The People's Work: A Social History of the Liturgy

By McMillan, Sharon | Pastoral Music, October/November 2007 | Go to article overview

The People's Work: A Social History of the Liturgy


McMillan, Sharon, Pastoral Music


The People's Work: A Social History of the Liturgy Frank C. Senn. Augsburg Fortress, 2006. ISBN 0-8006-3827-1 (9780800638276). 416 pages, hardcover. $35.00.

A rich, readable, and rewarding treasury of the social history of liturgy awaits the reader in Frank Senn's most recent masterpiece. Senn is pastor of Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Evanston, Illinois, as well as a prolific writer and inspired professor, deservedly well-known for his insightful articles and landmark books (including New Creation: A Liturgical Worldview, 2000). The dedication of The People's Work provides a hint of Senn's vision for this book: to uncover "what's really going on in the liturgy."

Having made substantial contributions to the study of liturgy as text and rite, especially in his 1997 work Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical, Pastor Senn now explores the companion dynamics: the actual behavior of the worshiping assembly. He claims these questions for his subject: No matter what the liturgical books prescribed, when the community of faith gathered throughout its two thousands years, how did the people baptize, marry, and bury? What architecture and art surrounded and formed the assembly? What were the psalms and hymns sung by heart? On Sunday mornings throughout these millennia, how did Christians gather, hear the Word, intercede, offer praise and thanksgiving, and feast together on the risen Christ? How did they respond to the revolutionary experiences of worship suddenly heard in their native tongues? Who taught them how to listen effectively to catechetical sermons? And how did the people guard what was most important to them in their worship? Thus Senn concentrates his attention on the popular elements in worship and on "the dynamics of liturgical change - and how changes were received by the people."

In this search to reconstruct and understand the impact of the people themselves on the performance of liturgy ("the people's work"), Senn acknowledges the necessity for some creative imagination, since the pastoral practices of real worshipers often did not leave permanent traces. He also alerts the reader that this is a survey in which "everything . . . is covered in a cursory way." But "cursory" in the encyclopedic hands of Senn is profound and thorough indeed.

Through eighteen chapters and an epilogue, Senn puts a fascinating human face on topics as varied as the domestic origins of the Eucharist, characteristics of early monasticism, theories of the December 25 date of Christmas in the West, medieval use of the pax board, and initial reaction to married clergy during the Reformation. But the chapters are more than a dense tapestry of information; Senn offers his own insights and evaluations in ways that continually intrigue and inspire the reader.

For example, the first six chapters weave in commentaries on the nature of ordained ministry in Christianity; on the shifting roles and status of the bishop, presbyters, and deacons; and on the factors underlying the transformation of presbyters into autonomous parish priests to whom have been delegated almost every sacramental power and pastoral authority of the early bishops. …

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