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Pass Decani on the Gospel Side: and other adventures in spiritual choreography

There is a tradition or two when it comes to naming directions or positions of things in a church. Most of the time, front, back, left and right make sense if we keep the point of view of standing in the nave facing the main altar, but the church has developed its own directional glossary.

Liturgical compass

Traditionally, churches have been oriented with the altar at the east. There are some major churches of which this is not true (the high altar of the Vatican Basilica is at the west end), and some modern ones which have abandoned this convention. There are also a fair few that are not quite on an east-west axis.

Whatever the actual compass reading, we can call the altar end of the church ‘liturgical east’ and name the other cardinal directions from it. This is particularly helpful if a church has one or more secondary altars that are not oriented parallel with the main altar. Most of the ceremonial is carried out as if the altar were to the east.

Sometimes it is important to know where actual east is. At a time when most Catholic masses were said with the priest’s back to the congregation (ad orientem, ‘to the east’), the Vatican and other Roman churches with high altars at the actual west celebrated mass with the priest facing the congregation across the altar (versus populum, ‘opposite the people’) so that the priest could celebrate facing actual east. Now that most masses are celebrated versus populum, the Vatican arrangement appears less unusual.

Major architectural features are often known by their compass position: west window, south door, north transept. These tend to be used when the actual compass directions and the liturgical ones more or less align. If one knows the high altar is to the east, everything else is easy to locate.

Choir: decani and cantoris

In terms of choir singing and placement, the Latin terms decani and cantoris are used, often abbreviated to dec. and can.

Decani means ‘of the dean’ (decānī is the genitive singular of decānus) and refers to the liturgical south (congregational right) side of the choir, where a cathedral’s dean would normally be seated.

Cantoris means ‘of the cantor’ (cantōris is the genitive singular of cantor) and refers to the liturgical north (congregational left) side of the choir, where a cathedral’s precentor (‘foremost cantor’) would normally be seated.

Decani and cantoris are used even in churches that do not have deans or precentors, owing to the importance of cathedrals in sustaining choral music.

In Salisbury Cathedral, the dean and precentor are seated in the first return stall on their respective sides. These are the first, east-facing, stalls to each side on entering the quire from the crossing. As Sarum was the liturgical norm of pre-Reformation England and Wales, this arrangement was followed in cathedrals of the Old Foundation, which have deans and precentors as their senior clergy, and has become the standard elsewhere.

In the monastic cathedrals, where the senior cleric under the bishop was the prior, he often sat on the liturgical north (congregational left). Thus, some cathedrals of the New Foundation (those that were monasteries) seat the dean in the former prior’s stall, opposite to where the Sarum dean is placed, and decani and cantoris are reversed (this is true of Benedictine Durham and Augustinian Carlisle, and a couple of other places).

These terms are especially used in Anglican chant where the music is sung antiphonally, passed back and forth between the two sides of a choir. In antiphonal singing, decani generally sings first, answered by cantoris. In typical singing of the psalm at choral evensong to Anglican chant, the entire chant is sung in full (both decani and cantoris together in harmony) over what is usually the first two verse (in double chant). Then decani sings alone in harmony, and then cantoris sings alone in harmony, and so on, with Gloria Patri (‘Glory be to the Father …’) sung in full at the end. Some choirs will alternate the starting side, often every week.

Gospel and epistle sides

The other set of directional terms are ‘gospel’ and ‘epistle side’. The simple definition is that the epistle side is the liturgical south (congregational right, decani) and the gospel side is liturgical north (congregational left, cantoris).

There are all sorts of explanations for this. The simplest is that Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, the place of honour, and, if we face God in prayer, that is our left. Thus, Jesus’ Good News, his Gospel, is preached from that side. Mediaeval churches often have the lectern built on the epistle side and the pulpit on the gospel side. This is so that the gospel could be proclaimed from the righthand side of the Father.

To reflect this, the priest at low mass would move the missal, from which all lessons are read, from the epistle side of the altar, after reading the epistle, to the gospel side, for reading the gospel.

Post-Vatican II liturgical thought has focused on a unified proclamation of the Word at the heart of the mass. Practically, this is often expressed by use of a central ambo (either fixed or movable) from which all lessons (including usually the responsorial psalm) are proclaimed. However, Pope Francis has begun using both an epistle-side and a gospel-side post in his outdoor masses, with the readings made at the epistle-side lectern and the gospel from the gospel side.

Terms such as epistle and gospel side are often used to describe positions in the sanctuary. For example, the paschal candle is placed on the gospel side of the sanctuary and the sedilia (or ministerial chairs) are on the epistle side.

These terms are also used to refer to the order of lighting and extinguishing altar candles. Candles on the epistle side are first lit, then those on the gospel side. In each case, if there are multiple candles on each side, those closest to the centre, to the cross, are lit first, moving outwards on that side before moving to the other. The extinguishing of candles is done in reverse order: gospel side, out to in, then epistle side, out to in. When the paschal candle stands in the sanctuary, it is at the gospel side and is lit before any altar candles and is the last extinguished. The story is that this is supposed to represent the spread of the light of the gospel moving from the Mediterranean south to the dark, barbaric north, and so southern candles are lit first. The story was probably invented spiritually to explain why a certain practice is followed. It is more likely to have come about because the right is the side of honour.

Right as the side of honour, but which right?

Traditionally, the right (dexter) is the side of honour, having higher importance than the left (sinister). Sorry, lefthanders.

This explains why the congregational right is where the dean is seated and the decani half of the choir sings first. It also explains why the candles are lit first on the congregational right of the altar and why the sedilia is also placed on that side.

The other right is the congregational left. It is the righthand side from the point of view of Christ on the altar cross, or of God in Trinity whom we address in prayer and praise. This is why the gospel is proclaimed from this righthand side and the paschal candle put there.

Thus, stripping aside all pious explanations, it seems that, throughout liturgical history, important things and people were placed on the right. However, seeing as both sides can be seen as right, some things follow the one convention and some the other.

A recorded instance of this flipping of viewpoint can be seen in the 1488 publication of a ceremonial by Augustine Patrizi, bishop of Pienza, near Siena. Whereas formerly the altar’s left and right side had been named from the congregational viewpoint (and that of the priest celebrating ad orientem), this new ceremonial insisted that the left and right hands of the outstretched corpus of the altar cross should determine directions, leading to their complete reversal. This was then accepted by Pope Pius V (excommunicator of Elizabeth I), entering the first standardised set of rubrics of the first ‘Tridentine’ missal of 1570.

The bishop’s throne (cathedra) is most traditionally set in the apse behind the high altar of the cathedral, facing west. The inconvenience of the position and the filling of apses with chapels and shrines led to a removal of the cathedra to the quire, where in many cases there was already a secondary throne. There it is usually placed on the south side, decani, as is the choir cathedra of Greek bishops, facing north. An alternative, often followed in more modern cathedrals, is to place the throne on the north side, the gospel side, of the sanctuary, facing south. In Anglican parish churches, a chair is often kept for the bishop when they visit. When in use, it is usually placed on the centre line of the church facing west. When not in use, it is traditionally placed on the gospel-side wall of the sanctuary facing south.

In English parish churches, I have seen the incumbent’s stall placed on either of the two rights, decani or the gospel side. In many places there are identical stalls on each side, the other being for the parish clerk, Reader or curate. It may be that the designated sides have swapped over time.

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Was Saint Peter a Buddhist monk?

Dunhuang Caves

Dunhuang Caves

I apologize for the click bait headline: no, he was not! I was, however, revisiting some fascinating work done by the syriacist Hidemi Takahashi on proper names in the Christian documents and inscriptions of Tang dynasty China (here, here and here). Three Chinese characters in one document seem to refer to Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter as ‘Solid-Peak Monk’.

Christianity first came to China during or just before the Tang era. The first Christians in China were most likely traders who came overland along the famous Silk Road to the Tang capital city of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an). They were adherents of the Church of the East, who prayed in Syriac but mostly spoke Iranian and Turkic languages.

In the great hoard of manuscripts discovered at the Dunhuang caves complex are those belonging to this first Chinese church. One of these is the eighth-century Zūnjīng (尊經 ‘The Book of Honour’), which is a rather grand name for what is essentially two lists of names. The first list in Zūnjīng is of biblical characters and saints, while the second is list of Christian books, including some other documents found at Dunhuang. It seems that the purpose of Zūnjīng was to provide a crib sheet for those translating Christian texts into Chinese to show which characters should be used for certain names.

The entry for ‘Solid-Peak Monk’ appears in Zūnjīng‘s list of names. The entry simply reads Cénwěn Sēng (岑穩僧 literally ‘solid peak monk’). From other uses, it is clear that the name Cénwěn should be understood as ‘Simon’. In the Middle Chinese pronunciation of the Tang era, it would likely have been pronounced /d͡ʒiɪm ʔuənX/ or /tʂɦəm ʔun’/ (different sources reconstruct it differently). The Japanese reading of the characters as shimu’on (しむおん) upholds this kind of pronunciation, and Japanese readings often give a good insight into the pronunciation of Middle Chinese. Seeing as the liturgical language of the first Chinese Christians was Syriac, this fits with the Syriac for ‘Simon’, which is Shem‘ōn (ܫܡܥܘܢ, exactly following the Hebrew Shim‘ôn שמעון, ‘he has heard’). If the Simon in question is the Simon Peter whose nickname means ‘rock’ (from the Greek Petros Πέτρος, given by Jesus in the punning dialogue of Matthew 16.13–20), then the literal meaning of the characters 岑穩 as ‘solid peak’ also makes sense. All of this is rather linguistically satisfying.

The name ‘Peter’ sounds like just that, a name, to most us, and we forget that it is a rocky nickname. The New Testament gives us an alternative version of the name, often written Cephas in English Bibles. This represents Kēphas (Κηφᾶς) in the Greek text. This is the Aramaic word for ‘rock’: Kêfâ (כיפא ܟܐܦܐ). He gets a final sigma in Greek to make it sound more manly, as an alpha ending is womanly (Jesus’ name got its final ‘s’ for the same gendered reason). As Syriac is a variety of Aramaic, Simon Peter is more usually called Shem‘ōn Kēfā (ܫܡܥܘܢ ܟܐܦܐ). It would be natural for Christians who prayed in Syriac to have carried Peter’s name to China not as the Greek Petros, but the Syriac Kēfā, but that is not what the scribe of Zūnjīng gave us.

The Chinese sēng () is used for Buddhist monks. Thus we literally have ‘Simon the Buddhist monk’. The Chinese word comes from the Buddhist Pali term saṅgha (सङ्घ), referring to a Buddhist monastery, which is sēngjiā (僧伽) in Chinese. For want of a better term in Chinese, Christian monks are regularly given the title sēng in Tang era texts too, so our Simon does not have to be a Buddhist monk.

The key to the puzzle rests in learning the extinct Sogdian language, which was well represented among traders from the West in Chang’an. Sogdian was an Iranian language spoken in Samarkand and throughout a region covering today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It became a Silk Road lingua franca. In Sogdian, the word for ‘rock’ is sang, and this seems to be the origin of the Chinese sēng being used to translate the Petros/Kēfā part of Simon Peter’s name. Thus, Sogdian-speaking merchants and their clergy brought Christianity to China, naming Jesus’ disciple Shem‘ōn Sang, with that literal rocky translation of Kēfā. The scribe of Zūnjīng decided to choose Chinese characters that represented this Sogdian name phonetically. Yet the phonetic transcription is only half the story. The good scribe chose characters that had a meaning that was in harmony with who Simon Peter was.  Oddly, the rockiness of ‘Peter’ was transferred to the characters that phonetically represent ‘Simon’, as ‘solid peak’. Twice oddly, a Chinese character for a Buddhist monk that is phonetically derived from the Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit was used to represent the Sogdian word for ‘rock’. I imagine our good scribe thought the character suitable for a holy man, a saint.

P.S. In modern Mandarin Chinese, Simon Peter is Xīmén Bǐde (西门·彼得). The Catholic Church in China uses either Bǎiduōlù (伯多禄) or Bǎiduó (伯铎) for ‘Peter’, and the Orthodox Church uses Péitèrè (裴特若). ‘Simon’ is also often written as Xīméng (西蒙) All are rather phonetic and based on European languages. It is a pity the link with the Syriac/Sogdian of the first to bring Christianity to China has been lost.

P.P.S. Simon Peter was obviously not a monk. Christian monasticism did not really get going until St Anthony in the third century. The fact that Peter was married can be ascertained by the reference to his sick mother-in-law in the gospels (Matthew 8.14, Mark 1.30, Luke 4.38).

P.P.P.S. Speaking of the Sogdian word for ‘rock’, the Sogdian Rock was a fortress in Sogdiana that was besieged by Alexander the Great in 327 BC. Arrian’s Anabasis tells us that the defenders thought the Rock to be impregnable but Alexander employed rock climbers to scale it with flax ropes and tent pegs. Alexander’s prize was to marry the princess Roxana. The Greeks thought her to be the second most lovely woman in all of Asia, which must have given her the hump. She was a Bactrian princess.


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Welcoming the new vicar: institutions, collations and inductions

Wigs and seals and tippets and chimeres: thus shall we be known!

I have three clergy friends who are soon to move to new parishes, and have been preparing for their services of welcome. The ecclesiastical nomenclature of these services is complex: one friend is having a collation and induction, another a licensing and installation, and the third an institution and induction. As I am a college chaplain, it has been a while since I have had these done to me, but, as a patron’s representative, I have been involved in a fair few of these services in recent years.

The service of welcome for a new vicar, rector or what-have-you is a fairly recent phenomenon, growing to near universal popularity through the 20th century. Before we did public ceremonies, these were fairly private acts of canon law. The twofold naming — an X and Y — is down to the separate admission of the candidate to the spiritualities and temporalities of the benefice.

  • The spiritualities include the responsibility to perform divine service, occasional offices, preach, teach and hold the cure of souls (pastoral care). As the diocesan bishop is chief pastor of the diocese, admission to the spiritualities is given by them or their commissary (often an area, suffragan or assistant bishop, but can be any cleric).
  • The temporalities are the actual legal possession of the benefice as property. In the past this would mean tithes, fees and glebe, but is now a more limited right to manage the property and control the benefice. Nowadays there are many more posts that are ‘incumbent status’ rather than actual incumbencies, usually attracting the name Priest in Charge or Team Vicar, which are exercised by licence rather than right, and the legal possession of the temporalities is lacking.

There are three terms used to describe the handing over of the spiritualities of a benefice: licensing, institution and collation.

  • All beneficed clergy are licensed to their cure of souls, but the term ‘licensing‘ is properly used for the formal admission of Priests in Charge, Team Vicars and others of ‘incumbent status’. The bishop or their commissary grants the spiritualities in a licence that sets out their responsibilities and the limitation to their term.
  • Many Vicars or Rectors who are actual incumbents will instead receive a Deed of Institution, which is effectively the same as a licence, but unlimited in term. Here is the complicated bit! The patron or patrons of the benefice are given permission to present the chosen candidate to the benefice, the bishop then admits the candidate to the benefice and institutes them. Thus, institution is the final step in this ruritanian appointments process over which the bishop has two vetoes: they may veto the patron or patrons’ choice of candidate, and they may refuse to admit (although it is unlawful for a bishop to veto Crown presentations, they may still refuse to admit the candidate). The admission is technically the bishop’s right to examine the candidate before institution (patrons can appeal against a bishop refusing to admit a candidate, and the legal process differs depending on whether or not the bishop cites doctrinal grounds for refusing to admit). If the patron or patrons fail to present a candidate (it used to be within 6 months of vacancy of benefice, but that cannot surely still hold true), the bishop then has the right to collate a candidate, then that right goes to the archbishop if the benefice is still vacant, and ultimately to the Crown. With our modern system of job interviews, the interview panel, which often includes the patron or patrons, makes a decision to nominate a particular candidate, and the patronal presentation and episcopal admission are expected to follow suit.
  • Wherever the bishop is sole patron, rather than presenting to themselves, the system is streamlined into what is called a collation, which merges the presentation, admission and institution into one. If the bishop is one patron among others, the full process has to take place.

It used to be the case that all licensing, institutions and collations happened at the bishop’s chapel or wherever the bishop happened to be. As we have so many bishops today, a bishop comes to the parish church to do these things. If a patron is at the service, they will make a ceremonial presentation. Then the candidate will make oaths and declarations, to which the bishop or commissary will assent to admit them. Then the candidate kneels before the seated bishop or commissary, who reads the licence or deed of institution or collation over them, while the candidate holds the seal attached to it.

How many rings of the bell is enough?

The admission to the temporalities is quite simple after all of that. If one is instituted or collated, the temporalitites are given in the form of an induction. If one is merely licensed, then there are no associated legal property rights. The term ‘installation‘ is used to describe the purely symbolic act of placing a new pastor in their stall, and is used to fill the position where an induction would otherwise happen. Even then, some ceremonies are described as ‘institution, induction and installation’, even though the latter can be seen as a non-essential part of any induction. The bishop issues a mandate of induction usually to the archdeacon to induct the candidate that they have instituted or collated. Often the rural or area dean receives the mandate instead of the archdeacon, if the latter is unavailable, and some dioceses have ancient rights about who may induct whom.

The core of the induction is an act of property transfer, a business deal, which is carried out by the mediaeval practice of the livery of seisin: the property is transferred by passing it, or an object representing it, from the hand of the giver to the hand of the receiver in front of witnesses. At its minimum, this means that the archdeacon or some other places the candidate’s hand on the latch of the church door or the key in the lock while the churchwardens witness. Induction, therefore, has to happen at the church (and only one church is necessary in multi-parish benefices, as the property is legally bundled together so that possession of a symbolic part is possession of the whole), and induction actually happens outside of the church, at the door, whence the incumbent is inducted into the building.

The induction has accrued a number of other symbolic actions. The archdeacon’s dainty taking of the incumbent’s hand on a step dance around the interior of the church is a most delightful custom. The new incumbent’s tolling of the church bell was originally to inform the parishioners habemus vicarium (‘the vicar’s here’), as they were not present at the church for the induction. All sorts of superstitions are associated with this tolling, thinking it indicates how vigorous the incumbent will be in mission or for how long they will stay. Lancelot Andrewes had the tradition of getting new incumbents to write on the back of their mandate of induction the following: accepi clavem, intravi solus, oravi, tetigi sacra, pulsavi campanas — ‘I received the key, I entered alone, I prayed, I touched the sacred things, I tolled the bells’. I do find something romantic in this practice of the new incumbent going alone into the church to pray, touch and toll. It is unclear precisely what is meant by tetigi sacra, whether it is the touching of the consecration points of the church, or the more likely touching of the font and altar, symbolizing sacramental responsibility. However this tangendum (‘touchy feely’) is the origin of the archidiaconal waltz and the crackerjack game of seeing how many baptismal ewers, chalices and Bibles the new incumbent can hold, symbolic of the pressures of ordained ministry, to which the addition of the rite of installation, taking of one’s seat, must come as a relief.

When most parishioners took no part in these ceremonies, the reading in of the new incumbent on the first Sunday (or at least within a certain fixed period) was the point at which they received their pastor. This is the formal reading of declarations, and I think at one time included the incumbent’s recitation of the 39 Articles to prove how legit they were. While a much curtailed reading in still occurs, it is a hangover from the time when all the other things were done semi-privately. The practice of the new incumbent giving notices, which include a declaration of the next Sunday’s times of service, at the end of their service of welcome appears to be a descendent of promising the archdeacon or rural dean that they will read themselves in on the Sunday.


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Watch and pray

Bishop Conley wearing a watch.

Liturgists are often accused of focusing on the pointless minutiae of Christian worship; to the accusers this articles is a gift! I want to discuss the rarely discussed issue of wearing a watch while ministering liturgically.

The photograph to the right shows Bishop James Conley of the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. Everything about him in this picture is dignified and elegant in the context of Mass. All except his wristwatch. At first it looks like a chunky Casio G-Shock on a rubber strap, but it might be something a bit more sophisticated on a ‘gun metal’ bracelet. It is rather obvious, and that is partly because he has chosen to wear it on his right wrist. Priests always bless with their right hand, and perform most liturgical gestures with the right, so a watch on the right is always going to have more presence. The picture of Bishop Conley would probably not have jumped out at me if he had worn his watch on the left.

The wrist watch became popular in the early 20th century. Earlier wristwatches tended to be for women, an alternative to wearing a watch on a chain or ribbon around the neck, and worn on a bracelet. It is odd to think of the wristwatch as feminine: pocket watches were the then masculine style. War changed things; it always does. Officers coordinating manoeuvres of troops advancing under rolling artillery barrages were issued wristwatches as they needed to be able to check the time constantly while keeping their hands free. Wristwatches quickly became popular after the First World War, but were still considered rather gauche in certain circumstances. In the early 20th century, it would have been unusual for a priest to wear a wristwatch at time of divine service. I am not sure that there have any been instructions against priests wearing wristwatches while ministering liturgically, but quite a few retired priests have the habit of removing their wristwatch in the sacristy before celebrating.

Most wristwatches have a crown at 3 o’clock. They are traditionally worn on the left wrist so that one could easily wind and adjust them with the right hand (a watch worn on the right is still awkward to work with the left hand, even for a left-handed person, as the hand will cover the face). With the advent of quartz and digital watches, this became less of an issue, and many now wear their watch on their right wrist as a matter of personal choice. However as was noted above, a priest wearing a watch on the right wrist will be constantly flashing it at every liturgical gesture.

Pius IX (1792–1878) was perhaps the first pope to wear a watch, and was gifted with a Patek Philippe pocket watch. Pope John Paul II was known to wear a silver-gold Rolex Datejust, which is fairly mid-range as far as Rolexes go (and the same model as worn by the Dalai Lama). Pope Benedict XVI was given a rather fine Junghans Tempus Automatic. Pope Francis wears a little black plastic Swatch. They all wear or wore their watches on their left wrist, and all are fairly subtle, even John Paul II’s Rolex was fairly discreet. The lesson perhaps is that, if a priest wears a wristwatch, it should be a subtle model worn on the left. Even when worn on the left, certain two-handed liturgical gestures — greeting with arms outstretched, raising the Gospel, the orans position, and the elevation of the Eucharistic gifts — can make the watch visible.


Popes and their watches


Some older patterns of cassock come with a small pocket for a pocket watch. The Wippell version has this pocket high on the left breast, while others have it slightly above the waistline, on the left also, so that it is covered by the cincture. One point is that it is virtually impossible to check a pocket watch whilst vested in a surplice or alb, and perhaps there is a meaning deeper than Houdini-like moves in white linen here.

The time of prayer and praise should be timeless. In liturgy there is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and therefore of eternity. I remember one dapper gent at a formal dinner (which are two-a-penny in Oxford) telling me that he thought it incorrect to wear a watch with a dinner jacket, thinking it symbolizes a rather rude indication that one might have other plans. Surely this argument is even more appropriate for divine worship.

In my last parish, the vicar and I would often check our watches at the end of the main Sunday Mass to see how long the service had taken. There is a lot to pack in to a big Parish Mass, and it is important to be respectful of the time of congregants. The parish at which I preached last Sunday has a little pocket-watch-shaped indentation on the top edge of the pulpit, sadly sans watch, and, likewise, the good timing of a sermon is important. In the past, a church clock might be the only timekeeper in the parish, so we have a long interest in telling the time (out loud). There is a discipline here of the punctuality needed to honour others and God that leads us to worship, and the timelessness within worship.

My Orient Bambino Automatic.

To the right is a picture of my Orient Bambino Automatic. It is really cute and quite reasonably priced. Its classic look makes it suitable for wear with the cassock. Its case is a little on the large size, but it remains subtle. I retain the watch for choir offices, but have taken to removing it before celebrating Mass for the reasons cited above. I pray

O God, thou art Lord of all time and eternity : in the slenderness of this time that we give unto thy praise, fill thou thy servants with a foretaste of thy eternal promises, through Jesus Christ our Lord.


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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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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