church history, liturgy, Reformation

Frank Answers About Differences Between Reformation Protestant and Catholic Worship

Question: What were the main differences between Protestant and Roman Catholic worship at the time of the Reformation and do those differences still remain today?

Frank answers: I have a lengthy encyclopedia article on “Reformation Liturgies” in the online Religion: Oxford Research Encyclopedias ( just  posted (Oct. 2015) under the categories of Christianity, ritual, practices, symbolism.

The article deals with both Protestant and Catholic worship at the time of the Reformation. We tend to forget that Roman Catholicism, as we know it, is also a reform of medieval worship, not just a reaction to the Protestant Reformation. While there was more continuity between post-Tridentine Catholic worship and medieval liturgy than in the Protestant liturgies, the Roman Breviary (1568) and the Roman Missal (1570) of Pope Pius V, are also Reformation liturgies, pruned of many medieval accretions.

Different Protestant reformers reacted to the medieval liturgical situation in different ways, so it is difficult to lump all their liturgical proposals together under one “Protestant” category.

Martin Luther launched an attack on the  mass in his treatise On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). He objected to withholding the cup from lay communicants, the philosophic “explanation” of the mystery of the real presence in the scholastic doctrine of transubstantiation, and the use of mass as a good work to gain merit with God. But his primary concern centered on sacrifice of the Mass, particularly votive masses (masses offered for special intention for the living and the dead). This was the most frequent form of the mass celebrated in the Middle Ages and most votive masses were offered for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed in Purgatory. These were paid for with mass stipends and bequests to celebrate masses on the anniversary of one’s death. Late medieval popular Christianity was primarily concerned with the fate of loved ones in the afterlife and a whole religious apparatus developed  to provide charity for the dead. The most profound cultural change in Protestantism over against medieval Christendom was to cut the ties between the living and the dead. This included the pervasive cult of the saints. (On the saints see my blog post “About Saints in Lutheran Churches”.)

Liturgically, Luther could retain almost everything in the  Catholic Mass except the Offertory prayers and the Canon, which spoke of “offering” and “sacrifice”. Over against this he placed the institutional words of Christ, which speak of Christ’s “testament”—his gift to his people.

It’s interesting how the Words of Institution were used differently in the liturgies of the different confessions. In the Roman Canon the Words of Christ support the Eucharistic sacrifice which is proposed and offered in the surrounding prayers. For Luther they proclaim the gift of communion in Christ’s body and blood and are placed next to the administration of the sacramental elements. For Ulrich Zwingli they support the memorial reenactment of the last supper. For John Calvin they are a warrant for doing the ordinance and are placed at the beginning of the communion office. The 1549 Prayer Book of King Edward VI in England retained the Words of Institution within a full eucharistic prayer but the 1552 Prayer Book  followed Luther’s German Mass and placed the Words of Institution just before the administration.

The Lutheran mass-liturgies were unique in not providing a re-working of the Eucharistic prayer or Great Thanksgiving, although they usually retained the Preface and Sanctus. The orders for Holy Communion in all the other Protestant traditions had new prayers of consecration that expressed their understandings of the Lord’s Supper, emphasizing the Eucharistic memorial.

The Protestant liturgies also differed in terms of how people received communion, although in all cases the people received both elements of bread and wine whereas Catholics received only the bread. Like the Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans continued to kneel. Lutherans retained altars. In Strassburg the people came forward and stood to receive communion at a communion station at the Lord’s table, which was placed at the head of the central aisle. In other Reformed traditions the people remained seated as the elements were passed to them. In the Scottish Presbyterian Church the communicants came forwards and sat around a table set up at the head of the nave. Anglicans set up a communion table length-wise in the divided chancel at which the people knelt.

Swedish Lutheran worship

This 19th century painting shows Lutheran Communion in southern Sweden. The people kneel to receive the sacrament. The people are singing during the administration of the sacrament. Notice also the life size crucifix above the altar.

Luther recommended Communion on all Sundays and festivals and Lutheran Churches moved in that direction. Martin Bucer in Strassburg had communion at least once a month. Calvin would have preferred communion every Sunday like Luther and Bucer, but the Church in Geneva followed the lead of Zwingli’s Church in Zurich and had communion services four times a year for which the entire congregation was prepared to receive. This became the model for Reformed Churches. On days when the Lord’s Supper wasn’t celebrated the order of service was the Ante-Communion (service of the Word).

All of the Reformation Churches emphasized the preaching office. There had been preaching before the Reformation, even preaching missions undertaken by the mendicant orders (Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians). There were even endowed pulpits in wealthier city churches, which in the early 16th century were being filled by reformers who used their pulpits as platforms calling for reform. Thereafter the Protestants would have no worship without preaching. The sermons were to be expositions of Scripture. This also required university-trained pastors and ministers who knew the biblical languages. The Counter-Reformation Catholic Church emphasized doctrinal preaching to shore up the faith.

Reformed Temple_de_Lyon,_Nommé_paradis

This Reformed (Huguenot) Church in Lyons, France is essentially a preaching hall. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated four times a year.

The Lutherans and Anglicans were content to retain the traditional lectionary with its pericopes (cut-out readings). This required maintaining the traditional church year calendar and days of commemoration, at least for the biblical saints. The Reformed wanted continuous reading of biblical books and abolished all days and seasons except Sunday, Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. The number of saints’ days was also reduced in the Roman calendar but the cult of the saints flourished and new saints’ days filled the calendar after the Council of Trent.

Lutherans emphasized congregational participation through singing and began to produce hundreds of hymns. Catholics also had hymns. The difference was that Luther integrated the hymns into the order of service. In Catholic practice hymns provided devotions for the people while the Mass was being celebrated. No singing took place in Zwingli’s Zurich. In Bucer’s Strassburg congregational singing of biblically-based songs was practiced. Calvin had been impressed with this during his time in Strasbourg, and at Geneva he implemented the singing of metrical psalms. Psalmody became a hallmark of Reformed liturgy.


A hallmark of Anglican worship has been daily Morning Prayer and Evensong, which are sung with choir leadership in cathedral churches and collegiate chapels. The divided chancel has remained as a fixture in Anglican church buildings. The above photo is the choir rehearsing at York Minster in England. For the services the choir dons surplices.

Lutherans and Anglicans, like Catholics, promoted church music, including choirs and organs. The Reformed abolished all church music except the unaccompanied singing of metrical psalms. Likewise Lutherans retained altars, liturgical appointments (candles, crucifixes, paraments), and promoted a new kind of church art that emphasized word and sacrament rather than saints. The Reformed set up communion tables and abolished all images in the church. Lutherans retained ministerial vestments; the Reformed abolished vestments except for the clergy gown; the Anglicans retained the surplice and the cope for processions.

There has obviously been an ecumenical convergence after the Second Vatican Council. Catholics now also practice biblical preaching and gave Protestants the gift of a three-year lectionary that blends the pericope and continuous reading systems. New Eucharistic prayers have been written in all these traditions that express a biblical and patristic understanding of Eucharistic sacrifice.  Protestant Churches have encouraged more frequent communion. The order of service for word and meal has a similar shape in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian/Reformed Churches. Congregational singing, along with choirs and instruments, came back into the Reformed Churches through revivalism. Some Reformed ministers are also wearing the alb and stole, at least for the Lord’s Supper, although most still wear the black clergy gown.

The modern liturgical movement has surely been a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Churches, helping to draw the Churches together liturgically where they express by practice, if not by doctrine and polity, their unity in Christ. For the fruits of this ecumenical-liturgical convergence see the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Statement No. 111 (Lima statement), Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry  (1982). The convergence of liturgical practice and understanding has surely been a blessing in our time.

Pastor Frank Senn

The Church of the Gesu in Rome was the head church of the Society of Jesus under Ignatius Loyola, and reflected Counter-Reformation Catholicism. The altar is brought closer to the people and is made the central focus of the church with no barriers between the nave and the chancel as in the medieval Gothic churches with their rood screens.



  1. Anita Stohs

    I have been trying to find the source of the picture of the Lutheran Communion service in Southern Sweden. Do you know the artist and location?

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