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Mary Noll Venables

The More Things Change …

Historical perspectives on worship.

A leading casualty in disputes over worship is the loss of long-term perspective. When a music team needs to decide now whether or not to include "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" or a bass guitar in their Sunday lineup, the participants in the discussion rarely stop to think through all permutations that worship has assumed over the years. Nor do they pause to wonder that despite a multitude of changes—from Latin to vernacular, from clergy to laity-led, from austere to seeker-sensitive—the practice of gathering weekly for praise and instruction has remained remarkably constant for close to two millennia. Taking the (often neglected) long historical view forms the central point of Worship in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: for all that Christian worship has changed over the centuries, much has remained constant. As a demonstration of the resilience of the church, this realization should encourage all worshiping Christians, not just those locked in debates over worship style and substance.

The essays gathered in Worship in Medieval and Early Modern Europe explore how Protestant and Catholic communities worshipped in the 16th and 17th centuries, arguing that a mingling of continuity and change defined Reformation-era worship practices. The editors, Karin Maag and John D. Witvliet of Calvin College, take particular pains to show that Protestants were not the only ones to introduce innovations. Catholics also added new elements to services, and both confessions retained large bits of older styles of worship.

The authors' sustained attention to continuity and change helps to unify the essays. Atypically for an edited volume, these pieces work together to advance a central argument: Protestant Reformation and Catholic Renewal altered much, but central practices endured. Drawing on detailed work with primary sources, and ranging geographically from Spain to Sweden, the essays consider such diverse subjects as the pre-Reformation unity of private devotion and corporate worship in Rheims, pre-Tridentine forms of the Catholic Breviary, changes to Lutheran liturgy in Sweden, the survival of worship instruction in Genevan school ordinances, alterations to Lutheran baptism ceremonies in Breslau, confessional similarities in marriage ceremonies throughout Europe, changes to church decoration in Haarlem, and Martin Luther's contributions to vernacular service music.

Only rarely in this book do we get the laity's viewpoint. Instead, we learn how the organizers of church services wanted their worship services to run. Worship as seen from the altar is different from worship as witnessed from the pews, but the studies gathered here at least diminish the gap between ecclesiastical authorities and individual congregations in local churches.

While the essays are uniformly readable and informative, a number of them do a particularly good job at opening up the worshiping lives of 16th- and 17th-century Christians. Among these, some emphasize changes in worship practices. Robert Kingdon, for example, draws on the records of the Geneva consistory to show how charges of "muttering" (a loose translation of barbetement) during Protestant services revealed a switch from a Mass-centric to sermon-centric worship service. Previously in Catholic services the congregation occupied the time that the priest took to celebrate communion by saying their own prayers from a prayer book. Reformed emphasis on the Word preached and the Word consecrated made this "muttering" unacceptable; congregants were expected to pay attention at all times to what the priest said.

Susan Felch's study of English prayer books illustrates a double change in English piety: the eclipse of Latin devotional works by those printed in English, and the shift from books that were intended to be memorized to books that were intended to be read. For example, she points out that the delightfully named Monument of Matrones, which weighed in at over 1500 pages, simply could not be memorized in its entirety. It had to be read.

Other essays work to show the reader a mixture of change and continuity. Bodo Nischan considers differences between Lutheran and Reformed church furniture, specifically between altars (enclosed boxes on top of which communion was celebrated) and communion tables (tables with open legs), to illustrate that change and continuity existed within the Protestant tradition. Luther's conviction that Christian practices not expressly prohibited in the Bible were acceptable for continued use meant that he generally advised leaving most Catholic church furnishings, including altars, untouched. Zwinglians and Calvinists, certain that only behavior explicitly ordered in the Bible was acceptable, changed church decorations more often. In Reformed thinking, the probability that Christ had celebrated the last supper at a table with his disciples meant that his 16th-century followers should also hold communion at a table and not around a box.

At times, the emphasis on continuity and change becomes tedious. Finding new things in the 16th and 17th centuries is hardly surprising, while identifying enduring patterns in a time when so much did change can seem like grasping at straws. But even if the theme is belabored, this attention to continuity and change yields insights both for current discussions of worship and for historical studies of the early modern period. For those concerned with contemporary worship, remembering that previous generations simultaneously did things the same and did things differently can serve to temper disputes. Worship changes slowly; worship is always changing. If John Calvin was willing to accept less frequent communion services than he desired, surely contemporary worshippers can accept transforming their church services more slowly or more rapidly than they desire. For historians, balancing continuity and change provides a more nuanced view of the early modern period, making it easier to study the 16th and 17th centuries on their own terms and not merely as staging grounds for later developments. The Protestant Reformation did not immediately produce the 19th century and its strict confessional boundaries.

For those who are intrigued by the complications of the early modern period, Music and Religious Identity in Counter-Reformation Augsburg, 1580-1630 offers an opportunity to delve further into the subject of continuity and change in religious practice in a particular context and medium. The study is bounded by the opening of a Jesuit house in Augsburg, which introduced vibrant Counter-Reformation Catholicism to Augsburg, and battles in the Thirty Years' War, which destroyed the city. Unlike Worship in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, which seems to have been written for both historians and church people, Alexander Fisher's book is intended primarily for historians and musicologists.

Fisher argues that in Augsburg, a free imperial city with both Catholic and Protestant inhabitants, musical practice became essential to residents' religious identity. While Catholics and Protestants disputed doctrine, they expressed their beliefs in strikingly similar ways. Both groups performed music (whether in church or on the streets) to form and reinforce confessional solidarity. Protestant laypeople expressed their opposition to calendar reform instituted by the mostly Catholic city council (the changeover from the Julian to Gregorian calendar was widely regarded as Papist meddling) by writing and trading songs that celebrated Protestants persecuted for opposing the new calendar. When Protestant worship was banned in the late 1620s following Protestant defeats in the Thirty Years' War, Protestants gathered outside the city walls to sing Lutheran classics. As Fisher describes it, Catholic identity owed a great debt to professionals, specifically priests and musicians. The city council employed Catholic composers and the Jesuit congregation in Augsburg arranged performances of their works. When priests and monks organized processions and pilgrimages to nearby holy sites, they integrated music that emphasized typically Counter-Reformation themes of Marian and eucharistic piety.

Taken together, Music and Religious Identity in Counter-Reformation Augsburg and Worship in Medieval and Early Modern Europe amply support the argument for change and continuity that is explicitly laid out in the latter book. The changes are almost too numerous to count; the continuities are easier to enumerate. One continuity is the multiplicity of causes for change. As expressed in Worship in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, theological reflection spurred changes in worship practice. Music and Religious Identity in Counter-Reformation Augsburg demonstrates how political realities defined acceptable religious music.

An even more basic, yet also contradictory, continuity is visible from a bird's-eye view of the past. From the two books under review, the armchair historian can glean that worship is central to Christian life and that worship itself is varied. Perhaps inevitably a practice that expresses central tenets of Christian faith is prone to controversy (so much so that controversy should probably be included among the continuities of worship). Nonetheless, when congregations gather to praise God and learn from him, they express their enduring belief that worship—whether in set prayers or spontaneous utterances, in venerable hymns or contemporary choruses—is integral to their lives.

Mary Noll Venables recently received her Ph.D. in Early Modern European History from Yale University and is now living in Ireland.

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