Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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How to have a feminist wedding in church

The feminist threshold

Laura Bates, the founder of Everyday Sexism Project, is getting married: congrats! She has written in the Guardian about how to have a feminist wedding. Basically, it is an example of the personal being political. Laura Bates writes about her personal choices, which she has every right to make, but many feminists would lament that she did not go far enough in demonstrating her feminist credentials. A close feminist friend showed me the article and described it as retrogressive and non-radical. I feel somewhat more forgiving, as the article is much more one woman’s very personal choices and wrestling with deeply ingrained sexism of this traditional rite of passage.

I have been celebrating weddings as a priest of the Church of England for the last fifteen years, in Darlington, West Wiltshire, London and Oxford. I’m a man priest and a feminist (not too common a combination, sorry!) and I believe that it is easily possible to have a feminist wedding in church. The Church of England will not be offering same-sex marriages any time soon, but will probably get round to it in time for your gay children to enjoy the grace of this sacramental union.

Here is my how-to guide to feminist weddings in the Church of England.

Know the difference between folk tradition and liturgy

When most people think of church weddings they think of white dresses, bridesmaids, bouquet, giving away and all that kind of stuff. Absolutely none of this is required in a wedding in the Church of England. Even Laura Bates agonized about having to say she would ‘obey’ her husband, only to find her local rector tell her that the requirement to promise obedience was long gone (actually for a few decades longer than her rector told her).

Here is the key thing: there are things that the church legally requires for weddings, and then there is a lot of folk tradition and unrealistic expectations that is heaped on top of it, like burying an expertly baked cake under a gallon of squirty cream!

Liturgy is the words and actions used in church services (and a whole lot deeper than that too). The Church of England’s most recent set of liturgies was published in the year 2000, and is called Common Worship. You can find the wedding liturgy from Common Worship on-line (you can also download a complete PDF with all the marriage texts). Anything that is not specified in that is optional. So no white dresses, bouquet, bridesmaids, obeying or giving away, unless, of course, you want it.

Put down the wedding books — that are just about keeping the charade going — and read the wedding liturgy. The church has designed it to be gender equal by default!

There is also a financial advantage to knowing this: the church’s fees for weddings are set nationally and are not really all that steep. The huge expense of church weddings lies with all the expected but non-mandatory trappings. The central act of joining hands before the altar comes with a price tag of a few hundred pounds paid to your local church.

Cutting back on the folk traditions surrounding and suffocating weddings with patriarchal symbolism is an exercise in managing expectation. If you are a feminist, yet, like Laura Bates, feel that you cannot marry without some of the traditional trappings, then that’s really OK. It is tough to go against the expectations of a society, your family, and even your own emotions. Just make your feminism clear in other ways, and demonstrate that no patriarchal symbolism is intended. Continue reading


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Liturgy bits: a spotter’s guide to Anglican dress-up

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

This is a somewhat lighthearted look at what Anglican clergy wear in church. It is particularly for those who want a field guide to spotting Church of England clergy, but may work elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, albeit the C of E is far broader (in a few dimensions) than most other Anglican churches. Here are the five rough categories of Anglican dress-up

  • Reformed tradition — this is the form of vesture that was eventually created for the Church of England after the Reformation: cassock (double-breasted of course), surplice, hood and scarf are the main ingredients. This tradition remains strong amongst conservative evangelicals and old low-church traditionalists. Its centuries as the official vesture of clergy make this the top trump of Anglican style: never wrong for any liturgical occasion, in spite of what the invite might say. If you’re really lucky, an adherent to this style might preach in gown and bands. Wigs, unfortunately, are now uncommon.
  • Liberal tradition — this takes its cue from Vatican II and 20th-century moves to liberalise and simplify vesture: cassock-alb and stole are the main ingredients (the bare minimum to satisfy canon law). This is the vesture of the lead character in Rev, and is now the norm in middle-of-the-road Anglicanism. The cassock-alb is like the liturgical equivalent of Ugg Boots. While it is possible for the cassock-alb to be simple, unfussy, it is far too easy for things to go pear-shaped — an oatmeal polyester pear. Stoles and scarves (whatever the difference might be!) make use of nice, often personalised, embroidery. Whenever two or more clerics of this persuasion meet there will inevitably be a colour clash, often enough to turn sensitive Anglo-Catholics low church.
  • Abolitionist tradition — the reformed and liberal traditions did not go far enough for some for whom even a clerical collar is dressing up: no vestments is the idea. This tradition is most popular among charismatic evangelicals. Even here there is a spectrum of fashion: those who wear a suit because they mean business, and those who wear jeans because they want to be down with the kids. Of course, not wearing vestments is as much as a statement as wearing them, and draws attention to and even clericalizes what is worn instead (as the blue suit and tie has become in some protestant churches). Celebrating main Sunday services regularly in this manner is a flagrant breach of canon law, but the bishop will try not to notice.
  • Sarum tradition — the liturgical ‘archaeology’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led Percy Dearmer, among others, to seek and revive a distinctively English pre-Reformation vesture, particularly from the Sarum liturgy books. The point was to look Catholic without looking Roman: a way of being high church without the wholesale adoption of Roman fashions. The thoroughgoing version of this tradition is all but extinct: there are very few who use one of the reinvented Sarum liturgical colour schemes (brick red, blue, yellow?) or consider resurrecting the almuce (fur is not an ethical look). Yet its mixture of dignified, simple catholic vestments at mass (mostly now from the Roman tradition than any real attempt to recreate Sarum norms) alongside the seriously Anglican surplice and scarf at offices (the reformed style) meets some refined expectations, and it has become the standard Anglican compromise in many of the big establishment churches, like cathedrals, major churches and Oxbridge chapels. Anything too Roman is rejected: lace, birettas, skullcaps and cottas. Anything too liberal is likewise rejected: cassock-albs, polyester, communion without a chasuble.
  • Roman tradition — perhaps because the Roman Church sets out its rules on vesture with such detail it is attractive to Anglo-Catholics: cassocks, albs, chasubles and cottas are the order here. In many ways, the late 19th and 20th centuries have seen much of this tradition become mainstream in the church: particularly noticeable is the use of Roman liturgical colours. One might say that the liberal and Sarum traditions above are simply Roman style repackaged for Anglican sensibilities. Lace and birettas are the mark of serious adherents to this persuasion, and surplice and scarf are out. There are some of this tradition who are more into the Vatican-II style (liberal style but with separate cassocks and albs, plus chasubles), where others are positively Tridentine (pass the maniple, Father!).


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Psyche, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A Cabbage White.

A Cabbage White.

I recently read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s short poem Psyche for the first time. In spite of its brevity, its address is deep and rich. Psyche was composed in 1808, and published first in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817). I do have a certain fellow-feeling for Coleridge, my fellow Devonian republican. And so, to the text

Psyche

The butterfly the ancient Grecians made
The soul’s fair emblem, and its only name –
But of the soul, escaped the slavish trade
Of mortal life! – For in this earthly frame
Ours is the reptile’s lot, much toil, much blame,
Manifold motions making little speed,
And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed.

The form of this poem is unique. It is closest in shape to the rhyme royal stanza form championed by Chaucer in his Troilus and Criseyde. It was also employed by Shakespeare in his Rape of Lucrece. Thus, the form suggests a passionate tragedy. A standard rhyme royal is like a half-sonnet, consisting of seven lines of iambic pentameter, rhymed ababbcc. In Psyche, Coleridge follows this form with one exception: the final line is extended into an alexandrine, by the addition of an extra beat.

The initial idea of the poem is the Greek word ψυχή (psychē), which is most usually translated ‘soul’, but can be ‘breath’ or even ‘butterfly’. Coleridge extends this metaphor as the butterfly for the free soul (in some Neoplatonic afterlife) and the caterpillar for the embodied soul in captivity on earth. Coleridge does not mention the caterpillar directly, and even uses the word ‘reptile’ to describe it. I found that word wrong-footed me at first reading, but the effect makes me think of the Serpent of the Garden of Eden. However, the word, from the Late Latin reptilis ‘creeping’, used to be used to cover any sort of creeping thing (and sometimes still does). The Latin myth of Psyche and Cupid would be obvious material for a romantic poet to use here (Keats does so in his 1819 Ode to Psyche), but Coleridge focuses more simply on the soul–butterfly image.

The phrasing of Psyche is ternary: the first two lines make the statement about the Greek idea of the butterfly as an image of the soul, the third line and the beginning of the fourth extend this by noting that this is true only for the post-mortal soul, with the rest of the poem dwelling on the situation of the earth-bound, embodied soul. The ternary phrasing of Psyche makes me think of the various philosophical, theological and psychological anthropologies: spirit, soul and body; reason, emotion and desire; superego, ego and id. It is this third movement of the poem that packs the real punch, with the preceding two thirds setting the scene. Yet still, each of these movements has a little surprise for the reader. The first movement presents us with the butterfly image. The second gives us the timely wording ‘escaped the slavish trade’. Coleridge was an avowed abolitionist, and Psyche was written a year after William Wilberforce’s 1807 Slave Trade Act. However, many radical abolitionists, like Coleridge, felt this was something of a pyrrhic victory (too little, too late), as slavery itself was not abolished. Psyche appears to reflect on the arduous, seemingly never-ending struggle as an image of the wider romantic idea of Weltschmerz (world weariness) or mal du siècle (sickness of the [early-19th] century). For the romantics, their Weltschmerz was a realisation that their fully aware minds could never be satisfied by their experience of the world. Coleridge knew guilt, failure and depression (‘much toil, much blame’), and so the ‘slavish trade of mortal life’ suits both Coleridge’s romantic reading and his own experience.

The clearest poetical device used in Psyche is the alliteration that begins at the end of the fifth line — ‘much toil, much blame’ — and flowing onto the beginning of the sixth line — ‘manifold motions making’. On the fifth line these ‘m’s fall on offbeats, but the repeated word strengthens them and slows the poem recitation down. On the sixth line, these ‘m’s fall on the beats and create an initial inversion of the metre. The letter shape — ‘M’ — is reminiscent of the motion of a caterpillar or a snake, as is the DUM-di-di-DUM rhythm of the initial inversion. In fact, the word ‘reptile’ is introduced on the fifth line with a similar inversion.

A weaker initial inversion appears in the third and last lines. These lines begin with three unstressed syllables, which can be read as regular iambic rhythm, yet the contrastive stress seems to fall on the words ‘but’ and ‘and’ respectively, giving BUT of the SOULAND to deFORM. Well, I did read the third line a few times as regular iambic rhythm, but I think the initial inversion sounds better.

The diction of Psyche is quite contemporary for a 200-year-old poem. There are only two words that strike me as a bit dated: ‘Grecian’ and ‘fair’ (there is also the unusual sense of ‘reptile’ which I have already mentioned). I do not mind the word ‘Grecian’ so much: it fits with the schoolish opening phrase about the dual meaning of ψυχή. I find the use of ‘fair’ took more acclimatisation. As it occurs as a stressed syllable on an offbeat in the metre, it does have a tripping effect, slowing the line right down. The ‘fair emblem’ does make me think of the Cabbage Whites that flitted around my dad’s vegetable garden in the summer months of my childhood. It’s large white wings make it quite a suitable ‘fair emblem’ for the soul. It is also considered by gardeners to be a pest for what its caterpillar-children do to plants!

Speaking of the demotion of the syllable ‘fair’ in the second line, Coleridge makes use of unstressed beats (‘promotion’) to pick up the pace in a couple of places. In the second line, the slowing over ‘the soul’s fair emblem’ is then accelerated by placing the beat on the unstressed first syllable of ‘and its only name’, propelling us onward. Coleridge does this again in the second phrase of the fourth line: placing the beat on the unstressed second syllable of ‘for in this earthly frame’ to catapult us into the realisation delivered in the final three lines of the what the existence of the unfree soul means.

The most striking aspect of the scansion, though, is that final alexandrine. This metrical extension avoids the poem coming to a neat, clackity-clack conclusion. It draws out the poem, and makes us wait for the end, which is very much the point. It is difficult not to think of French poetry when the alexandrine is deployed, which makes me think it a subtle comment on Napoleon’s perceived betrayal of the bright hopes of the French Revolution. With that and the slow progress of abolition, Coleridge channels his particular Weltschmerz into this poem.

The final image of that pest the caterpillar deforming, destroying, devouring its leaf stands for humanity’s parasitical lust for earthly resources. In the 21st century, Coleridge’s poem reads with a strong environmentalist message. I was first attracted to this poem by its opening two lines: a clever bit of classics, but my interest was deepened by this possible environmentalist reading. Psyche’s melancholic hopelessness about human life does not chime with my personal feelings, although there are plenty of opportunities for us to read current affairs in this light. The Neoplatonic anthropology of the freedom of the disembodied soul is not to my Christian taste either. My biblical theology is of the human being as a psychosomatic unity: the soul (נפש nephesh, ψυχή psychē) is the God-given life of the person, not the person’s distillated self. Thus, I have plenty to argue against Psyche’s heretical hopelessness, but it also highlights for me the central importance of salvation, without which we might as well be caterpillars destroying all before us. Yet, I am drawn — moth to flame! — back to this poem, charmed by its supple simplicity and high-blown romantic melancholy.

Addition: I just came across Alexander Pope’s description of the alexandrine in his 1709 poem An Essay on Criticism: ‘That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along’ (which, of course is an alexandrine itself, with a medial inversion). This would almost certainly have been known by Coleridge.


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Liturgy bits: a spotter’s guide to Evensong

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Old picture of the author wearing Anglican choir habit.

Evensong is a peculiar Anglican creature. It is the liturgy that has become the most distinctively Anglican, and has become a treasured bulwark of tradition. This article is a little, geeky exploration of what is Evensong and its sub-species.

The word ‘Evensong’ is first documented by the OED in the Old English of the Canons of Ælfric (c. 1000) as æfen-sang. Until the Reformation, this English word was used to describe the office of Vespers, the seventh of the round of eight daily offices, said just before sunset.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer produced two drafts of how the reformed Church of England should pray each day. The first, more radical plan was to consolidate the eight offices down to two. When, eventually, Henry Tudor junior died, Cranmer was free to produce the first Book of Common Prayer, published 1549. Its two daily offices were named ‘Matins’ and ‘Evensong’ (the former being the name of the first of the pre-Reformation offices, which also had the colourful Old English name uht-sang, which persisted as ‘Oughtensong’ in Middle English). With Cranmer’s revised Prayer Book of 1552, the quaint (or poetic) names of the two offices were officially replaced with the more robust (or prosaic) ‘Morning and Evening Prayer’. Yet the old names continued to live on, to the extent that it is rather daft to speak of ‘Choral Evening Prayer’.

Because of the pressures on Sunday mornings, especially with the restoration of the Parish Eucharist as the main Sunday mid-morning service, major celebrations of Matins have become rather few and far between. However, in twilight isolation Evensong has remained strong. In the nineteenth century, the ‘Fully Choral Service’ became a sign of aspirational excellence in neo-gothic, middle-class churches, aping cathedrals with their processions and besurpliced choirs. I believe that movement has skewed our understanding of  Evensong to assume that only a proper Choral Evensong will do, when we have forgotten how to do a good — liturgically and musically — Evensong that is suited to a church that cannot really cope with the demanding choral repertoire.

What about those sub-species? Continue reading


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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Here is the recording of my sermon for Remembrance Sunday, given in Hertford College Chapel, Oxford, on Sunday 10 November 2013. In the context of an Oxford college, I touch on a couple of philosophical issues about war, something I most probably would not do in a church. I find this subject difficult, and am still not sure I put this in the best way I could.


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Campra Requiem

Hertford College, Oxford: performance of Campra's Requiem

Hertford College, Oxford: performance of Campra’s Requiem

Last night, I had the great privilege of celebrating our annual requiem mass here at Hertford College Chapel, Oxford. The Chapel Choir, Soloists and Players, conducted by Senior Organ Scholar Ed Whitehead performed André Campra‘s Messe de Requiem. Listen to the recording below.

Because of it themes of death and mortality, risen life and immortality, many composers have set the liturgical texts of the requiem to music. The requiem takes its name from the first line that is sung in the service: Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, ‘Give them eternal rest, Lord’. The second line is et lux perpetua luceat eis, ‘and let light perpetual shine upon them’, and Campra focuses on the repetition of luceat, ‘shine’, as his keyword for the entire work. These two lines begin the introit, or entrance antiphon, but are repeated at various points in the service.

André Campra (1660–1744) was variously maître de musique in Toulon, his home town of Aix, Arles, Toulouse, Montpellier, Notre Dame de Paris and the chapelle royale of Louis XV. He excelled in composing opéra-ballets, and this musical style influenced his sacred music, much to the ire of his ecclesiastical patrons.

Campra’s Requiem is scored for a baroque chamber orchestra, choir and at vocal trio consisting of haute-contre, tenor and bass. Its movements include the usual ‘ordinary of the mass': the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Alongside these staples, he set the four proper antiphons for a requiem mass: the Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion antiphons. Strikingly, Campra omitted music for the lengthy requiem sequence Dies Iræ, with its fire-and-brimstone vision of the day of judgement, which had come to be seen as pastorally inappropriate. Neither did he set an excerpt from it, such as Lacrimosa or Pie Jesu. Instead, Campra’s glorious Offertory antiphon — the Domine Jesu Christe — takes centre stage, with surging, uplifting music as the priest goes to the altar and prepares bread and wine.


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Ancient & Modern: history and future

‘Eternal Father, strong to save’ with the tune Melita.

As the ninth edition of the hymnal Ancient & Modern has been published — the most popular stable of hymnbooks in the Church of England — here is a little Ancient & Modern history, followed by a few thoughts on what the 21st century holds for hymnbooks.

For my review of the ninth edition of Ancient & Modern, see Ancient & Modern: a review.

A little Ancient & Modern history

The history of Hymns Ancient & Modern begins with a chance meeting on a train between two hymnal editors. In 1852, Francis Murray had published the Hymnal for Use in the English Church; William Denton had produced his Church Hymnal in the following year. Both were Tractarians, and their publications were part of a great flood of hymnals that rode in the wake of the Oxford Movement. Much of the content of these hymnals were archaeological recoveries of ancient and mediaeval hymns in Latin and Greek. John Mason Neale‘s Hymnal Noted (1852 & 1854) is the prime example of this tradition. Murray and Denton’s conversation on the train seems to have been about the problem of a profusion of hymnals targeted at the various niche congregations within the church. They gathered a group of hymnologists to form the future ‘proprietors’ of Hymns Ancient & Modern. Denton only remained with the project for a few months (possibly because the 1855 second edition of the Church Hymnal was starting to sell more copies), but the proprietors were now ably led by Henry Baker with William Henry Monk as music editor. They produced a trial selection of 138 hymns in 1859. In 1861, most of these found their way into the collection of 273 hymns the was the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern. The name of the hymnal referred to the fairly even division between the ‘ancient’ — patristic and mediaeval hymns, mostly translated from Latin — and the ‘modern’ hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The subsequent appearance of the Appendix to the hymnal in 1868 showed a desire to keep the book fresh. In 1875, Monk produced the second edition, being the first in a line of composers to steer the project, and it was this edition that cornered the hymnal market in the church. It was so popular that the 1904 New and Revised Edition, which was otherwise a perfectly decent third edition, was roundly rejected for rearranging hymns and giving them new numbers. This forced the proprietors to abandon it and return to the popular, previous Monk’s edition, bound with its supplement by Charles Steggall (1889), which became known contrastingly as the ‘Old Complete Edition’. In 1916, a second supplement was added by Sydney Nicholson, and, in 1922, he lightly edited the hymnal to produce the Standard Edition.

Gerald Hocken Knight and John Dykes Bower took over as editors, producing the more heavily edited Revised Edition in 1950, adding new hymns and removing those that had not stood the test of time. In 1983 the pruning continued, with almost half of the hymns in the Revised Edition being removed and all 200 of the combined contents of 100 Hymns for Today (1969) and More Hymns for Today (1980) being uncritically added without being dispersed among the remnant, producing the New Standard Edition. Both the Revised (AMR) and the New Standard (AMNS) editions remain in use in many churches. In 2000, the hymnal was rebranded Common Praise as an accompaniment to the liturgy of Common Worship. Common Praise included a fair number of hymns that were traditionally indicative of the rival stable of the New English Hymnal, which encouraged some churches and cathedrals that used the latter to make the switch, and continued the concept of it being a single hymnal of broad appeal. The supplement Sing Praise was produced in 2010 (New English Praise, a similar supplement to New English Hymnal came out in 2006). In 2013, these two were combined and edited together as Ancient & Modern, dropping the Hymns from the title.

A 21st-century hymnal?

Some might question the need for hymnals in the digital age. A minority of churches use digital projectors to ‘shew forth’ hymn and liturgical texts for their congregations. Though this emphasizes the corporate nature of worship — singing from the same hymn sheet! — it can make worship something observed, something virtual. Only once in my life have I been to an Anglican church where everyone had a single volume of the Prayer Book bound with a hymnal, and that was in rural Co. Antrim. Most other churches present the worshipper with more or fewer books, booklets and sheets. Increasingly, hymn texts for the service are printed on a pew sheet, and hymnbooks have become the preserve of the choir and organist, and a resource directory for those who select hymns for services. The trend for ever larger hymnals (the latest edition of Mission Praise has 1250 entries) suggests that compilers recognise that the hymnbook has become more of a resource than an aid in worship, placing inclusion ahead of exclusion. It would be good to have a large scale survey of churches using this hymnal, at some point in the future, to see what the usage rate of each item is.

I commented before that it would take 2½ years to sing through all 847 items without repeating one, given four hymns every Sunday morning and three in the evening. Of course, there are always going to be some hymns that are not to the taste of clergy, musicians and congregations, and others that are repeat favourites. Some of the liturgical items might be used week in, week out, or not at all. The question is how many hymns does an individual church need at any given time. A cheeky answer might be: only the few that we are singing in this service. However, my question is how big can an individual church’s repertoire of hymnody be. I am sure there is some variation here. One response would be to create print-on-demand hymnals tailored to a church’s choices and traditions, yet perhaps this might take us back to the disunity that Francis Murray and William Denton deplored when they met that day on the train.

For my review of the ninth edition of Ancient & Modern, see Ancient & Modern: a review.

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