary culture the liturgies developed more freely. Variation was allowed in all the prayers except the Sanctus, Institution, and the Lord’s Prayer. While Rome had only an Epistle and a Gospel reading, other liturgies often preceded these with an Old Testament reading. The Intercessory Prayers were retained, but moved to after the Offertory and “Preces”, groups of brief intercessions, were sometimes present. Everyone said the Lord’s Prayer, and the people were more involved overall. Prayers were “lengthy, highly imaginative, and even exuberant in style.” (R, 52) Dramatic elements were introduced, such as the procession of palms on Palm Sunday, candle ceremonies, foot-washing on Maunday Thursday and a multitude of Easter vigil ceremonies. The basic liturgy was embellished with many elaborate, dramatic, and sensuous features.

During the fourth to seventh centuries these liturgies each developed in their own way. Toward the end of the fifth century Gelasius I translated an intercessory litany from the east and introduced it to the beginning of the service, presumably after the Introit. A deacon would call out prayer topics, in Latin, and the people would respond to each with “Kyrie eleison”. In 510 the Nicene Creed was put into the liturgy in Constantinople. When the Greeks later conquered part of Spain the creed was added to the Mozarabic liturgy, and from there it found its way into the Gallican. In this century the Gloria in Excelsis, a hymn also from the east, was made a permanent part of the service. By the end of the sixth century the service was becoming overloaded with so many elements that it would last an unreasonably long time – up to three hours. Gregory the Great determined to shorten the service and to that end deleted the biddings in the intercessory litany which Gelasius had introduced. What was left was merely a brief prayer consisting of a repetition of “Kyrie eleison” and “Christe eleison”. In the seventh century Sergius I, a Roman bishop of Syrian and Sicilian ancestry, added the Greek hymn “Agnus Dei” during the breaking of the bread. Thus by the end of the seventh century all of the major parts of the mass were in place except the creed. (See summary chart at end.)

French and German Contributions

The eighth century was the age of the Franks as Pepin and his son Charlemagne established the Carolingian Empire in Gaul and Germany. When Pepin was crowned in 754, he issued a decree that the Roman liturgy was to be used in all churches in place of the Gallic rite. This move would solidify his realm by eliminating the ecclesiastical division caused by the competition between the two liturgies, but also, “he wanted to be in closer contact with the porter of the gate of heaven…and with his liturgy.” (K, 73) Pepin sought to provide Roman liturgy books to carry out this edict, but was not able to obtain nearly enough. The clergy were stuck with the task of conducting a Roman liturgy using Gallic books which resulted in a liturgy of Roman and Gallic elements mixed together. Charlemagne was more successful in getting Roman books, but they lacked the Sundays after Pentecost and Christmas. Alcuin, Charlemagne’s counselor, invented substitutes for the missing parts, using the mixed liturgy of Pepin as his source. Thus the “Roman” liturgy of the Carolingian Empire was part Roman and part Gallic.

Having a “Roman” liturgy did not restrain the Gauls and Germans from continuing to embellish the service, however, and additional drama, ceremony, and flourish were included. The “sacramental rites were interspersed with a whole host of spectacular and impressive ceremonies.” (K, 84) This no doubt fully occupied the clergy and kept the attention of the people attending, but by this time the layman would have had no understanding of the service, as the vernacular languages developed more distance from their Latin roots. In addition, the sacredness of the Eucharist was even more exaggerated so that the Prayer of Consecration was considered so holy that to say it out loud would be disrespectful. Unleavened bread was introduced, so the offertory procession, in which the people would bring their own bread for the sacrament to the altar, was eliminated. The role of the people was steadily being reduced to that of spectators. About this time an optional element called “Prone” was developed to meet the needs of the common people. Prone was a brief service in the vernacular language which followed the sermon and consisted of variable content. It could include the Decalogue, Confession, Absolution, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Bidding to prayer. The liturgy of Prone later played a role in the reconstruction of the liturgy by the reformers.

In the ninth century the spiritual condition in Rome deteriorated so badly that liturgical life practically died out. It was the Cluniac monasteries which kept the Roman liturgy alive in the ninth and tenth centuries. At the end of the tenth century new liturgies began to appear in Rome, not the old serious Roman form, but a more ceremonial version. This was partly a result of the work of the Cluniacs who brought their own form with them when they came from France, and partly due to the involvement of the Saxon kings Otto I and Otto II. When these rulers visited Rome they were appalled at the conditions they found there and demanded reform. Since the Roman scriptoria almost had been abandoned, liturgy books were provided from Germany. These French and German liturgy books, however, did not have the pure, original Roman liturgy, but the Roman liturgy as adapted by Alcuin and embellished by the French and Germans.

The emperors felt that Rome could not be trusted to keep its house in order and kept an eye on the situation. When Henry II arrived in Rome in 1014, he noticed that the Creed was missing from the liturgy, contrary to the practice back home. At his “suggestion” Pope Benedict included the Creed, putting it after the gospel reading. Toward the end of the eleventh century Gregory VII renewed the insistence that the whole church use the Roman liturgy and in 1085 imposed it in Spain in place of the Mozarabic. He resented the involvement of the Germans in the Roman mass and attempted to restore the old Roman liturgy, but it was impossible to go back. The old streamlined Roman liturgy was forever transformed into a more ornate form.

Two Corrupting Doctrines

There were no more dramatic changes in the liturgy until the Reformation, but two doctrines which had been developing throughout the Medieval Period brought about significant liturgical evolution in the latter part of that period. Controversy over the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist first came to a head in the dispute between Radbertus and Ratramnus in the ninth century. Ratramnus apparently asserted that the bread and wine are not the literal, physical body of Christ, but some sort of representative of that body. Radbertus, on the other hand, compared the Prayer of Consecration to the creation and incarnation, saying that in the eucharist “Christ suffers anew; his passion is repeated in a genuine … slaying, even though without death and without a new redemption.” (J, 71) This controversy broke out again in the eleventh century when Berengar of Tours took up Ratramnus’ view. One of his opponents said there were “some who say that what is eaten from the altar is the same as what was born of the Virgin, while others deny this…” (P, 186) Berengar was repeatedly condemned by eleventh century councils, and transubstantiation was definitively adopted by the Lateran Council in 1215.

This doctrine had the effect of aggravating several unhealthy trends within worship. As the bread and wine became exactly identified with the body of Christ, the atmosphere of holy fear which already surrounded the eucharist became acutely more fearful. Priests were afraid to spill any of the precious substance, so hard wafers were made for the bread which then were put directly into the mouth. The wine was prevented from spilling by withholding it from the people, but few people dared to come to communion anyway. They preferred to watch this awful event from a distance. They considered it a great wonder that common bread and wine were transformed before their eyes into their own Lord and Savior. The elevation of the bread and wine enabled the people to gaze upon them more easily. Since the people had nothing to do but watch, an increase in ceremony seems inevitable. “With such a theory [transubstantiation] the Lord’s Supper ceased to be a sacrament to be administered and became a sacrifice to be celebrated with all the drama and symbolical elaboration possible.” (R, 58) By the end of the Medieval Period, solemn mass had become not much more than a religious spectacle.

The other major doctrinal influence on the development of the liturgy was the doctrine of the merit of the mass. The logic went like this: since Christ died for the sins of the world, and since Christ is sacrificed anew in the eucharist, therefore the merits of Christ’s work are obtained in the eucharist, and the more often the eucharist is performed, the more merit is obtained. This idea, coupled with the proliferation of monastic priests who had no parish in which to conduct the eucharist, led to the widespread practice of the private mass from the eighth century on. The private mass is really private, in that no one is present except the priest, and possibly a server. All the readings, prayers, and chants are done by the priest alone at the altar. Since there is nowhere to go, there are no processionals. The priest puts on his vestments at the altar, says whatever preparatory prayers he desires, and proceeds with the Introit which he simply chants at the altar. Since there is no offertory procession, private prayers were provided to fill that space in the liturgy.

Now since mass provides merit and everyone falls short of God’s standard, obviously the more merit the better. Therefore it was not long before every priest was saying private mass at least once a day, frequently more often. The people were smart enough to realize that a mass said specifically for their needs would ease their time in purgatory, and the church was smart enough to realize that people would be willing to pay for this relief. In order to fit all this in, it was common to find many priests saying private mass at once in the same church. This led to the mass being said in a low voice instead of being chanted, as it had been from the very beginning.

Over time, when a priest who said private mass at least seven times a week stepped up to perform the high mass, he inevitably took with him some of the practices of the private mass. The preparatory prayers he said after vesting while at the altar became the “Prayers at the Foot of the Altar”. These were followed by the Introit, even though he had already processed to the altar and now had nowhere to go. As the offertory procession died out, the offertory prayers of the private mass filled their place in the high mass. The habit of neglecting the chanting led to the “said” mass. “In short, those parts of the body of the rite which had remained at least partly healthy were now made thoroughly sick through contact with the overpowering and unhealthy influence of the private mass.” (K, 108)

Worship as Spectacle

The changes in the mass in the latter centuries of the Medieval Period do not involve the form of the liturgy so much as tone of the service and the manner of conducting it. Instead of the church regularly assembling on Sunday as a community for worship, the people went to church to see a religious celebration and paid the priest to say a private mass for the salvation of their souls. The private mass was a perversion of the meaning of the liturgy and a corruption of its beautiful and balanced form. Some of these corruptions were then imported into the high mass and mingled with the elaborate ceremonies going on, but few seemed to care since they did not participate anyway. Those priests who did not care to be bothered with all the ceremony and could get away with it simply said the mass to themselves on Sunday while the people watched. What they missed in entertainment was made up in brevity.

Ready for Reform

In the first three centuries the church achieved a common liturgy consisting of scripture, song, prayer, and communion arranged in a reasonable and standard form. This basic liturgical core was enhanced in the next four centuries with additional prayers, songs, and ceremonies, many of which the people joined in, although the Intercessory Prayers were deleted and the sermon was often absent. The prayers and songs added to the worship, but the ceremonial features brought over from the imperial court were of dubious value. In the following centuries the liturgies of the west developed and mingled, with a modified Roman form becoming standard throughout Europe. The heresies of transubstantiation and the merit of the mass led to further corruption in the form of the liturgy, but more so to the practice of worship in the church. The liturgy was no longer a “public service” to God by all his people, but a rigid form for producing a religious festival. By the sixteenth century, God’s people were ready for a return to the basic worship pattern without the excessive additions.

Summary of the Development of the Roman Liturgy

ComponentJustinc. 300c. 700c. 1300
Liturgy of the Word
Prayers at Foot of Altar*
Old Testament(*)*
Gospel procession**
Gospel recession**
Intercessory Prayers**
Liturgy of the Supper
Kiss of Peace**
Offertory (procession)***
Offertory (prayers)*
Sursum Corda***
Eucharistic Prayer****
Elevation of elements**
Lord’s Prayer(*)**
Agnus Dei**
“Ite missa est”**
Collection for charity*


(J) Jungmann, Joseph A. The Mass. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976.

(K) Klauser, Theodore. A Short History of the Western Liturgy. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

(P) Pelican, Jaroslav. The Growth of Medieval Theology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978.

(M) Power, David N. The Eucharistic Mystery. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992.

(R) Reed, Luther D. The Lutheran Liturgy. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947.

(S) Spielmann, Richard M. History of Christian Worship. New York: The Seabury Press, 1966.

(W) Staniforth, Maxwell, trans., and Andrew Louth, ed. Early Christian Writings. London: Penguin Press, 1987.

(E) Miller, J. H. “Liturgy.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8, p. 928. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967.

Submitted to Dr. Clair Davis
Church History 223
March 31, 1995