From new religious movement to global Church: Travel through a history of the liturgy

LITURGY—the official public worship of the Church—has been well-documented over two millennia, from the Bible to breviaries, but what has survived in written form doesn’t always tell the full picture.

ACU Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology Lecturer and Assistant Director of the ACU Centre for Liturgy Dr Jason McFarland believes a study of liturgical history needs to explore more than what was put to paper.

“The written historical evidence of the liturgy that has survived up to today does not show us the whole picture,” Dr McFarland said.

“It is essential to look beyond texts and manuscripts to cultural contexts and artifacts.”

This mindset will be the basis of a new unit in Liturgical History offered to postgraduate theology and religious education students at Australian Catholic University.

The Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at ACU will offer this unit fully online in semester 1 2022 as part of its new specialisation in liturgical studies within the Master of Theological Studies degree program, the MTS (Liturgy).

Lead by Dr McFarland and joined by some of the world’s leading experts in liturgical history, including Rev. Dr Stefanos Alexopoulos and Dr Anne McGowan, the unit will investigate both the major eras of liturgical evolution, such as the spread of Christianity from Judeo-Palestine into the Roman Empire and later Northern Europe, and the renewal and reform of the liturgy surrounding the Second Vatican Council.

“We will focus mainly on Western liturgical traditions, and especially on how the Roman Rite has developed up to now, but it will also be crucial to consider other liturgical practices, such as Christianity in the East and the liturgical traditions and changes emerging from the Reformation and Counter-Reformation,” Dr McFarland said.

Students will also delve into specific contexts of liturgical history, such as Holy Week in early Jerusalem, vigils in first-millennium Rome, liturgical practices in narratives of enslaved peoples, 21st-century youth pilgrimage, and the dynamics of liturgical translation.

While it would be impossible to cover 2000 years of liturgical history on one semester, the new unit aims to give an overview of key developments over the last two millennia.

Dr McFarland said learning about liturgical history was an essential cornerstone for anyone wanting to understand the liturgy of today.

“Gathering for liturgical celebrations was and still is the primary way the Church is made present in the world,” he said.

“It is so important that the first document issued by the Second Vatican Council was the Constitution on the Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium.

“Learning about liturgy, especially its history, gives people a glimpse of what Christians have believed and how they have expressed these beliefs in various times and places.”

One common misunderstanding about the history of the liturgy was that there was one original way of celebrating the liturgy that emerged after the Resurrection.

“We often imagine liturgical history as something that began with one primordial uniform liturgy celebrated among the early Christians, which then later diverged into a diversity of forms around the world, as if we could somehow retrieve the ‘original’ Christian liturgy,” Dr McFarland said.

“Diversity was actually the norm from the start, with many different traditions emerging and flourishing at the same time in close proximity to each other. The move, if we look to history, is actually from diversity to uniformity over time.

“The Roman Rite is actually the product of this move toward uniformity.”

Liturgical History is being offered to students enrolled in any of ACU’s postgraduate theology and religious education courses of study. Cross-institutional enrolments are encouraged, as are auditors (contact

To apply for the unit, visit


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