A discussion Starter
All Anglican theological students and seminarians of the 1960s through to the 1980s came to know the name of Dom Gregory Dix and his theory of the “four-action” shape of the Eucharist as it was supposedly celebrated in the second and third centuries.
They learned from him that all eucharistic liturgies without this “four action shape” were inferior and not appropriate for the Church of God in the late twentieth-century. Thus this shape dominated the new prayer books of the 1970s and 1980s – e.g., that of the ECUSA in 1979, the C of E in 1980 and of Canada in 1985.
They also were usually encouraged to believe that the Eucharist or Mass is primarily an action. In instituting it, Jesus actually did certain things – four things, he took, he blessed, he brake and he gave. Thus, it was asserted, Christians should attend the Eucharist not to hear mass said but to participate in an Action! Not that Dix held that words do not matter. He had no desire to lose the words or treat them as insignificant only to insist that the ACTION is primary and that the words, though important, are secondary.
What this emphasis has meant in practice, and can be seen in parishes of the ECUSA each Sunday, is that the priest behind the altar and facing the people has gone to great lengths to be as visible as possible as he performs the four actions (especially the breaking of the bread). Yet, at the same time, and most regrettably, he or she has used a form of words to go with the actions that is far from excellent.
In other words, there has not been the same attention paid by liturgists and priests who follow in Dix’s way to seek to have words with the action (i.e., the words of the Eucharistic Prayer) of the highest theological quality and style. That is, much emphasis has been placed on getting the actions right and not sufficient care taken to get the words right. The content of the eucharistic prayers composed for and since the 1979 prayer book of ECUSA is generally speaking a dumbing down of what would have been regarded as sufficient or orthodox in the Early Church. Some of the content even seems to be nearer to heterodoxy than to orthodoxy in the developed Rite II material in approved liturgies after 1980 (approved by the Gen Conv.).
What is difficult to understand about the mind of the liturgists of the 1960s to the 1990s is that though they were passionate about getting the right “Shape” and the right “Action”, though they believed these to be indispensable and sought for their origins in and only in the Early Church, they did not think that the same search and care should govern the words and doctrines they created to be the substance of the shape and to explain the action. They were happy with a form of words that lacked excellence and often lacked clear orthodox content.
Since the Shape proposed by Dix is in the end only a theory, what really matters today is what the congregation actually hears! That is, if the Celebration is dignified and is obviously in one of the great traditions of the Church in terms of structure, then what is taught them by the words of the Eucharistic Prayer that they hear is of supreme importance. Shape and Action do not save or sanctify; but, the word of the Lord taken by the Spirit of God has power to achieve both in sinful human beings who repent and believe.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.),
Christ Church, Biddulph Moor & St Anne's, Brown Edge