Oxford History of Christian Worship

Oxford History of Christian Worship

Nearly every Christian, nearly every Sunday, nearly everywhere in the world, worships. Though time, place, and manner of the services have all varied, followers of Christ have gathered to tell the story of his life, death, and resurrection for two thousand years. But many of us do not stop to think deeply about how our worship practices fit into that ancient and global stream. The Oxford History of Christian Worship, a new collection of essays edited by esteemed liturgical scholars Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, gives us the opportunity to do so.

The editors set the ambitious goal of covering Christian worship both chronologically and globally, in a manner "suited to the general reader as well as to historians, theologians, and scholars of religions" (though it helps if the general reader in question has a lot of time on her hands and a good theological and liturgical vocabulary). Despite its size (916 pages) and price ($55), it represents a compactly accessible yet thorough worship reference source, since multi-volume encyclopedias on the subject are out of financial reach for most individuals. The contributors include well-known college and university professors of liturgy, theology, and church history, as well as several scholars who currently function as pastors of local churches.

The volume begins by asserting the scriptural and theological framework for Christian worship and ends with reflecting on and predicting worship practices in the 21st century. Early chapters cover ancient Christian worship, the development of Western Christendom, Eastern Orthodox traditions (including their modern national variations), medieval practices, the effect of both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on worship, and the newly rationalistic ideas and approaches introduced by the Enlightenment (in one of the book's most fascinating essays, "The Age of Revolutions" by Conrad L. Donakowski). Further essays consider modern Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Mennonite, Baptist, Pentecostal/charismatic, and Roman Catholic practices throughout the world, as well as the integration of Christian worship forms with Asian and African cultural traditions. Concluding topical chapters examine the modern ecumenical movement, women and worship, music, liturgical space, visual arts, and vestments and physical objects. Christianity's central worship acts—baptism and Holy Communion—receive considerable attention throughout.

Wainwright and Westerfield Tucker, as well as their contributors, are to be commended for taking on a nearly impossible task and wrestling this vast topic into near-submission. All the essays are detailed and fair. Frequent pictures and primary-text examples bring liturgical practices (some long-vanished and/or unfamiliar) to life. Each essay concludes with a short bibliography of major works on the topic, and an extensive index aids those who want to trace favorite topics through various articles. The book mostly succeeds in its intentionally global focus, outlining both the history and current practices of national Orthodox churches, of various European countries, and of Asian, African, and Hispanic Christians—both Catholic and Protestant.

Every reference book, though, however complete, leaves out some stories. Shaped by the modern ecumenical and liturgical movements, which draw their strength from (and find their audience largely in) mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic denominations, the contributors focused on that mainline narrative. (Even then, it is odd that in a book edited by two eminent Methodists there is no essay on Methodist/Wesleyan worship traditions—particularly since Westerfield Tucker is the author of a classic text on the subject, American Methodist Worship [Oxford, 2001].) although some authors gesture toward the strain of worship practices and theology leading out of Pietism into evangelical, Holiness, contemporary/non-denominational, and (recently) emergent worship, this tradition is not treated holistically. (There are several important exceptions, including a penetrating analysis of "heart religion" and the Enlightenment in Donakowski's essay and also an excellent essay on Pentecostal and charismatic worship by Telford Work. Still, it feels like there is an essay on the topic missing somewhere.)

The editors do view developments in contemporary and emergent worship as a major trend of the future, noting in the conclusion that mainline denominations "are striving to take seriously the new mission field in their backyard by drawing from an array of approaches to worship, some of which depart from the denominationally approved standard that is typically an order indebted to the Liturgical Movement." Fruitful ground remains for further scholarly and popular exploration of this ancient-future tension, similar to what authors such as Robert Webber and Marva Dawn have periodically instigated.

This magisterial and authoritative book reminds us of the great tradition in which we stand and the customs that Christians in all times and places have given to us. Find this book, read it, and, if you happen to be of an evangelical persuasion, think about how it both challenges and illuminates your own heritage.