Review of Introduction to Christian Liturgy by Frank C. Senn

December 14, 2017

Senn, Frank C. Introduction to Christian Liturgy. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012, pp. 244, $29, paperback.


One of the foremost contemporary liturgical theologians, Frank Senn is a retired Lutheran pastor, who continues his vocation as a scholar and author. A past president of both the Liturgical Conference and the North American Academy of Liturgy, Senn earned a PhD in Liturgical Studies from the University of Notre Dame and has taught in various capacities at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, the University of Chicago, and Trinity Theological College in Singapore, among others. His works include Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (1997), a comparative and ecumenical study of Christian liturgy with a special focus on the Reformation; Christian Worship and Its Cultural Setting (2004), an anthropological analysis of Christian worship; and The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy (2006).

The title of the current work, Introduction to Christian Liturgy, is perhaps too basic to reveal its true contents. For a book intended as an introduction, Senn manages to be remarkably comprehensive in a few pages, covering the historical development of Christian liturgy—its pastoral aspects, history, and culture; the order of worship, calendrical cycle, lectionary use, and sacramental practice; as well as arts and architecture in worship—across time and traditions. Each of the eleven chapters addresses five questions ranging from the basic (“why do we worship?” in chapter 1) to the structural (“what are the parts of a eucharistic prayer?” in chapter 3) to the practical (“how is the body used in worship?” in chapter 11). The book’s consistent arrangement makes for a manageable reading and discussion schedule for both teacher and student.

A highlight of Senn’s book are his copious examples from pre- and post-Reformation worshipping traditions. The Byzantine liturgy and Roman mass; Reformational, Rationalist, and Revivalist influences; Pentecostal and Emerging worship; and more are all woven into Senn’s historical and developmental narrative in a succinct but substantive way. Readers who are not already steeped in the history of Christian worship may find the wide range of traditions and examples, along with the frequent references to dates and changes of dating for Christian celebrations and commemorations, bewildering at first, but Senn’s helpful categorization by chronology in chapter 2, “History and Culture,” serves as a frame of reference for the rest of the book (and should, perhaps, be read first). A helpful glossary at the end clarifies the vocabulary used in liturgical studies.

One chapter in particular serves as an example of Senn’s format throughout. Chapter 7 on “The Church Year: Holy Week,” covers not only the historical development of Easter and the days leading up to it, but also church customs closely connected to each day of Holy Week, including their rise and, in some cases, restoration in Christian worship. Senn uses a primary source, the travel diary of Egeria, a Spanish nun from the fourth century, to give the reader a glimpse into the rites and observances of Holy Week as celebrated in Jerusalem at the time. From there, and moving forward in time, he summarizes the origin and development of practices such as the washing of feet and stripping of the altar during Maundy Thursday, the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday (strangely absent, however, is any discussion of the role of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy Week). Concluding the chapter, Senn recognizes that fourth-century Jerusalem and the twenty-first century reader are far removed in time and experience from each other, and that ancient rites may require adaptation to contemporary styles of celebration.

Adaptation, or what to do with twenty centuries of Christian worship, is a lingering question in Senn’s book. In the Afterword, Senn notes his original intent to conclude with a bibliography of current denominational worship books, but he abandoned the idea after questioning which traditions, languages, and specific books to include. Some traditions do not provide books for worshipers, while “those who offer contemporary services buy music for the worship team but words are projected on screens for the worshipers” (p. 211). Moreover, the rapid changes in communication over the last hundred years, from the invention of the mimeograph to the incorporation of high tech graphics, have exerted a profound influence on how churches worship; while an awareness of the global nature of the church means that congregations are acquiring a more cross-cultural character (pp. 37-38). The intersection of modernity, technology, and culture in the landscape of Christian worship will require a sequel to Senn’s introductory volume.

Like Karl Barth discovering “the strange new world of the Bible,” readers from less liturgical or non-liturgical churches encountering the vast and rich history of Christian worship for the first time through Introduction to Christian Liturgy, may find themselves in a strange new world of worship, but one worth discovering, engaging, and retrieving. Even though Senn confesses his experience with non-liturgical worshiping traditions is limited (as is his coverage of them), readers and leaders from more contemporary music-driven worship settings may still find in his work a resource for the renewal of both the theology and praxis of worship within their congregations. For students and readers already familiar with liturgical worship, who want to go deeper into the origins of their own and other worshiping traditions, Senn’s work will whet their appetites for more; his suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter provide options for going even deeper into the history and development of specific worship practices.

Intended as a “pastoral liturgical handbook,” Senn defines pastoral liturgy as “the study and application of liturgy in the actual life of the church” (p. 1). In other words, Introduction to Christian Liturgy is not only a textbook, but also a resource for pastoral leadership and for discerning readers seeking to broaden their grasp of the history of Christian worship. Outside formal academic courses, pastors might consider using the book in a lay study group over the course of several weeks to strengthen the foundations of worship in their congregations.

Brian Turnbow

Fuller Seminary Texas, Houston, TX


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