By Leonel L. Mitchell

Edited and introduced by Richard Mammana Jr.

In 1964, Leonel Lake Mitchell (1930-2012) became the first person to receive a Th.D. in liturgical studies from an Episcopal seminary when he completed doctoral work under sometime Living Church editor H. Boone Porter at General Theological Seminary in New York. From 1971 to 1978, Mitchell served as an assistant professor in the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology and as director of its M.A. program from 1974 to 1978. He was the first Episcopal priest to serve as a full-time faculty member at Notre Dame. From 1978 to 1995, Mitchell was professor of liturgics at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and lecturer in Church history and liturgy at Seabury-Western from 1978 to 2005, after which he became a professor emeritus. From 1978 until his death he was an honorary canon and canon theologian (from 2008) at the Cathedral of St. James in South Bend, Indiana.

Mitchell was a key reviser of the Book of Common Prayer, producing draft and proposed rites, as well as related catechetical, explanatory, and ceremonial material. His 1985 book Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer has been a standard seminary textbook since its publication. He was a member of the drafting committee of the Standing Liturgical Commission from 1964 to 1979 while serving as a parish priest in the Diocese of New York.


This essay, distributed in pamphlet form at the 1973 General Convention in Louisville, was published by the former American Branch of the Anglican Society, based at GTS. It had previously been published in an issue of The Anglican quarterly and has not been anthologized to date.

Leonel Mitchell

It has been quite accurately observed that we live in a world of permanent change. Change is, in fact, the only constant factor in the history of our planet. The pre-Socratic philosophers recognized this. The little old lady who complains, “Things just aren’t the same as when I was young,” has recognized it. And it is true.

Although change in the world has always been with us, the rate of change has not been constant. There have been periods of relative stability and of extremely rapid, or revolutionary change. We are, of course, living in a period of rapid change. In the strictly ecclesiastical sphere we hear of “The New Reformation” and “Ferment in the Church.” In the larger world we are confronted with statistics assuring us that 90 percent of the scientists who have ever lived are alive today, or that 85 percent of the drugs on your pharmacist’s shelf did not exist in 1940. It is a staggering thought. Even more staggering is the thought that most children now in elementary school will earn their living at jobs that do not exist at present, or the prediction that by the year 2000 about 80 percent of the population will not have what we call a job at all.

Marshall McLuhan, the English professor turned communications expert, believes that the new electronic media, principally the television and the computer, are largely responsible for the change in environment of the present. Our own ingenuity and inventiveness, he assures us, is responsible for the passing away of “our man-made visual environment” which dates from the fifth century B. C. “Our consternation in facing this development,” he says, “is entirely of the ‘didn’t know it was loaded’ variety.”[1]

“The new electric galaxy of events has already moved deeply into the Gutenberg galaxy. Even without collision, such co-existence of technologies and awareness brings trauma and shock to every living person. Our most ordinary and conventional attitudes seem suddenly twisted into gargoyles and grotesques.”[2]

It is not necessary to follow the intricacies of McLuhan’s logic to recognize that he is accurately describing the world in which we live, and work, and worship.

In a recent paper on the revision of the liturgy, I have suggested that our modern liturgical writers have neglected the three most important events in modern liturgical history: the invention of printing, the mimeograph, and television. I believe this thesis can and should be defended.

“The invention of typography,” McLuhan says, “confirmed and extended the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, the first assembly line, and the first mass-production.”[3] Unquestionably the production of printed liturgical books was accompanied by an insistence on uniformity. The first prayer book of 1549 was accompanied by an Act of Uniformity and had as its avowed purpose the elimination of the “great diversity in saying and singing in churches,” so that, “Now from henceforth, all the whole realm shall have but one use.”

And in Europe, according to the great Roman Catholic liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann, “The greatest and most consequential innovation of the Mass book of Pius V was the enactment, clearly expressed in its bull of introduction, that this book was to be, from then on, the standard in every church and that no changes were to be made therein.”[4] The issuance of the Pian Missal in 1570 was followed by the founding, in 1588, of the Sacred Congregation of Rites to insure the uniform performance of the Latin rite. The liturgy (both Roman and Anglican) ceased to be alive and became a treasure of the past, to be protected, venerated, and used without deviation.

To quote McLuhan again:

Later medieval visual stress muddied liturgical piety as much as electronic field pressure has clarified it today … With regard only to our new electric technology, it might baffle many to explain why there should be such a profound liturgical renewal in our time, unless they were aware of the essentially oral character of the electric “field” … The merely individual and visual aspects of worship no longer satisfy.[5]

Even if we do not accept Professor McLuhan’s arguments, there can be no reasonable doubt that his conclusions are correct. The liturgy is no longer seen as a printed text to be studied, but as an action to be performed, a celebration in which to join, an event in which all the senses play their part. It is, in fact, alive again. It is the celebration of life by the Christian community.

In 1936 the first television broadcast took place in England. In the previous year, Fr. A. Gabriel Hebert wrote Liturgy and Society, which is in many ways the opening gun of the 20th Century Liturgical Movement in the Anglican Church. “Here is part of the ideal: that all those who live in one place should eat and drink together before God,” he said. “The task of the Church in the future will be to re-create a social life.”[6]

This social emphasis is, perhaps, the distinguishing mark of the 20th Century Liturgical Movement, which sets for itself no less a goal than “to claim every aspect of life for God Himself.” It is nothing less than this, and not tinkering with ceremonial, which is the goal of the Movement. Offertory processions, celebrations facing the people, public baptisms, revision of the Prayer Book, and all of these things are not the goals of the Liturgical Movement, but the means, the tools, by which we seek to fulfill God’s mission to the world through the Church. To put it in other words: worship is not one activity among other activities, it is the environment in which Christians must live.

Sister Corita expressed one aspect of this when she said, “To really see what we ordinarily look at from time to time makes fireworks happen inside us that can’t always be contained when the brightness of a person or a thing is discovered, or uncovered. These moments are small celebrations, daily exercises, that keep us in form for the big ones.”[7]

This grounding of worship in the celebration of life has as its theological foundation the doctrines of creation and incarnation. Perhaps again Sister Corita has given them their simplest modern expression:

Man is called to be like God, as Creator, as Maker. In a sense every man is supposed to be an artist. That’s the word. We are told to go to work and subdue the earth. And we have elsewhere in the same book a description of the earth standing on tiptoe waiting eagerly to be saved, and somehow man has something to do with the saving. The earth is waiting to receive the stamp of man, as he forms it further, because creation was just the beginning. We carry on what God started.

Further on, we find that God became man and stamped his approval on the whole system into which he came, and which he never left. He took the whole messy bit and worked with it as man. He was a miserable failure and a total success. And so nothing should be unfamiliar to us. Nothing needs to be left out. It can all be taken in. And along the way we can be miserable failures. Hopefully the parallel will carry thru at the end, and we will be total successes in the long run. This is our hope.[8]

This is the gospel which the Church is sent to proclaim. It is one and unchanging, but the world to which we are sent to proclaim it is continually changing, and the gospel needs continually to be translated into terms which the world can understand. This means not only that the actual language of the proclamation needs to be translated from Hebrew, to Greek, to Latin, to English, or Spanish, or Japanese, but also that it must be translated into thought forms which our culture can comprehend. We human beings, as many writers from St. Paul on have noted, are engaged in running a race.

God is the start and finish, but the course we travel is through the world of the 1960s. This means that our compass settings may well differ substantially from those of someone who ran in another time and place. Indeed, one of the mistakes of the forerunners of the present Liturgical Movement was to seek to re-establish the worship of an earlier age by withdrawing from the present to live ideally in the past.

But liturgy must be an expression of the life of the actually existing community which offers it as worship. Our worship must be the offering of our lives to God, not the lives of fourth- or 15th-century Christians, for the world in which we live is very different from that of the early Church or of the Middle Ages.

The best figure I have heard to describe this difference is that of Cinerama and the stereopticon. The stereopticon gives us a very accurate picture of the world. It gives it in color and 3D, but it is a still picture — something which we can observe, and about which we can reason. In many ways this is the picture reflected in the worship of the Book of Common Prayer, the Pian Missal, or any of the great Reformation church orders. On the other hand, Cinerama places us in the center of a three-dimensional movie. It produces an environment which moves and changes. In that sense it is a more accurate picture than the other, for reality does not stand still for us to observe it. I believe that it is this second view of the world which underlies the new approach to liturgy at the present. It is dynamic rather than static, an experience rather than a visual effect, McLuhan rather than Gutenberg, Teilhard de Chardin rather than Thomas Aquinas. It is what is happening, and it is a new environment. As McLuhan reminds us, “New environments inflict considerable pain on the perceiver.”[9]

Certainly the pain is evident today as the Church groans and travails under the New Theology, the New Morality, the New Liturgy, Sensitivity Training, and all the other “new things” which have burst upon our ecclesiastical lives. When confronted with a new environment man has a tendency to try to live in the past. We watch World War II movies, or Bonanza, and talk about the simple pleasures of grandfather’s day. We forget that “Most of us today would vigorously object to living in the house or doing the job our great-grandfathers did. The fact is that most people’s great-grandparents were dirt-poor and lived in hovels.”[10]

In Church too we want to see everything the way it was. We picture the Church of our childhood, conveniently forgetting its weaknesses, and try to recapture it at its best. But this is a different world. We can no more live in 1928 or 1948 than in 1549 or 325. What was appropriate then may be impossible now.

More specifically, I would say that worship, to be effective in the modern world of rapid change, must have four principal qualities:

  1. The first is clarity. We must not bury action under an avalanche of words, and the words we do use must be such that the average intelligent man can understand them without special training. Ceremonies and symbols should illuminate the words, rather than require further explanation. The great sacramental symbols carry a built-in authenticity. We eat the Bread, we drink the Wine, we wash with the Water.
  2. The second quality is corporateness. Liturgy means the work of the people, and it must be the action of the whole Christian people, rather than something done for them by the priest. In both Protestant and Catholic worship the priest or minister has tended to become a performer, and the congregation, the priestly people of God, have been reduced to an audience. The Church is not the same as the hierarchy, however, and baptism, not ordination, is the mark of the Churchman.
  3. The third quality is flexibility. It is perhaps an overstatement to say, “Gutenberg made it possible to put Prayer Books in the hands of the people; A.B. Dick made them obsolete,”[11] but it is on the right track. The mimeograph and the Xerox have made the loose-leaf prayer book and Hymnal a possibility. The idea of uniformity in worship is a part of that later medieval visual stress which we are only now getting away from. Cranmer, in his laudable desire to simplify the rubrics, removed almost all of the variety and flexibility of the older rites. The necessary things for Christian worship are few indeed. From Christ himself come the use of Bread and Wine for Holy Communion and Water for Baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, and the framework, or shape of the Eucharistic liturgy (and that has undergone universal modification). A great deal of flexibility about everything else is possible, even within the traditional framework.
  4. The final quality is celebration. Even Christian penitence should end on the note of joy in forgiveness. The gospel is, after all, Good News. In Baptism we pass from death to life. In the Eucharist we are banqueters feasting at the table of the conquering King. Even at funerals we celebrate the resurrection and our continued fellowship in the Communion of Saints.

Too often the Good News seems to come out, “Life is damn serious business, we’re here to let you know it.”[12] But the Christian life is a love affair with God, and worship is meant to be its celebration. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb.”[13]

What we must strive to do is not to revive the worship of some other age, nor to perpetuate that of the immediate past, but rather to offer God our best. The modern expression “doing our own thing” is exactly what is necessary: not a pale copy of Geneva, or Sarum, or Renaissance Rome, or even of Nicaea or Jerusalem, but our celebration of our life in God and with one another in Him.

[1] War and Peace in the Global Village, p. 13

[2] The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 278f.

[3] ibid., p. 124

[4] Mass of the Roman Rite, Vol. I, p. 138

[5] The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 137f.

[6] op. cit., p. 183

[7] Footnotes and Headlines, p. 171

[8] ibid., p. 20ff

[9] War and Peace in the Global Village, p. 7.

[10] Cox, Harvey, The Secular City, p. 52.

[11] White, J.F., “Worship in an Age of Immediacy,” in The Christian Century, Vol LXXV, No. 8 (2-21-68), p. 229

[12] Berrigan, D., in Footnotes and Headlines, p. 11

[13] Revelation 19:9

About The Author

Richard Mammana is a lay church historian, author, beekeeper, father, husband, and communicant of S. Clement’s Church, Philadelphia.

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