Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Shape of the Liturgy - Gregory Dix

I've recently been reading one of the classic works of 20th century Anglican theology - The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix. It's spurred quite a bit of thinking, both in agreement and disagreement with Dix himself and with the way his work has been appropriated or not.

Who was Dix?

Dom Gregory Dix was an English monk and historian. As far as I can tell, he is just about the greatest English-language expert ever on early liturgical texts – what Christians from AD150 to 500 or so wrote about how they worshipped. He was the kind of scholar who could not just quote the 3rd Century Syriac Liturgy of Addai and Mari, but would also know if there was a manuscript in Coptic which put it differently, and whether that might be because they were both translations of a Greek original which said something slightly different.

What was his book?

His magnum opus was The Shape of the Liturgy, written during WW2, in which he shows how the Communion Service has come to take the shape it has. It was written primarily to argue that the BCP communion service (1662, but mostly dating back to Cranmer's work in 1549/1552) had got it all wrong. At the time, 1662 was the only service permitted in the Church of England, and most of the revisions to it, including Common Worship, have been strongly influenced by Dix's work.

What did he think of the Reformation?

Dix hated the Reformation, though he wasn't a great fan of late medieval Catholicism either. For example, he spends a couple of pages considering whether Luther was equivalent to Hitler. To be fair to Dix, he does conclude “no”, but even asking the question seems a little excessive.

Why did you read this book?

I grew up with the BCP liturgy, and I still use it now some of the time. I also use some of the modern liturgies, and I wanted to understand why they've made some of the changes, and to understand some of the oddities of Anglican communion liturgy.

Such as?

Why the Lord's Prayer isn't used during the prayers, but interrupts the middle of Communion instead.

It turns out that the Communion bit used to be (sometimes) a separate service, with only one prayer in. In AD348, a chap called Cyril of Jerusalem came up with the idea that God is present in the bread and wine after they've been prayed over in a way that he wasn't beforehand, and so praying after that makes the prayers more effective. So he tagged lots of prayers (Lord's Prayer included) onto the end of the Communion prayer. Cyril was seen as being at the cutting edge of new liturgies in the 4th century, and by 600AD, everyone was doing it. Cranmer disagreed, and put it after the people had received communion, but the modern liturgies have moved it back.

I'm content that Cyril's theology of communion is wrong, and if that's the reason for the Lord's Prayer being there, then I'm happy to move it back to the prayers where it belongs. I like to tinker with stuff, but I want to understand why things are where they are in the first place so that I don't break anything important by my tinkering.

It's worth mentioning that I've found reading the book a really interesting experience, and will probably be writing more thoughts spinning off it in the near future. For what it's worth, I think Dix makes some really good points that haven't been properly taken on board properly in Common Worship and some spectacular mistakes too.

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