Congress Statement

Congress Statement Würzburg 2013

Liturgical Reforms in the Churches


In 2013 we will look back to 50 years of effects from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) of the Second Vatican Council, a document that has had significant influence in many Christian churches.  That document succeeded in integrating important concerns of earlier reform movements and itself initiated many renewals in the theology and practice of the liturgy, hence the choice of the Congress title: “Liturgical Reforms.” This historical approach encourages our Congress to reflect on important moments and reform movements throughout liturgical history, to study the manifold efforts at reform of liturgical celebration in many churches, and to collectively develop an ecumenical perspective for the future.

Thus it can be one of the goals of the Congress of Societas Liturgica 2013 in Würzburg for us to focus upon central subject areas that contribute towards an understanding of the renewal and reform of Christian liturgy. These subject areas are to be explored in their historical unfolding and for their current ecumenical relevance.

Subject Areas:

Liturgical Reforms in History

The theme “Liturgical Reforms” was consciously chosen in the plural in order to underline its historical as well as its ecumenical relevance: therefore, first of all, it is important to point out that the theme of reform or renewal is not a new theme within Christian liturgy. Looking at church history we discover a variety of reforms of the liturgy from the first beginnings, to the church orders in the early centuries and the writings of theologians and church fathers, to the Carolingian liturgical reforms in the Latin West, to the typica in Oriental churches, to the reforms of the 16th and 17th century, to developments emerging from the Enlightenment, the evangelical revivals, global missions and pentacostalism, right up to the liturgical movement and its fruits in the 20th century.

Changes have occurred spontaneously, have emerged within particular local communities or have been imposed by central ecclesial authorities. Some authors make a distinction between reforms and what they consider a natural or organic development of liturgy. The Congress shall reflect about continuity and discontinuity, about the character of liturgical developments and about the mechanisms underlying changes and reforms in the past and the present.

Under such a theme, the participants of the Congress can contribute the traditions of various Christian denominations and then, like a mosaic, construct a picture that outlines and elucidates liturgical developments in all their diversity.

Sources of Liturgical Reforms

Already looking at the New Testament, it becomes evident that the idea of “reform” can be found, at least implicitly. Reform, seen biblically, is a foundational Christian leitmotiv that surfaces in the New Testament’s theme of “newness.” “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). It is God who in renewal promises salvation for the people. “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true’” (Rev. 21:5). It follows, that already in biblical times a special concern of Christians focused on matters of the renewal of and care for their worship service, as Paul shows in 1 Cor. 11. The action of Jesus Christ was to be the leitmotiv and the truly “new” by which Christian worship was to be measured. Later, over and over again, renewal of the liturgy was a theme, as growth and further development took place. Together with this basic orientation towards Holy Scripture there was a parallel orientation to another reference: liturgical tradition (and, thereby, specific liturgical traditions). Both in the past and in the present, processes of reform have often been motivated by a return to the sources: the aggiornamento in liturgy has often drawn its inspiration from a consideration of past realizations with a view to the present and the future.

This second orientation points to a claim for there being normative foundations for the liturgy and, more generally, for the Christian faith. While going forward, reform always looks to the past and tries not to lose its contact point with the sources. Of course, wrangling about the specific model of reform happened; disagreement often ruled. The Congress will take this aspect into consideration but from an ecumenical perspective; namely, while considering a variety of approaches, it will ask the question about core foundations: to what extent can an orientation towards the witness of Holy Scripture be a measure of reform? What is meant by the oft-cited “Norm of the Fathers” (norma patrum)? What does the notion of Tradition mean in this context?

Theological Foundations of the Liturgy: one shape of meaning with many forms?

In our times, church life differentiates itself more and more from place to place. Observing this situation from an ecumenical perspective, the question arises whether individual Christian churches can agree perhaps sooner on theological principles for liturgical reform than on the specific embodied results of such a reform. Could a referential return to Holy Scripture, an alignment to (liturgical) tradition, and the basic agreement about a “shape of meaning” in Christian liturgy be a basis for liturgical reforms?

Ultimately, can the same “shape of meaning” be expressed in liturgical praxis through different forms of celebration, thereby suggesting that diversity in practice does not mean difference in theology?

Can therefore definitions of the “shape of meaning” of the Christian liturgy lead to ecumenical consensus? In his sermon at the dedication of the Castle Church in Torgau (1544), Martin Luther defines worship as a dialogical event. He urges that “nothing else ever happen in [this house of worship] except that our dear Lord himself may speak to us through his holy Word and we respond to him through prayer and praise” (LW 51:333). The Second Vatican Council defines that liturgy as the “Celebration of the Paschal Mystery” of Jesus Christ.  What is the agreement in these assertions of meaning?

Bilateral and multilateral documents of differentiated consensus  – like the 1982 Lima Declaration “Baptism -Eucharist – Ministry” or the 1994 “Ditchingham Report” of the World Council of Churches – show that theological negotiation between the various concepts of liturgy is a prerequisite for further ecumenical advancements on the way to a common liturgical celebration of our faith. The early successes of such efforts have been identified by the Ditchingham Report, No. 30: “Liturgical scholars, working from common sources, have come closer to a common sense of the ordines for baptism, the Eucharist, and daily prayer. Working with these findings, the renewed liturgies of many churches have a common shape which creates a sense of common heritage of worship among the churches.” For this reason the Congress will try to bring into dialogue the varying liturgical conceptions of different Christian confessions.

Liturgical Reform and Ecclesiology

The reform of the liturgy is always part of the reform of the church: an ecclesia semper reformanda corresponds therefore with a liturgia semper reformanda. When in the political arena, the discussion is continually about a “reform agenda,” we will have to historically and critically investigate to what extent such an “agenda” is also present in the varying liturgical reforms in the many diverse churches of the past and in the present. Liturgical renewal, however, also makes a statement about church, even if this was not the intent of those engaging in reform. This is true because the liturgy renders the celebrating church visible and through liturgical celebration the church is formed. Liturgical reforms always contain an ecclesial dimension. The Congress will pursue this connection, which has special meaning in the ecumenical context.

With regards to liturgical reforms that have succeeded, one would need to ask, from a historical perspective, what were the guiding themes of that particular reform agenda? Who were the initiators and carriers, the representatives of the reform; what were the methods and the goals of the renewal? What guaranteed the success of such reform or led to its failure?

Add to this an inter-disciplinary perspective: by way of dialogue with social and cultural studies, we can better understand to what extent church-liturgical and socio-cultural transformation processes are simultaneously intertwined, influencing each other as they also challenge each other. Taking as an example an image of church that is based in a particular liturgical reform, we could ask about its rootedness in a specific socio-cultural context. Such questions and others can all contribute to a better understanding of the meaning of reform and the reform process.

Liturgical reforms and the issue of power and authority

It seems that liturgical reforms imply power mechanisms and authority. Both in the design and in the implementation of liturgical reforms, power and authority are undeniably at play. Power and authority, however, are not always the same, but they must be identified, for there may be authoritative voices without power and powerful mechanisms without authority.

Moreover, power and authority in liturgical reforms are not only executed by official bodies of the churches and by the ideologies and strategies that they might have. They can also be discerned at the practical level where people work together in the preparation of worship services. The issue of power and authority in liturgical reforms is additionally important, because different pastoral styles are involved.

Contributors to the conference are invited to share their knowledge of and insights into the role of power and authority in liturgical reforms. They can do so both descriptively and critically. And they may take examples from history or approach the matter from a contemporary perspective.

Liturgy, Culture and Language in the Reforms

Central subject matters that continually determine the search for a basic Christian “shape of meaning” in the liturgy are the presence of the crucified and risen Lord in the celebration, the question of active participation, the relevance of culture and inculturation, and ultimately the matter of that linguistic accessability which enables an active participation. These questions are never closed but present themselves always anew.

And so another theme that needs special attention: how far have the goals of liturgical reform had to change because of a genuine intercultural interaction and precisely as sign of that inculturation? Did the goals of the 20th century liturgical movement impact all Christian churches or did some of the goals, in the last 50 years, know displacement? Which are the goals of the liturgical reform that are still shared by Christian churches (for instance the question of active participation)? Which are the goals that in today’s view are sooner to be neglected or even consciously eliminated from the catalogue of possible liturgical reforms?

Liturgical Reform and Church Architecture and the Arts

Liturgical reform does not only concern the reform of Christian rituals through reform of liturgical books and texts. Liturgical reform also gets conveyed by way of art, architecture and music: church spaces were and are created as places for worship and designed accordingly. Historical sanctuaries show unmistakably the imprint of specific ideas about the liturgy and how the original thematic ideas for liturgical celebrations have changed over time (e.g., the common agape meal of Jesus’ disciples, or the presider as representative at God’s altar, or the hearing of the proclaimed word and the response in joint singing and praying, or the sacramental epiphany of God in the divine throne room, or the participatory congregational celebration in dialogue with God). Church space has been transformed to fit the purpose.

While for a long time the place of proclamation of the Word in the churches of the Reformation was structurally elevated, in the Catholic church the altar was raised higher than anything else as the place of sacrifice, and the Byzantine liturgy took place for the most part behind the “iconostasis.” Recalling these various liturgical places and pulling them together in the 20th century had its fall-out in the planning of church spaces. Analogous processes can be found in the realm of church music and art in liturgical interiors. The Congress will give the opportunity to gather such developments from the varying traditions and to work out present developments. It will be looking especially at common developments that can be identified among the various confessions and their reciprocal effects on each other.

Liturgy and Life

Of high ethical and missionary relevance in view of the liturgy is an admonition that can be found in the (Roman Catholic) ordination of priests: “Imitate the mystery you celebrate!” From such an admonition can be derived the close blending of liturgy and diakonia, which expresses itself in a communal concern for the poor, the deprived and the oppressed of this world, and in the role of the presider as a true service, reflecting back to the witness of Holy Scripture. These themes were of enormous relevance in the history of liturgy, as also for the Reformation of the 16th century and for the reform efforts of the 2nd Vatican Council and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Liturgy and life cannot be separated. Rather the experienced and celebrated salvific action of God already today marks our thinking and action. At the same time, experiences in life sharpen the understanding of the ethical claims of the liturgical celebration. It is therefore not a coincidence that liturgical reforms are often connected with the renewal of the Christian life: in the churches of the Reformation the concentration on God’s word and the celebration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper ran parallel with the strengthening of a baptismal awareness and the consequential life in the “freedom of a Christian.” The Congress will make it possible to ask communally about the life-giving impulses of liturgical praxis and the differing liturgically-motivated standards of Christian living among various ecclesial confessions. It will be a rewarding task of the Congress to examine the reform movements of different ecclesial confessions and to ask which impulses they are able to realize for Christian living within their church and beyond its borders.


For the Congress 2013 in Würzburg, around the chosen theme of liturgical reforms (in the plural), it is of high ecumenical relevance, if we, using the axiom of lex orandi – lex credendi, agree from the start that the law of our praying determines and will determine the law of our believing. In this respect, liturgical forms both in history and in the present are never merely the games of liturgical theologians but rather the down-to-earth work of renewal of the church in light of the Gospel. Through the large scale dimension of its gathering, the Congress has a unique chance to demonstrate how work can be accomplished, ecumenically and internationally, for a better understanding of the process of reform. Precisely the close connection between ecclesial and liturgical reform gives the theme of the 2013 Congress a great relevance, a relevance that cannot receive enough attention from all Christian churches.

Würzburg, February 2012         Adopted by the Council of Societas Liturgica at its meeting in Würzburg


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