Shape of the Liturgy: Chapter 1
The following is what I hope becomes a complete summary of Dom Gregory Dix’s magnum opus The Shape of the Liturgy. I want to make it clear at the outset that this report is a “complete summary” in the sense that it completely summarizes whatever I want to remember or find interesting throughout the course of the entire book. So it should probably be considered more of a selective summary than a comprehensive analysis. What you will find here are general ruminations and quotations on various points that I find stimulating, startling and sometimes even troubling. But be aware that I have not always labeled each as such. Some I leave to your judgment, reserving my own for the sake of conversation at the present. Other times, I will not hide my prejudices or suspicions, but again, that’s why this is more of an informal summary than a comprehensive analysis.
Dix begins with a definition of liturgy: “‘Liturgy’ is the name given ever since the days of the apostles to the act of taking part in the solemn corporate worship of God by the ‘priestly’ society of Christians, who are ‘the Body of Christ, the church’.”
Dix goes on to explain that the heart of this “solemn corporate worship of God” is the Eucharist or Breaking of Bread. Thus worship is in its simplicity a corporate action, a ritual performed by the entire gathered assembly. Because of this central fact, Dix puts forth three essentials: First, the whole Eucharist must be seen and flow as essentially one action and therefore the entire service must have a “logical development as one whole”. All of the direction of the service must flow into and out of the central corporate act of Breaking Bread. This sequence is what Dix calls the ‘Shape’ of the Liturgy. Secondly, the structure of the liturgy ought to display each ‘order’ or office in the church, in other words, it should show the role or gifts of each in “fulfilling the corporate action of the whole.” And finally, in order for the corporate action to truly be a corporate action there must be a common agreement and awareness of what the action is to be performed.
He says that the sequence of the actions is obedience to Christ’s command to “do this”. And the prayers which flow into and out of the action are what primarily express the meaning of the actions. In some ways this can simplify much of the debates and discussions surround worship. To defend what you want to occur in worship, it must be in submission to Christ’s central command to “do this”. Perhaps we might call this the Imperative Principle of Worship, as some distant relative of the Regulative Principle of Worship.
Dix goes on to describe the Liturgical Tradition, how the various parts of the liturgy have come to have a place in the service. He says that where the Scriptures played an important defensive role in expelling explicitly pagan elements from the service, “it is important for the understanding of the whole future history of the liturgy to grasp the fact that Eucharistic worship from the outset was not based on scripture at all, whether of the Old or New Testament, but solely on tradition.” (emphasis his)
And yes, to mix metaphors, that gets my Reformed hackles all in a twist. Obviously this sort of statement begs the question, ‘what tradition?’ and ‘where did it come from?’ If it’s descended from the instructions of Christ and the apostles then it’s rather difficult to hold to such an exclusive view of the matter, as Paul seems pretty comfortable with the instructions he’s given in writing. His epistles are the authoritative and sufficient traditions he’s delivered by mouth (2 Thess. 2:15). And if Dix means that that the liturgy developed completely extra-biblically then whence came such dependable wisdom that was neither pagan nor Scriptural?
Dix finishes Chapter 1 describing the universality of practice in the early church despite the diversity of setting and culture. And because the actions were so universal much of the prayer was similar as well: “[B]ecause the Eucharistic action was everywhere the same, the prayer which expresses the meaning of that action had necessarily certain fixed characteristics, though these were phrased and expressed in a great variety of ways by different churches.” Dix suggests that two phenomena were responsible for the changes in the basic outlines of the liturgy. First, ‘clericalization’ was a prime factor. “Changes in this outline only began when the rite as a whole had been partially ‘clericalised’ by becoming something which the clergy were supposed to do for the laity, and the laity for the most part had lost their active share in its performance.” In other words, the more corporate the actions and words of the liturgy were, the more stable and enduring the actions and words of the liturgy were. The other cause Dix suggests for the disintegration of uniformity of the rite was political disintegration. This division begins to occur between the East and West as early as the Roman Empire begins dividing in the fourth century. But Dix says that the continuing breakup of the West throughout the Middle Ages accounts for the greater “flourishing of local varieties” in the West than in the East where the Eastern Byzantine Empire continued for many centuries.
Despite the many, many variations, Dix maintains that there really are just two rites, East and West, when all is said and done. And even at the root of these two, he says that there still remains “what may be called the classical form of the Eucharistic action—that fixed outline, the core of which descends from the time of the Apostles…”