Where the Reformation Was Wrong on Worship

by James F. White

When this article was written, James F.White was professor of liturgy in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 27, 1982, p. 1074. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When the reformers rebelled against prevailing worship practices, justifiable anger at contemporary abuses often led them to eliminate things of genuine value. Churches need to re-establish the Eucharist as a thankful celebration of God’s works.

Although the American Christian may seem to have many choices in selecting a church, only three basic forms of worship are actually available to him or her. There are serious drawbacks to two of these options, which the third seeks, with considerable success, to remedy. Curiously, similar features characterize Protestant and Roman Catholic styles of worship, with some Roman Catholics showing as much nostalgia for 16th century forms as the most ardent Lutherans.

The first option that the church seeker is likely to encounter might be called the status quo approach to worship. This approach characterizes a majority of Protestant congregations, especially those thriving, successful churches where probing questions about worship never seem necessary. My plumber once advised me: “If it works, don’t fool with it.” Similarly, in many churches worship practices that appear to work are rarely questioned, only expanded. The roots of this pragmatic approach are in the American frontier, and its greatest exponent was Charles G. Finney, the popularizer of the revival system of “new measures.” Finney and his cohorts had a fine disdain for traditional patterns of worship inherited from the Reformation, preferring instead those that appeared to work most successfully in bringing converts to faith. And work this approach still must, if one can judge from crowded church parking lots in Dallas on Sunday mornings, before the football game.

The name “Free Church” is often applied to this style of worship, but what flourishes today under that title is greatly different from what evolved during English Puritanism’s struggle to be free to order worship according to God’s word. In America, the Free Church tradition came to mean being free to order worship as one pleased, or, more accurately, as one felt it would work. For over a century this approach has thrived. Weekly services are divided into three parts: preliminaries, consisting mostly of music; vigorous preaching; and the call to Christian discipleship, often including the harvesting of new converts.

Although this approach still works, it is not without serious drawbacks: It tends to make worship a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It is very susceptible to being confused with patriotism or politics and to the dangers of making worship a rally against sin or sinners. Too easily, it makes comprehension of the gospel captive to the preacher’s learning and will. The Bible tends to be a sometimes optional resource for the sermon rather than the source of the whole service. And such worship, even in fundamentalist congregations, has often unquestioningly accepted the desacralizing 18th century Enlightenment concepts of the Christian sacraments. Often the sacraments remain only as legalistic ordinances, performed because it is believed that Jesus commanded them. In such a context, they rarely seem to work very well, and it is not surprising that the Lord’s Supper is celebrated infrequently except among Disciples of Christ or in the Churches of Christ.

Dissatisfaction with the Free Church tradition has recently led to a quite different approach to worship, producing what I call the “neo-Reformation” option. This approach seeks to recover 16th century (or, among Methodists, 18th century) practices as a corrective to the deficiencies of status quo worship. There are neo-Reformation proponents among Catholics and Episcopalians, as well as among Lutheran, Reformed and Wesleyan groups -- each reflecting a different worship tradition but having common aims. The neo-Reformation approach is attractive, especially in contrast to status quo worship. Yet I think it necessary to raise four objections to this alternative.

Those attempting to improve worship by first recovering Reformation practices must realize, first of all, how thoroughly the 16th century Reformers were children of their own times. The only worship patterns they knew were those of the late Middle Ages. The very questions they asked were determined by the times in which they asked them, as were the answers they received. Even in rebelling against much of their worship environment, they were nonetheless shaped by it. Hughes O. Old, in The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Theologischer Verlag, 1975), has shown that what the Reformers knew about early Christian worship was conditioned by their own time. Thus, for example, they found it hard to think of the Eucharist in other than spatial terms. Christ’s presence had to be localized somewhere, whether in heaven or on the altar, since to them the term “substance” had a spatial meaning. Although Luther was most captive to this form of thinking, it also affected the other 16th century Reformers; Instead of seeing the Eucharist as a time mystery, they treated it as a space mystery, and probed the static problem of locating the body of Christ rather than the dynamic one of making contact with a saving event. This led to such crudities as portraying Christ as physically present everywhere or seated on a throne in heaven.

Similarly, the Reformers could hardly escape the penitential coloration of late medieval worship, with its obsession with Good Friday rather than Easter Sunday. Whereas we now would stress the paschal nature of Christian worship as its most distinctive characteristic, late medieval piety had the crucifix rather than the risen ascended Lord at its center.

Of course, the penitential is never entirely absent from any Christian worship; it is there as early as the first century Didache. But in the Middle Ages worship tended to focus on the unworthiness of the creature rather than on the glory of the Creator. Characteristic is the development of apologies; that is, prayers reciting the unworthiness of celebrant and people rather than proclaiming God’s actions. It is these parts of medieval liturgy that the Reformation tended to preserve and expand. Protestant piety is echoed in what may be Thomas Cranmer’s most graphic line: “We be not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” (Recently, Episcopal laity demanded the retention of this line when liturgical scholars questioned its appropriateness.)

When the Reformers abolished the sacrament of penance from the mass rather than reforming it as a rite of reconciliation, its function was simply added to the Eucharist. As a result, Protestantism has two-and-a-half sacraments: baptism and a penitential Eucharist. The recovery of frequent communion seems unlikely unless the churches establish a separate and distinct rite of reconciliation and restore the Eucharist as a thankful celebration of God’s works. People do not want to grovel every Sunday. But the Reformers can hardly be blamed for reflecting the piety of their own times.

The second problem one encounters in turning to Reformation concepts of worship is that in many cases the Reformers took medieval beliefs to their full and logical conclusion. In this they were simply the most consistent of late medieval thinkers. For example, the Reformers were unanimous as to the number of the sacraments. They took the 13th century conviction that sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ himself to its logical conclusion that the authority for them must be found in the spoken words of Christ. As a result, they did not recognize healing or the burial of the dead as sacraments, despite their acceptance by the church during its first 12 centuries.

The medieval church had long forgotten the earlier understanding of the eucharistic prayer as the recital of the whole history of salvation; it preferred, instead, to focus on the words of institution. Luther simply carried this medieval tendency to its extreme, abolishing the rest of the canon. Similarly, Martin Bucer’s and John Calvin’s isolation of the words of institution as a “warrant” for doing the Eucharist simply takes the medieval tendency to its logical conclusion, completely separating the commemoration of the Last Supper from the recital of the rest of salvation history. One can hardly blame these Reformers for simply being more consistent than their Catholic contemporaries, but one can regret the loss of the eucharistic prayer as the proclamation of all God’s works from creation to final consummation.

The Reformers’ refinement of late medieval beliefs also led to the disintegration of Christian initiation into the severed rites of baptism, confirmation and first communion. When 12th century piety (yielding to a growing scrupulousness over spilling the wine) withdrew the chalice from adults, it also suspended giving the wine to infants at baptism. Even as late as the 16th century, the future Edward VI of England received confirmation a few days after birth; soon thereafter, the first prayer book of his reign mandated knowledge of the catechism as requisite for confirmation. The Reformation compounded this disaster by transforming confirmation into a graduation exercise. These demands to think of Christianity in conceptual terms naturally excommunicated children from the Lord’s table, a mistake replicated by Tridentine Roman Catholicism.

A third difficulty with Reformation worship is that when the Reformers did rebel against prevailing practice, justifiable anger at contemporary abuses often led to the elimination of things of genuine value that had become distorted in the course of time. The virtual disappearance of the Christian year is a good example. The observance of time as a means of recovering events in the life of Christ was well developed by the end of the fourth century. By the 16th century, it was often overlaid and obscured by memorials of the saints. The Reformers justified its destruction by the desire to recover the reading of all Scripture, but although all Scripture was written for our benefit, not all parts are equally beneficial. At its best, the Christian year and lectionary organized the most useful passages around an orderly scheme that enables one to “live through” the life of Christ. The gain in the indiscriminate reading of all Scripture scarcely compensates Christians for the loss of such a scheme.

Similarly, the Reformers’ restriction of worship ceremonies to those for which biblical warrant could be found was an overreaction. Human relationships depend upon signs of love made visible; human life demands that we be shown love, whether divine or human, for us fully to apprehend it. The consequence of the wholesale reduction of ceremony has been to reduce much of Protestant worship to the cerebral; it has become an experience of the intellect rather than an event involving one’s whole being. The later advent of mass literacy may have made a concentration on the verbal inevitable in any case, but we now realize how one-sided this is.

A fourth problem with turning to 16th century modes of worship is that the loss of some of the traditions of the early church prevented the Reformers from making major advances. The Western church had not only forgotten the meaning of proclaiming its faith through the eucharistic prayer, but Christians had forgotten the Jewish practice of giving thanks by recital. Not until the 20th century did we rediscover the sources (such as Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition) that allow us to reclaim some of these lost forms of worship. Only recently have we become aware of the alternative to a monastic form of daily services in the so-called “cathedral offices.” Such knowledge might have made a difference, for example, in Cranmer’s construction of his daily services. Greater knowledge of many of the historical patterns of the early church might have led to better 16th century liturgies.

These four weaknesses in Reformation practices make a full-scale return to such modes unwise. But there is one more major option, embodied in those churches that reflect the post -- Vatican II reforms. A leading characteristic of the post -- Vatican II period has been the thorough study and imitation of early Christian worship. Yet at the same time, concepts and practices from every period of the church’s past are being recovered. Twenty centuries and 200 countries have revealed an amazingly rich heritage, all of which is available to us now. We do not need to be restricted to early Christian, late-medieval or American frontier forms. Modern scholarship has given us an advantage over the Reformers of the 16th century.

Our horizons have expanded enormously as we have become more catholic in knowledge. In recent years the Western churches have been greatly influenced by the Orthodox and Oriental churches; they have felt the appeal of many Eastern rituals: the strong emphasis on the paschal mystery; the attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic rite; the value of commemorating such events as the baptism of the Lord; and the unity of Christian initiation. These Eastern churches are not only transmitters of some of the practices of the early church, but also living witnesses to the viability of such practices.

A universal approach also values the contributions of various cultures and subcultures, and many examples of the appropriation of these are appearing in worship today. The Episcopal and United Methodist churches have recently published hymnals collecting the songs and spirituals of black Christians. United Methodists are preparing to publish similar volumes garnering the music of Hispanics and Asian Americans. A number of predominantly white seminaries have recently hired blacks to teach homiletics.

Our age has become sensitive to the injustice of excluding women from decision-making roles in worship life. Except among small groups such as the Quakers and Shakers, the role of women in shaping Christian worship was negligible until the 19th century, when hymns written by women began to be used in church services. (Catherine Winkworth, Julia Ward Howe and Fanny Crosby wrote popular hymns.) Worship reform in our day must eagerly seek contributions from this half of the church.

We have also been insensitive to worship by children. The majority of American Protestants excludes them from church membership until they are old enough for believers’ baptism. Even those who practice infant baptism usually excommunicate the young until confirmation, as if conceptual thinking were necessary to experience the Eucharist. We must find ways to bring children back into the worship experience.

It is ironic that in refusing to identify the Reformation as the golden age of worship, one is being faithful to the Reformation principle that the church must always reform itself. If we admit that in some matters the Reformers were greatly mistaken, we are more free to recognize other areas where they may still be ahead of us: Calvin’s insistence on a weekly Eucharist for the whole community or John Knox’s stress on gathering the congregation about the Lord’s table.

Obviously, Roman Catholics have taken the post -- Vatican II option, although often with much reluctance. It is instructive to watch how many still prefer to receive communion in the mouth (medieval) to communion in the hand (early church). Officially, Episcopalians and Lutherans have moved into the post-Vatican II era -- although many Episcopal congregations still cling to the 1928 prayer book (largely confined to 16th century form), and the Lutheran Book of Worship has alternatives for those who want to be reassured that nothing has changed since the time of Luther.

When one moves further to the liturgical left, things become even more mixed. Large segments of Methodism have moved into the post-Vatican II era, as the surprising success of the Supplemental Worship Resources series indicates, but these churches are certainly matched by status quo congregations. Among Presbyterians and United Church of Canada Christians, the picture is even more confusing. Many congregations have adopted such post-Vatican II reforms as the new lectionary and common calendar, but are left largely untouched by the sacramental reforms. A definite advantage of the Free Church tradition is the possibility of selecting and adopting any of the post-Vatican II reforms. Thus variety abounds among Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ congregations.

Of the three worship options presently available, the post-Vatican II possibilities seem the most attractive. They are not confined to one period or culture, but plunder the riches of all Christian experiences past and present. All of worship history belongs to all of us; neither the Reformation nor the American frontier nor any other period alone provides sufficient resources. Because the post-Vatican II approach recognizes this catholicity, it constitutes the best option for the contemporary Christian worshiper.