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The Shape of the Liturgy by William J. Tighe

The Shape of the Liturgy

Dom Gregory Dix’s Imperfect Work Remains an Edifying Modern Classic

by William J. Tighe

In January 1945 there appeared in England a book that was to provoke controversy and debate on several fronts for many decades. The book, The Shape of the Liturgy, which straddled the line between the academic and the popular, was to have a formative impact on the liturgical thought and practice of many Anglican churches, as well as on Roman Catholics and many Protestants, including some Lutheran, Methodist, and even Reformed bodies.

The book gave force to the movement to make the Eucharist (Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper) the principal act of worship every Sunday—or at least to make it a much more frequent service than in the past. In opposition to the view that the significance or “meaningfulness” of the sacrament would be cheapened by its frequent celebration (among Protestants) or reception (among high-church Anglicans), it insisted that the early Church saw the Lord’s commandment of “Do this in memory of me” as fulfilled by celebrating the sacrament Sunday after Sunday.

More problematically, it also gave rise in some circles to an ongoing “quest for the perfect liturgy” that resulted in incessant liturgical experimentation. It also gave rise to the view (which was not the author’s) that the worship life of the Church had gone astray at a very early date and needed radical overhauling at the behest of liturgical “experts.” Those who sponsored or implemented these changes seemed ignorant of (or unconcerned about) the fact that wherever new ideas (or old forgotten ones) are accepted by experts and “those in the know” but go against deeply ingrained customs and ways of thinking, their implementation is bound to cause distress to some, and in many cases—especially when the changes seem to be imposed needlessly and from outside—conflict.

The Monk’s Tome

The author, born George Eglington Alston Dix in 1901, took his monastic name from Pope St. Gregory VII, who, as he once explained, “deposed more bishops than any other man in history.” He had read history as an undergraduate at Keble College, Oxford, and returned there briefly after ordination in the Church of England as a chaplain and tutor in modern history, before joining in 1926 the Anglican Benedictine community of Nashdom Abbey, where he lived until his death in 1952.

According to Dix’s introduction, the 783-page book began as a paper presented to members of an Anglican religious order in August 1941. Since the first edition appeared in January 1945 and the second in August of that year, its writing was an impressive achievement—the more so as Dix spent those war years outside his monastery, serving as a supply-priest for parishes whose clergy were in military service (such as his own brother).

Dix’s “fat green book” (as he referred to it after its publication) immediately became a best-seller, and it has never gone out of print. A new impression, with an introducton by an Oxford don, Simon Jones of Merton College, was released in July 2005. Its seventeen chapters are both thematic and chronological.

This sounds like a forbidding tome, along the lines of the ancient Greek saying, “A big book is a big evil,” in both length and complexity. But as E. C. Ratcliff, an academic liturgist and Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, once remarked about it, “It is an extraordinary thing to find a book that reads like a novel, but is in fact a serious contribution to scholarship.” (Perhaps Ratcliff had in mind a novel like those of Charles Dickens of comparable length to Dix’s book, but it was a strikingly accurate perception.)

The Eucharistic Theme

If The Shape of the Liturgy has one dominant argument, it is that the Eucharist is not primarily a ritual by or through which individual communicants come to have an individual experience of “communion with the Lord.” It is the corporate “coming” of Christ to the faithful, through the Eucharist of the Church, his Body. It is a deepening of the union of the faithful with him in his Body, his Body being both the Church and the Eucharist. This argument resounds throughout the book, and it has been accepted (where it was not already accepted or traditional) across wide swathes of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

An important theme concerns the “four-action shape” of the classical Christian Eucharist. The argument runs as follows. At the Last Supper, before the supper Christ took bread, blessed it, broke it, and distributed it. After the supper he took a cup of wine, blessed it, and distributed it. Subsequently, the apostles and their immediate successors combined the “bread ritual” at the beginning of the meal (“This is my body, which is for you; do this for the remembrance of me”) with the “cup ritual” at the end of the meal (“This is my blood of the New Covenant . . . do this for the remembrance of me”) and separated them from the meal itself, which continued for several centuries as the “church supper” or “agape meal.” Thus, the Eucharist assumed the form that it subsequently followed in all primitive Christian traditions: the celebrant (1) takes bread and wine, (2) blesses them, (3) breaks the bread, and (4) distributes the blessed or consecrated elements to the communicants.

This way of looking at the Eucharistic action was one of Dix’s more remarkable insights, and if correct, it would have major implications for those Christian traditions which believed that following the practice of the (very) early Church, so far as this could be known from the Bible or the earliest Christian writings, was a good thing. They argued that “the water is purer near its source” and (especially among the heirs of the Reformation) that later innovations might well be, or lead to, “corruptions.” Adopting this view would call into question such practices as the universal dropping among Lutherans of any Eucharistic Prayer and its replacement with the bare recital of the Words of Institution, as well as the common Evangelical practice of administering the bread and cup at some remove from one another, after a separate blessing of each element.

Among Anglicans as well as other Protestants, Dix’s identification of the “taking” of the bread and wine—the first action of the four-action shape—with the rite traditionally called “the Offertory” was bound to cause trouble. All the Reformers had discarded this rite—during which the elements are brought to, and placed upon, the altar—because of its sacrificial overtones. Although Dix did not consider that the earliest significance of this ritual was “sacrificial,” he did insist that its meaning was that the whole assembled congregation corporately presented itself to God under the elements, elements which, when transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic Prayer into Christ’s Body and Blood and received by the faithful, joined all of them together with Christ into his “mystical Body,” the Church.

While Dix’s idea about the four-action shape has largely been accepted by later liturgical scholars, his ideas about the significance of the Offertory have been rejected, sometimes on historical but more often on theological grounds, by most Protestant and some Catholic scholars. Even among those churches that were influenced by Dix in their reform of worship, many avoided reviving an Offertory altogether. In the Catholic Church, where a “new style” Offertory was introduced in the 1969 New Order Mass, it has been criticized in conservative circles as having Pelagian overtones for placing too much emphasis on the action of the congregation.

Off the Mark

Later scholarship has considered Dix to be near the mark but not always on it. For example, Dix argued that the Eucharistic Prayer grew out of a solemn three-part Jewish prayer, the Birkat ha-Mazon, or blessing after a meal, and, in particular, out of its second paragraph of “thanksgivings.” More recent liturgical scholarship has sought its origin in all three paragraphs of this ancient prayer, which, however, did not harden into prescribed forms among the Jews until the end of the first Christian millennium. This makes it difficult to reconstruct more than an outline of the original prayer. At best, it can be summarized as blessing-thanksgiving-supplication, and modern scholarship has criticized Dix for assuming, in a Jewish prayer context, the equivalence of blessing (Hebrew, berakah) and thanksgiving (Hebrew, yadah).

Dix also assumed, following late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German scholarship, that in the early Church the celebrant of the Eucharistic liturgy faced the congregation over the altar. The popularity of his book did a great deal to foster that practice among Anglicans and certain “catholicizing” clergy and congregations among Protestants such as Lutherans and Methodists.

It may have had a similar effect on Roman Catholics in laying the groundwork for the “reversal of the altars” that swept like a tidal wave over the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church from 1965 onwards. But this was more likely due to the influence of German and French liturgical institutes (most of whose “experts” were “popularizers” of liturgical scholarship rather than scholars themselves). Also, the view that “facing the people” was the “primitive practice” had been enshrined in the English-speaking world in The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, and had come to be regarded as historical fact.

However, this view is now acknowledged to be mistaken by most contemporary liturgical scholars: The universal early Christian practice of facing east for prayer applied also, and especially, during the celebration of the Eucharist. This was an expression of the timeless anticipation within time of the final advent, the parousia, of Christ at the end of time—an advent in which, so the early Christians thought, the “Sun of Justice” would arise in the East. Liturgical archaeology, the study of the arrangement of ruined churches in such places as North Africa and the Middle East, has shown conclusively that, nearly always, when the celebrant of the liturgy faced eastwards at the altar, he faced away from the congregation.

In recent years, the question of the celebrant’s position has occasioned lively controversy among Catholics. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, became increasingly outspoken in the 1980s and 1990s about the erroneous historical and liturgical ideas he saw underlying the change, and charged it with fostering the notion that “the community celebrates itself” rather than worshiping God. Although he never went so far as to advocate its abandonment, his advocacy of the traditional practice and its preservation sounded with clarity.

Conversely, opponents of any reversion to the former practice, such as the retired Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, no longer attempted to defend the change on the basis of its alleged historical priority, but rather for its promotion of a sense of community. The eschatological symbolism of orientation was meaningless for modern man, they claimed.

Dix’s mistake here shows the weakness of some of his scholarship. Had he been able to keep up with the latest German scholarship on early Church matters—he had mastered French and German, as well as Greek and Latin, as his footnotes witness—he would have found that this view was being undermined by the time he began to write his book. But one might reasonably question whether this would have been possible in wartime conditions, and his life was cut short before he could revise the book more thoroughly, as he intended in his last years.

Some have marveled at how much he was able to do by way of digestion, assimilation, and “regurgitation” under highly adverse conditions, even if at some haste. So his scholarship has been characterized as brilliant but at the same time “erratic” or even “slipshod.”

Anglican Controversies

Much of the criticism of Dix’s scholarship came from his fellow Anglicans, especially among the clergy—who disapproved of both his theological stance and his views of the English Reformation—rather than from his fellow liturgical scholars, both Anglicans and Catholics, many of whom held him in high esteem.

In its own Anglican milieu, Dix’s most contentious—and for many high-church Anglicans, offensive—assertion was that the Eucharistic doctrine of Archbishop Cranmer, the framer of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, was in all significant respects identical to that of the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli, and thus much “lower” than even Luther’s or Calvin’s. He went on to claim that both the “Catholic shaped” Eucharistic rite of the 1549 Prayer Book and the more obviously Protestant rite of 1552 were intended to inculcate this “symbolic” view of the Eucharist.

These views rankled, and the more so as Dix defended them with vigor and panache. A year after the book appeared, for example, a “moderate high-church” clergyman, G. B. Timms, attacked Dix’s view of Cranmer in the Church Quarterly Review in an article punningly entitled “Dixit Cranmer” (“Cranmer Said”), claiming that Cranmer’s views were identical with those of “high Calvinism.” In the following year Dix replied in the same journal with “Dixit Cranmer et Non Timuit” (“Cranmer Said and Feared Not”), which demonstrated, at the very least, Timms’s confusion about the views of the major Reformers on the Eucharist. He suggested very strongly that Timms’s views amounted to the latest attempt to perpetuate Anglican high-church “mythology” concerning the English Reformation and its “essentially Catholic” and “moderate” nature.

Although an American Anglican scholar, Cyril C. Richardson, awarded Dix the victory over Timms in 1949 in a work he entitled “Cranmer Dixit et Contradixit” (“Cranmer Said and Contradicted Himself”), almost all Anglican scholars, save for those on the highest and lowest extremities of Anglican churchmanship, continued to resist Dix’s characterization of Cranmer’s views for decades after his death. However, in recent years, they have effectively, if tacitly, received the support of the one-time liberal Anglican Evangelical and now “post-Christian” Reformation historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his monumental biography of Archbishop Cranmer and elsewhere.

What rankled even more was the combination of Dix’s own “party” theological views with his membership for much of the 1940s in the Convocation of Canterbury, which was part of the Church Assembly, the governing body of the Church of England. He was active in the affairs of the Church Assembly as a kind of enfant terrible: His often outspoken speeches were by turns witty, sarcastic, learned, and eloquent; and his opposition to “pan-Protestant ecumenism” in general and the creation of the Church of South India (an amalgamation of Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians into one church body) in particular inspired those who were of like mind and infuriated those who supported the union.

I remember the effect that my ingenuous questions about Dix produced at a dinner party in 1978. Our guest was a retired Anglican missionary bishop (now deceased) who had served in the Church of South India, a man of moderately Evangelical Anglican views, involved in ecumenical activities of a pan-Protestant nature but generally conservative in his theological outlook, a pleasant conversationalist, and candid (even then) in his criticisms of the Episcopal Church but “more in sorrow than in anger.” My inquiry about Dix (about whose life and career I then knew nothing) brought a pause to the bishop’s words, then his face flushed, and he began to speak animatedly about the harm that Dix’s “extreme” views had done to Anglican relations with other churches.

Dix’s whole career, the bishop claimed, had been devoted to “smuggling Roman Catholic ideas” into the Church of England. His scholarship was really “very poor” despite his “winsome” way of writing. Dix, the bishop continued, had read Law as an undergraduate, intending to become a barrister, and his attitude to facts and evidence, he concluded, was not that of a genuine historian, but that of an advocate. It was some years before I realized that the bishop’s account of Dix’s education, studies, and career interests had been mistaken in every particular.

Dix was, in fact, an “Anglo-Papalist.” He believed in all the dogmatic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and that the proper destiny of Anglican churches was reunion with Rome. On at least two occasions in his adult life he experienced bouts of what in Anglo-Catholic circles was called “Roman fever”—the felt need to enter the Catholic Church. What held him back, so far as there is evidence for it, was his belief that Pope Leo XIII’s condemnation of Anglican Orders in his 1896 encyclical Apostolicae Curae was flawed in its premises and mistaken in its conclusions, and that to accept it would violate both his conscience and his integrity as a priest.

On the other hand, his loyalty to the Church of England (for which his private name of exasperation was “Jezebel”) was never absolute. At the height of the “South India Crisis” in the late 1940s he wrote privately about the possibility that he and like-minded Anglicans might find themselves compelled to leave the Church of England and to constitute themselves into a body of what he called Continuing Anglicans.

His Motives

Yet there is no obvious evidence for Dix’s Anglo-Papalism in The Shape of the Liturgy. The mystery about the book concerns Dix’s intentions in writing it. In the book’s introduction he writes of the then-new academic discipline of Comparative Religion and its study of “ritual patterns” as the key for the understanding of “any given system of religious ideas and its necessary consequence in human living.” This leads him to conclude that the ritual pattern of the Eucharist is “most revealing of the essential Christian understanding of human life.” And, indeed, Dix’s book is about tracing the development of this ritual pattern against the background of its Semitic origins in the Lord’s institution of the ritual at the Last Supper, and its subsequent “inculturation” in the Greco-Roman world. It is not, in other words, a manifesto for liturgical reform.

At times, though, Dix does imply, or even suggest (in speaking of the post-Tridentine Roman Rite) that in the Roman Catholic Church a degree of simplification of ceremonial, encouragement of more active lay participation in the Mass, and even use of the vernacular would be desirable, and perhaps inevitable, as the world slipped into what he saw as a new “dream of the self-sufficiency of human power” now coming to “oppress the human spirit.”

By implication, rather than by direct statement, it seems that a principal purpose of his book may have been to discredit in the eyes of Catholic-minded Anglicans their attachment to the traditional Anglican Communion service of the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer. He saw Cranmer’s rite, even as modified in 1662, as “the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone,” while he characterized its beauty as “clothed upon the negations of Zwingli”—doctrines which he would have regarded as erroneous.

He had, after all, already written how “a great part of Anglican history is taken up with difficulties caused by the fact that the Anglican rite was framed with exquisite skill to express this [Zwinglian] doctrine which the Anglican church has always repudiated, tacitly since 1559, explicitly since 1563.” What he meant by this was that generations of Anglicans had sought to read into the Prayer Book liturgy views—Calvinist, “early Church,” rationalistic, Evangelical, Medieval Catholic, or Orthodoxophile—with which it was incompatible, and that this was one of the roots of what he saw as a pervasive Anglican inability to “know thyself” and to act in accordance with such knowledge.

In his time, many English Anglo-Catholics were content with rearranging the order of some of the prayers in the 1662 service, to give it a more traditionally Catholic appearance, but for Dix, this was dealing with appearances rather than realities. So far as one can make out from the book, Dix would have preferred an ongoing, long-term period of controlled liturgical experimentation within the Church of England, under the loose supervision of its bishops (but without according them any real authority to regulate it), in the hope that by doing so, not only would it have a liturgical expression more faithful to the Christian Tradition, but also it would come to a clearer sense of its own identity (or perhaps, as he suggested in other writings, a clearer sense of its mutually incompatible multiple identities).

But here there is a great irony. The Anglican Benedictine community that Dix had joined in 1926, a community that had barely survived the conversion of all but three of its original members to Rome in 1913, had abandoned the use of all Anglican liturgical forms from its beginning in favor of the Tridentine Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, and Dix himself said as near to daily as his circumstances would permit a Latin “Low Mass”—a rite to which his devotion was evident and to which he would not have wished any substantial changes beyond, perhaps, a greater use of the vernacular.

Elegant & Moving

One aspect of the book to which it is hard to do justice is the elegant, moving, and evocative quality of Dix’s language in the more reflective or summary sections of the book. The final chapter—“Throughout All Ages, World Without End”—has many such passages, including the frequently excerpted paragraph beginning, “Was ever another command so obeyed?” But the most moving passage may be in the final subsection of the chapter, titled “The Sanctification of Time.”

It is almost impossible to convey the flavor of such closely woven prose in an excerpt, but perhaps some excerpts will give a faint savor of the whole. Speaking of the way in which the worship of the Church, and the literature produced by cultivated converts, after the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in 314 and its subsequent proclamation as the official “Religion of the Romans” by the Emperor Theodosius in 381, had constituted a kind of “baptism” of the temporal order of the later Roman Empire in that century, Dix writes:

There is a sort of pause in events round about the turn of the century while that whole ancient world—still so magnificent—waits for the stroke of God, and trusts Him though it knows He will slay. It is like some windless afternoon of misty sunshine on the crimson and bronze of late October, when time for an hour seems to stand still and the earth dreams, fulfilled and weary, content that winter is at hand.

And then he continues:

The whole hard structure of the civitas terrena, the earthly city that had once thought itself eternal, was now ready to dissolve into a different future. Gibbon was right. The foundation of the empire was loosened by the waters of baptism, for the empire’s real foundation was the terrible pagan dream of human power. Its brief christian dream of the City of God which alone is eternal was broken by the roaring crash of the sack of Rome by the Goths in A.D. 410. The world went hurrying into the darkness of seven long barbarian centuries, but pregnant now with all the mediaeval and modern future. It was the achievement of the church in the single century that had passed since Diocletian that, though all else changed in human life, it was certain to be a christian world, that centred all its life upon the eucharist.

Elsewhere, speaking of the Christian situation in the Roman Empire, he writes:

We shall not begin to understand what the eucharist meant to christians until we have estimated this background of real danger and intense hatred in a setting of absolutely normal daily life. . . . No one ever knew even in a period when the government was quiescent when persecution might not break out in the form of mob violence, or what trivial cause might bring upon a man the inescapable official challenge ‘Art thou a christian?’ Callistus trying to recover a commercial debt from jewish debtors finds them making this charge against him in the prefect’s court to avoid payment; and within an hour or two he has been scourged and sentenced for life to the deadly Sardinian mines. Marinus, the soldier accused of christianity by a comrade envious of his promotion to centurion, is dead three hours after the accusation has been lodged. Both these typical stories are reported by contemporaries from periods which rank more or less as times of toleration.

And he concludes:

It remains a demonstrable historical fact from contemporary records that during this period thousands of men and women were killed, tens of thousands more suffered grievously in their fortunes and persons, and hundreds of thousands had to put up with the opposition of their families and the suspicion and ostracism of their neighbours for half-a-lifetime and more. And the storm center throughout the whole period was undoubtedly the eucharist.

And finally, in the very last paragraph of the book, concerning the Eucharist and individual Christians:

In the eucharist we Christians concentrate our motives and act out our theory of human living. Mankind are not to be ‘as Gods’, a competing horde of dying rivals to the Living God. We are His creatures, fallen and redeemed, His dear recovered sons, who by His free love are ‘made partakers of the divine nature’. But our obedience and our salvation are not of ourselves, even while we are mysteriously free to disobey and damn ourselves. We are dependent on Him even for our own dependence. We are accepted sons in the Son, by the real sacrifice and acceptance of His Body and Blood, Who ‘though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him; called of God an High-priest after the order of Melchisedech’.

Despite its occasional errors and, in some respects, its ambiguous legacy—the question of whether Dix would have advocated or even approved of the changes that others later justified by his book— The Shape of the Liturgy remains well worth reading, and that in a leisurely and meditative manner. It is a book that can, and has, shaped souls.


The Shape of The Shape

The first two chapters introduce the Church’s liturgy as an action with a distinctive structure, form, or “shape”—the joining of two originally distinct services, the “Synaxis” or Service of the Word (based on the synagogue service) and the Eucharist (instituted by Christ at the Last Supper), into a whole. The third chapter discusses the Synaxis and its origins and shape; the fourth the relationship between the early Christian Eucharist and the Last Supper; the fifth, the Eucharist and its distinctive shape.

After a brief chapter in which Dix situates the liturgy in its cultural and social background, he discusses early Eucharistic prayers (ch. 7), propounds a theory about the origins of that Prayer (ch. 8), explains the meaning (or, rather, several interrelated meanings) of the Eucharist (ch. 9), and analyzes the “Theology of Consecration” with a distinct emphasis on the contrast between Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) ideas (ch. 10).

Then comes a shift with a long chapter (“The Sanctification of Time”) on the development of the Christian Year, followed by chapters on the elaboration of ceremonial elements (vestments, lights, incense, and so on), the completion of the “shape” in Eastern and Western liturgical traditions, variable prayers in the Eucharist, the Medieval (and especially Western) liturgy, “the Reformation and the Anglican Liturgy,” and a final chapter in which Dix, in a reflective and even meditative manner, tries to spell out the meaning of liturgy and Eucharist for contemporary Christians.

— William J. Tighe



William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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