Welcome to Saturday Book Review time! On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value. Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.
Worship Old & New by Robert E. Webber is, in some circles, a modern classic. Webber (1933-2007) was a respected American theologian and known particularly for his work in the Convergence Movement, which is the ideology of combining catholic, evangelical, and charismatic spirituality together into a cohesive whole. In short, he was a leading thinker behind the Three Streams model which was a huge fad in Anglican circles, though (I think?) is finally quieting down. I was a fan of the Three Streams idea when I first heard of it – as most young people tend to be fans of the, exciting, promising trends, but as early as 2012 I started to have my doubts. Now, seven years later, I’m comfortably opposed to the Three Streams model, and have even mentioned here briefly in the past that it smacks of broad church liberalism, and doesn’t ultimately produce the coherent discipleship one might have hoped for.
I open with that rabbit trail because what you read in Worship Old & New is exactly the mindset behind the Convergence Movement and Three Streams ecclesiology. Citing Hippolytus and leaning heavily on the now-controversial work of Gregory Dix, Webber argues for a “shape” to the liturgy (primarily the Communion service) which provides structure for all, and walks through various traditions across historical and traditional lines. He is explicitly critical of medieval liturgy, denigrating the use (or abuse!) of symbol and sign during that period of history, and argue that it was increasingly twisted from its proper meaning. While there is much to be said about medieval excesses, his hostility to that period is not adequately backed up because:
- Lutheran and Prayer Book liturgies are very much informed by their medieval forebears. Yes, some Reformers went all-out in rewriting the liturgy, but many of us only required gentle trimmings of the fat, rather than wholesale revolution.
- He begins the “medieval” excesses at Constantine, which is patently ridiculous when in the world of dogmatics and creedal theology we look at the 4th and 5th centuries as a veritable golden age of sound normative teaching! Consider Webber’s own words:
Gradually, however, beginning with the Constantinian era, worship changed by the increasing addition of ceremony and the subtle influence of the mystery religions. These new emphases became more extreme in the medieval period. Although the basic structure and content of worship remained continuous with the past, the meaning of worship for both the clergy and the laity underwent some major changes. Worship became a “mystery” in which God was made present (an epiphany). This was accomplished through and allegorical view of the Mass and the doctrine of the bodily presence of Jesus in the bread and wine. In this way the Mass assumed a character of a sacrifice and was celebrated for the benefit of both the living and the dead (creating a multiplicity of Masses and other abuses).
To be fair, this is not the lynchpin of the entire book. But if this is the kind of scholarship he’s doing, and he’s willing to paint over history with so broad a brush stroke that (for example) even the Lutherans don’t count as reformers, I’m going to have to hesitate to trust his analysis of other periods of history and interpretation of the liturgy. He looks too closely at two Early Church documents (by Hippolytus and Justin Martyr) and the late-20th-century milieu of change, and seems to re-shape everything in the middle according to the agenda he derives from the two extremes, rather than tracing the actual history and development along the way, and I think that causes him to miss out on a great deal of clarity and correction.
Another irksome feature of this book is that when it references “The Book of Common Prayer” it only means the American 1979 book. He is either ignorant of prayer book tradition before the radical changes of the 1970’s, or he is oversimplifying things for his readers. In either case, that makes this book significantly less helpful for an Anglican reader.
It’s not all bad, though. His sections on biblical backgrounds of worship are quite refreshing for those brought up in non-denominational settings where worship is never really considered, just “done”. It may also be refreshing for those who grew up in dry liturgical settings and similarly took worship for granted and never connected the dots. Webber won’t make anyone an Anglican with this book, but he can engender liturgical awareness.
The ratings in short:
The book is very well organized, complete with introduction and summary paragraphs bookending each chapter, making a quick synopsis of its contents very easy to ascertain. The only reason this isn’t a 5 is because it can be so dry at times.
Devotional Usefulness: N/A
The insights of this book are a mixed bag and might not necessarily improve your engagement with the liturgy.
Reference Value: 3/5
In terms of liturgical formation, this book stands more in a “pre-Anglican” state, more useful for showing non-liturgical evangelicals how they could think about worship differently. If you’re committed to Anglicanism, the perspective and information are too generic to be of much help growing within our tradition.
Recommendation? Don’t buy this for an Anglican, it will only water down their understanding of liturgy. But if you know someone in the free church tradition who wants or needs an eye-opener into what they’re missing, this book is a fine option for that. Its strength for them is also its weakness for us: it won’t ruffle very many feathers because it never gets specific enough to make hard stances on anything. Worship Old & New exists to transform chaotic generic evangelicalism into orderly generic evangelicalism. Actual specific traditions or denominations need not apply.