Lately, I have been comparing Leonel Mitchell’s minor classic, Praying Shapes Believing (1985), with the updated version from Ruth Meyers just issued by Seabury Books. Mitchell’s theological commentary on the 1979 American Prayer Book served as required reading for countless American seminarians, warranting its examination here. Meyers’s revisions are proving significant as well. Further essays in coming months will engage with other issues both books raise, particularly in light of the ongoing conversations in the Episcopal Church about the possibility of prayer book revision (see the four possible options for General Convention 2018 as outlined by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music; see also The Living Church’s teaching series on the topic, Necessary or Expedient?).

Today I want to point to an issue that remains unsatisfactory in both volumes: the offertory as it relates to sacrifice in the Eucharist. On this point, Mitchell had followed and expanded upon Dom Gregory Dix’s famous position regarding the offertory. Yet Meyers’s revision of Mitchell significantly impacts on his understanding of this point. As I shall note, she removes a key section from his book. I am satisfied neither with Dix and Mitchel nor with Meyers, but I am afraid I shall have to “back up” and explain each of their positions, in order to explain why.

(Given some of my earlier essays here about ad orientem, I would ask the reader to disentangle this essay from those earlier ones, even though there are some overlapping issues.)

Gregory Dix published his famous “Green Book,” The Shape of the Liturgy in 1945, and it exercised an influence over all of the Anglophone liturgical scholarship that was to follow. It looms large in Prayer Shapes Believing (henceforth, PSB). Dix made the following claim about the Christian Eucharist in an early article:


It has four momenta only—Offertory, Thanksgiving Prayer (Canon, Anaphora), Fraction, Communion—and nothing else. It thus reproduces exactly the “took bread—gave thanks—brake—gave” of the Gospels.[1]

The Shape of the Liturgy argues that this form appears quite clearly in the historical data.

With absolute unanimity the liturgical tradition reproduces these seven actions as four: (1) The offertory; bread and wine are ‘taken’ and placed on the table together. (2) The prayer; the president gives thanks to God over bread and wine together. (3) The fraction; the bread is broken. (4) The communion; the bread and wine are distributed together.

In that form and in that order these four actions constituted the absolutely invariable nucleus of every eucharistic rite known to us throughout antiquity from the Euphrates to Gaul.[2]

Scholars have raised major questions about different parts of Dix’s work (the Anglican Bryan Spinks provides one of the most well known),[3] but I cannot delve into many of the details here. Despite the now dubious historical basis of Dix’s most famous claim about the four-fold shape,[4] most 20th-century revisions of eucharistic liturgies followed Dix’s claim about this basic shape, including the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.[5] For example:

1. Offertory: A rubric was introduced in both Rite I and Rite II between the Peace and the opening dialogue between priest and people that begins the Great Thanksgiving. It reads: “Representatives of the congregation bring the people’s offerings of bread and wine, and money or other gifts, to the deacon or celebrant. The people stand while the offerings are presented and placed on the Altar” (1979 BCP, pp. 333, 361).

2. Thanksgiving: A new title was introduced into the Eucharistic liturgy just before the opening dialogue between priest and people, “The Great Thanksgiving.” No such title appears in the 1928 Order for Holy Communion.[6] The change in 1979 was two-fold. First, its placement before the dialogue of the sursum corda emphasized that the eucharistic prayer begins there, and not after the Sanctus.[7] Second, a theological shift occurred: thanksgiving, rather than consecration, is the theme that is to be highlighted.

3. Fraction: Another title was introduced just after the Lord’s Prayer (that is also bold and of the same size font as “The Great Thanksgiving”), “The Breaking of the Bread” (pp. 337, 364) — definitely a nod to Dix. Cranmer had removed any ritual breaking of bread in the first English BCP of 1549.[8] In 1662, rubrics were introduced that directed the priest to break the bread during the Institution Narrative (the Scottish 1637 BCP still had no rubric about breaking bread, though by 1764, the rubric was identical to the English and required breaking during the institution narrative). All American Prayer Books retained this practice until 1979, when, as Marion Hatchett puts it in his justly famous Commentary, “the present Book restores the fraction as a primary action of the Eucharist” (p. 380).[9]

4. Communion: The “giving” of the Sacrament in the distribution is the only one of these four actions that was not changed in any significant way in 1979.

Much could be said (and has!) but here is where I want to focus my inquiry: the relationship between the “offertory” (as it is often called, though many modern liturgists bristle at this), the action of offering that accompanies the verbal act of offering the bread and wine within the Eucharistic prayer, and the general issue of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. I will return to this topic tomorrow, in the second post of this series.


[1] Gregory Dix, “The Idea of The Church in the Primitive Liturgies” in A. G. Hebert, The Parish Communion (London: SPCK, 1937), p. 100.

[2] Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (Westminster, London: Dacre Press, 1945), p. 48.

[3] Bryan D Spinks, “Mis-Shapen: Gregory Dix and the Four-Action Shape of the Liturgy,” Lutheran Quarterly 4:2 (1990): pp. 161–77.

[4] The major issues with this might be summed up in this way: (1) early Christian writers make an appeal to the Last Supper much less frequently than we might expect; (2) it is pretty clear that Institution Narratives (the recounting of the Last Supper) don’t enter eucharistic prayers until the fourth century and later, in some cases; (3) when one comes to read early eucharistic prayers and ask the question, “What is the logic or ordering principle of these prayers,” these four actions would never be the answer. One has to go in looking for them to “find” them. (4) Finally, when attempting to analyze what is “happening” in early Eucharistic prayers, it seems a profound imposition to conclude with a one word description about what is happening in the Eucharistic prayer (i.e. “blessing” in Dix’s parlance). Rather we see lots of things: thanksgiving for the great acts of God; praise and adoration to God; the offering of a sacrifice; a recounting of the basis for what we are now doing in the “do this” of Jesus; a purposeful remembering and recalling the central acts of redemption by Jesus (passion, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, second coming); intercessions.

[5] For example, the logic of the 1979 BCP’s “Rite III” arguably rests on an understanding that this fourfold shape is the integral part of the Eucharist (i.e. the eucharistic portion of the liturgy is outlined in four parts: Prepare the Table; Make Eucharist; Break the Bread; Share the Gifts of God (p. 401). The 1995 meeting of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation in Dublin, 1995 recommended a different sort of “fivefold” structure, focusing on the whole of the rite, rather than narrowly on the Eucharistic prayer. See also Ron Dowling, “Text, Shape, and Communion: What Unites Us When Nothing’s the Same Anymore?” Anglican Theological Review 95:3, pp. 435-46

[6] The closest analogue was the rubric on top of p. 80, which directly followed the Sanctus: “When the Priest, standing before the Holy Table, hath so ordered the Bread and Wine, that he may with the more readiness and decency break the Bread before the People, and take the Cup into his hands, he shall say the Prayer of Consecration, as followeth.” This is identical to the rubric in the same place in the 1662 English BCP and thus “Prayer of Consecration” is a title with a venerable history in Anglicanism.

[7] Emphasis on the prayer beginning after the Sanctus was a medieval Western tendency: around the ninth century, the title canon actionis moved from before the dialogue to just after the Sanctus in Latin missals. This begins with the eighth-century codex, Vatican Library, Vat. Reginensis latinus 316 (now digitized for common consultation); see Bryan D. Spinks, “The Roman Canon Missae,” in Prex Eucharistica: Studia, ed. Albert Gerhards, Heinzgerd Brakmann, and Martin Klöckener, Spicilegium Friburgense 42 (Fribourg: Academic Press, 2005), p. 129.

[8] The only mention of breaking bread came in rubrics that follow the rite, indicating that each piece should at least be divided in half.

[9] This, however, is precisely the debated point: To what degree do patristic liturgies understand the fraction to be central to the rite? And if they do, is there a generally uniform purpose or meaning to that action? In my estimation, the answer to both questions is clearly, No.

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is associate professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the 2022–2023 Alan Richardson Fellow at Durham University, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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6 years ago

This promises to be a really good series, Matthew, and I’m looking forward to the other posts in it. The many criticisms of Dix really came to my attention as I was writing my dissertation/book. I was struck both by how, from a historical perspective, his theory is basically untenable now, and how influential it was. It leaves us in the interesting position of having a theory of offering that is not grounded in historic liturgies, but which nevertheless provides the theological basis for contemporary rites. I’ve thought before about writing something about how, in the future, Dix’s legacy will… Read more »

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