Teresa BERGER and Bryan D. SPINKS, editors. Liturgy’s Past/s: Methodologies and Materials in the Writing of Liturgical History. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016. Pp. 305+index. $34.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-6268-7. Reviewed by James DALLEN, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258.


These papers from the 2014 Liturgy Conference at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music revolve around the theme of methodology in liturgical history. They make the point that there is not simply the past but rather the possibility of many pasts and that these have implications for contemporary worship.

In dealing with foundational matters, Bryan D. Spinks explores the role of imagination (subjectivity) in writing history and reminds us that we reconstruct the past through the lenses of the present. Miri Rubin notes that more medievalists are using liturgical sources and that historians are looking more at religious culture than theology and institutions and likewise more at practices than texts, especially local variations.

The second group of essays provides new perspectives on liturgy’s past/s. Emmanuel Fritsch has the longest essay in the book, in which he surveys research on Ethiopian worship in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Maxwell E. Johnson summarizes new perspectives on the Apostolic Tradition that are somewhat at odds with the understanding that influenced modern liturgical reform in several churches last century. Teresa Berger discusses obliviousness to gender prior to the mid-twentieth century—ignoring both women and men who were only men.

The third section, on broadening the view of liturgy’s past/s, looks at specific topics or figures in liturgical history. Harold Buchinger examines the influence of historicism, romanticism, and ultramontanism in the nineteenth-century restoration of Gregorian chant. The Lenten chant repertoire, he notes, evokes a liturgy that is more imagination than reality—an elaborate initiation for babies and young children. Bruce Gordon looks at the Lord’s Supper in Reformation Zurich where continuity is not with the Mass but Israelite covenant. Bryan D. Spinks discusses a controversial sixteenth-century English Anglican dean, William Whittingham, who influenced Scotch worship. Melanie C. Ross examines American frontier worship—with studies of nineteenth-century figures, Alexander Campbell and John Nevin—to situate the rise of evangelicalism in relation to continuity with ancient worship. Karen B. Westerfield Tucker studies Civil War hymnals provided to combatants by churches in both North and South, identifying theological and functional homogeneity and an evangelical orientation toward salvation and sanctification.

The final section, titled “the presence and future of liturgy’s past/s,” consists of a single essay by Wendy Mayer on the changing shape of Christian worship through the end of late antiquity—i.e., how liturgical historians have regarded and presented it. The major shift she identifies is emphasis on mutidisciplinary study, utilizing multiple kinds of evidence, and attending to context (including our own). She provides a stimulating survey of changes in approach to study of the liturgy of the first eight centuries. (Perhaps the most provocative is the claim that clergy-led worship in churches was not central to the lives of most Christians before the fifth century.)

Few people are likely to find these essays of equal interest, but the quality of their scholarship is excellent. Each look at liturgy’s past/s raises questions that have implications for Sunday worship in our churches.