1.1 Liturgy as an event between God and human beings
Liturgy, connected to the Greek term leitourgia (from laos, ‘people’, and ergon, ‘service’), denotes the ‘service for the people’ or the ‘service of the people’ (Italian and Spanish, liturgia; French, liturgie; English, worship; for the English synonyms ‘worship’ and ‘liturgy’ see Weil 2013; Gordon-Taylor 2013). In the Christian context, the term refers to ritual acts in which the biblically attested salvation history of God is remembered in the lives of people today and celebrated towards its completion with God (Meßner 2022). Different levels of time – remembered salvation history, lived present, hoped-for future – are interlocked with each other. They are bundled together in the mode of ritual narration. From a theological perspective, they are encompassed by God’s time and presence.
The centre of Christian liturgy is the revelation of God in the history of Israel and in Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection are central. Biblical texts, images, motifs, and concepts – such as the Pascha mystery – demonstrate the centrality of the history of Israel in Christian liturgy. Despite sharing common ground, these liturgies have different theological and aesthetic emphases. The churches assign different interpretations of the liturgy: as mystery celebrations, proclamation events, sacred play, staging of the gospel, and so on.
Liturgy is considered here as a ritual on the basis of a broad scholarly consensus (Lukken 2005; Bradshaw and Melloh 2007; Graupner 2019; Odenthal 2019; Kranemann and Post 2009). Like other rituals, liturgies are also characterized by the repeatable sequence of action units, which can be less or more evident and realized. Formalization, stylization, and symbolic action are also encountered in liturgies. In services, individuals and groups express their ideas, ideals, mentalities, and identities through rituals, which are in turn influenced by rituals. Looking at liturgy from the perspective of ritual studies brings into focus the ritual dimension of worship and requires attention to performance as a whole, sensitivity to ritual action, and consideration of ritual structures in liturgy.
Liturgy understood as ritual, with its verbal and non-verbal symbolic language, is the basis of a theology of liturgy (as ‘classics’: Vagaggini 1957; Wainwright 1982; on the research task: Geldhof 2020; sources and studies: Vogel 2000; Hoping and Jeggle-Merz 2004). For this theology, the liturgy is theologia prima (theology done in the liturgy) (Kavanagh 1984) and locus theologicus (liturgy as actual source of theology). It is in the celebration of the liturgy that faith takes shape (Knop 2012; Winter 2013; Grillo 2006). Here one finds the ‘meaning of Christianity’ (Grillo 2006: 61). Such a theological approach necessarily links anthropology to liturgical studies (Kranemann and Winter 2022). Liturgical theology understands liturgy as the source of theology (Fisch 1990: 11f; Irwin 2018). Theological studies and liturgical experience are closely linked. Christian faith is rooted in experiences of faith, as they also arise in the liturgy. Theology should be liturgical in that it is in communication with the liturgy (Fagerberg 2004: 189–217). Liturgical theology as an ‘elucidation of the meaning of worship’ aims to show how the church expresses itself in liturgical events (Schmemann 2003: 16). Thus, it asks ‘how the Christian meeting, in all its signs and words, says something authentic and reliable about God, and so says something true about ourselves and about our world as they are understood before God’ (Lathrop 1993: 3).
In the following sections, this article proceeds from the basic understanding of worship via the place of the Bible in the liturgy to individual liturgical rites. Liturgy is understood as a multifaceted and dynamic event. At the end, the question will be posed as to why this is the case. It will explore commonalties and differences between different denominational understandings of liturgy (1.2). With the liturgical assembly (2) we will see that liturgy is essentially the coming together of people before God (2.1). The question is asked about the proper place of assembly, which is of great importance in many faith communities (2.2). Roles and ministries, i.e. the inner structuring of the celebrating congregation (2.3), will be discussed. The first and fundamental book of every liturgy is the Bible (section 3), so its role in worship must be analysed in more detail (3.1). The significance of the Bible in liturgy is investigated, including the act of reading orders (3.2) and the ritual form of Bible proclamation often associated with them (3.3), the handling of Psalms as Old Testament texts in Christian worship (3.4), and other forms of use of the Bible in worship (3.5), concluding with references to the Bible and intertextuality in liturgy (3.6). In terms of the ritual events of the liturgy (section 4), the significance of the body (4.1), various natural objects (bread, wine, water, oil, etc.) (4.2), as well as the different verbal texts (4.3), will be examined. Liturgy is always subject to change, even if only in its understanding. Thus, it changes and is also celebrated in its diversity (section 5). Both the dynamics of worship as a historically situated phenomenon (5.1) and persistent forces (5.2) are to be investigated.
1.2 Liturgy as understood by different churches
The liturgies of the various churches in which Christian faith is celebrated are diverse in both form and theology. This applies to both the West and the East. Different theological, cultural, and social influences have led to the development of distinctly different rites (including music, liturgical calendars, vestments, buildings, etc.) and interpretations of worship. This becomes obvious when studying the liturgical books of the different churches, but even more so by studying liturgical practice. These differences become evident in the question of what biblical texts are read in worship (section 3), in the structure of the prayers and the respective liturgy as a whole, in the participation of the baptized in the celebration of worship, etc. These differences apply to the nature of the (ordained) leadership of the liturgy, including the gender of the liturgist. They apply to the question of what is considered liturgy and which liturgy is understood as sacrament and what, in turn, ‘sacrament’ means. In different ways, churches either insist on narrower orders or allow variations or wider freedoms in the design.
The liturgy is a marker of identity for the respective church and reflects the makeup of that church. With regard to their own understanding of faith and identity, churches distinguish themselves from one another through their liturgies. In the twentieth century, the ecumenical movement has broken down or at least reduced such barriers, despite regional differences. For the dividing issues, such as the meaning and observance of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist, answers are emerging through ecumenism (Leppin and Sattler 2020). In many contexts, ecumenical services of the word have long been common practice. Ecumenism itself has also produced new liturgies, such as the ‘Women’s World Day of Prayer’. Finally, mutual adoption between the denominations can be observed, such as in individual prayers at the very centre of the Eucharist, in hymnals, in the theological discussion of liturgies (the design of eucharistic prayers under the influence of Orthodox anaphors; Roman Catholic discussion of the blessing of a second marriage according to the Orthodox model; design of Protestant reading orders in North America according to the Roman Catholic model, etc.).
1.2.1 Liturgy’s reference to Christ
There are fundamental commonalities between the different denominations. In different churches, liturgy is understood as an event in which believers are gathered around Christ before God. The event of Christ determines the theological hermeneutics of worship. In the celebrations, people come before God with and through Christ and relate their lives to him. In this context, worship can be understood, for example, as mysterion or mystery, which is encountered not only in Orthodoxy, but also in Roman Catholic or Old Catholic churches, in Lutheran churches, and so on. In addition, worship is interpreted as communication of the gospel. This is contrasted with a view of the liturgy as worship owed to God. Other emphases emerge when liturgy is interpreted as an encounter or dialogue between God and humanity (Meßner 2022). Different theological concepts of liturgy can, therefore, play a role in the dialogue between the churches. Frequently, however, these concepts either co-exist in individual churches or are in conflict with each other.
Various churches emphasize that liturgy is primarily the action of God in Jesus Christ. Eastern churches understand the celebration of the liturgy as a gift and event of divine salvation to human beings, whereby they are deified in their corporeality. Human beings become bearers of the Spirit of God through the action of Christ, who is the actual subject of the liturgy. Orthodox liturgy is celebrated as a communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit (Alexopoulos and Johnson 2021).
According to Roman Catholic understanding, liturgy is the sanctification of man through God (catabasis) and service of man towards God (anabasis). It happens in the Holy Spirit and actualizes the Christ event (Paschamysterium; cf. Schrott 2014). This is emphasized, for example, in the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ (SC) as a fundamental document. Liturgy lives through the memory of God’s saving acts, which are believed to be present. In this way, liturgy is ‘memory of a past and yet liberation in the present’ (Häußling 1997a). For all churches, understanding worship will require distinguishing between official statements by churches, theological interpretations, and what people perceive and believe in the liturgy.
From a Lutheran perspective, the liturgy celebrates the salvation given by God primarily in the Word of Scripture. The catabatic and anabatic dimensions belong together, as shown by the quotation from Martin Luther’s sermon on the consecration of the church in Torgau in 1544, which is still referred to today: liturgy means ‘that our Lord himself speaks with us through his holy word, and we again speak with him through prayer and praise’ (Weimarer Ausgabe 49, 588). It is a God-human exchange of words, is a ‘WortKult’ (interaction between word and cult) (Deeg 2012: 227), which is expressed in different word forms – ranging from biblical reading and sermon, song and prayer, the word in the form of bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper to silence (Deeg 2012: 496–534). The word-answer event starts with God; the service is ‘a space of God-human togetherness prepared by God’ (Deeg 2012: 474). The proclamation of the Gospel is a remembrance of Christ’s saving work, and the proclaimed word is effective word.
1.2.2 The biblical witness as the centre
The Bible plays an important role in all Christian liturgies – although the reception of the texts varies – from salvation history to the reference of the liturgy to God and Christ (explored in detail in section 3). The biblically attested history of human beings is received through the biblical texts, prayers, songs, and so on, that were created against their background. This applies, for example, to the various forms of proclamation of the Word or the contents of most Christian festivals. The concrete practice varies from one church to another (section 3.2), partly due to differences in cultural and social contexts. The rites, the places of reading, the distribution of roles, and so on, in which the meaning of the proclamation of the Word is expressed, also vary from church to church.
1.2.3 Liturgical celebration in community
The community of believers has special weight in the services (section 2.1). Liturgy is understood as a communal event. The role of leadership and hierarchy in worship can be defined very differently. As a result, ‘community’ is also defined differently. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, emphasizes the participation of all the baptized in worship. But through word and rite or through the shape of the liturgical space, the role of the clergy can be so emphasized that the idea of community is undermined and counteracted (Francis 2019; Böntert et al. 2021). Reformed liturgy is also understood as the communal celebration of the Christ event. The sanctification and edification of the individual Christian are decisive (Bürki 2003: 160). For Quaker worship, the aspect of community and a ‘corporate form of mysticism’ play a central role (White 2003: 186). The members of the community, men and women, are to strengthen each other in faith. The Methodist Church emphasizes the fellowship of believers with one another, which is to be expressed in the liturgy; for example, the prayer mentions events that are important for the life of the believers in the congregation (Westerfield Tucker 1996). For services in the free church, emphasis is placed on the participation of many, which is why communal singing, among other things, is of great importance. At the same time, the worship service gives space to the witness of the individual. This arises from the relationship between the individual and God, with great importance being attached to personal prayer. A communal confessional text, such as the Creed, is missing (Schweyer 2020).
For most churches, initiation is the prerequisite for full participation in worship. However, initiation happens in different ways. This is true, for example, of the Eastern Churches, where water baptism, Chrismation, and First Communion are part of one initiation, which is also performed on infants. The Roman Catholic Church poses similar conditions of access. Its liturgy is understood as a celebration of all the baptized. In this church, however, infant baptism, First Eucharist, and Confirmation – usually in that order – are celebrations of individual sacraments (unlike adult initiation, which integrates the three celebrations into one). All the baptized, according to Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) 11, are to participate actively in the celebrations, which are celebrated as events (‘dialogue’ – Lengeling 1988) between God and human beings. For Lutherans, too, baptism is a prerequisite for participation in the Lord’s Supper, with confirmation following later. However, there are discussions as to whether this must be the case in the future. The churches mentioned also provide different regulations as to whether they allow baptized persons from other denominations to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
1.2.4 Freedom and order in worship
Different churches understand freedom and order in the liturgy differently. The liturgical orders of the churches of the Reformation are characterized by greater freedom than is the case in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. This is due to church structures, but also because of the underlying understanding of liturgy and church. A magisterial church understands liturgical order in a specific way. Some churches emphasize the personal witness of the individual instead of an obligatory order. The common faith is contrasted with different forms and expressions of worship.
The Anglican Church’s characterization of the relationship between freedom and order offers a distinctive example. It adheres to the Book of Common Prayer, which has undergone various far-reaching revisions. Although the liturgy is celebrated in modern English or in local languages. Tudor English is also used. In many provinces, efforts are being made to use inclusive language. The Alternative Service Book of 1980 stands for a freer liturgy. Liturgy according to prescribed prayer texts and orders is thus encountered as well as freer forms of liturgy (Bradshaw 2001–2006).
In the worship of charismatic and Pentecostal congregations, these questions are posed differently. Here, elements such as glossolalia (‘speaking in tongues’) and prophecy, as well as healing prayer and falling down in religious ecstasy (‘slain in the Spirit’), play distinctive roles. Worship is understood as a spirit-led event; individuals are to experience themselves as being taken hold of by the Spirit of God. Quaker worship is also structurally less fixed.
1.2.5 Challenges to Christian liturgies in the globalized world
Different traditions, churches, as well as social and ecclesial environments, encounter similar challenges in the midst of today’s globalized world. In large parts of Europe and North America, those responsible for liturgy as well as the faithful today face the challenge of constantly having to recalibrate their own traditions according to cultural and social environments (Chupungco 1992; Pecklers 2003; Geldhof 2018). Tradition can enrich faith, but may also become a burden. Churches often react to this burden with reforms (Klöckener and Kranemann 2002). While for one group of believers too much adaptation to modernity (‘modernism’) endangers worship, for others too close a connection to tradition (‘traditionalism’) leads to undermines the place of worship in the church.
Given the ongoing global environmental catastrophe and the questions connected with the so-called Anthropocene era, creation-theological aspects of worship – and their cosmic dimension – are growing in importance (Berger 2019). Many churches demonstrate significant sensitivity to creation, expressed in readings and prayers, in individual feasts, in blessings, and the emphasis on human responsibility for one’s fellow world in poetic and ritual ways. In the liturgy, human beings see themselves as part of God’s history and of creation, and are endowed with responsibilities accordingly. In light of today’s environmental challenges, liturgy becomes a way of life, centred on responsibility towards creation, important beyond worship. Liturgy reveals the special responsibility of human beings towards God. The relationship between liturgy and ethical identity takes on a new relevance, with giving thanks to God for creation becoming a commitment for life beyond liturgy (Morrill 2021; see Ecotheology and Ecological Ethics for more on this topic).
The pandemic around 2020 posed another challenge, with discussions about digitalization flaring up, especially with respect to worship services. Worldwide, worship services of different denominations were streamed, made available as video, or celebrated digitally. Liturgy in the digital space gives rise to theological and aesthetic questions (Berger 2018; Campbell 2020). Is presence possible in the digital sphere? Would the physicality and embodiment that is indispensable for liturgies, including baptism and the Eucharist, be lost? Is a communion in digital form conceivable and practicable? How does the sacredness of liturgy relate to the profane space of the internet? How can we think about time and space in worship under the unique conditions of the internet? (See Theology and Technology for more on this topic.)
All Christian churches today are faced with the question of how to deal with different power relations. This question addresses issues such as clericalism, sexual and spiritual abuse of power, unjust gender structures, colonialist oppression of cultures, etc. (Hoff, Knop, and Kranemann 2020; Böntert et al. 2021; Gruber et al. 2022). Liturgy plays a part in those unjust processes and structures that oppress people and put faith in the wrong. Many such discussions are just beginning to take place, for example in studies on liturgy and power or through the application of postcolonial studies in liturgical studies (Carvalhaes 2015).
Liturgies are celebrated in a global world (Pecklers 2003). In their commonalties and differences in theological and cultural expressions, liturgies remain affected by globalization in a variety of ways. The challenges of homogenization and heterogenization will be analysed. The consequences of the globalization of cultures for liturgical faith life must be considered.