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: let us pray the collect

The collect (stress on first syllable: KOL-ekt) is a traditional, formal short prayer of Western Christianity. The Latin missal simply calls it oratio (‘prayer’). However, the Gregorian Sacramentary has oratio ad collectam, and then, in two places, simply collecta. In the earlier Gallican use, the term is first collectio, before becoming collecta. The term remained in popular use among churchgoers while missals chose oratio. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Book of Common Prayer chose the popular vernacular name ‘collect’, but more surprising that the new translation of the Catholic missal has opted for ‘collect’ where its predecessor had a prosaic ‘opening prayer‘. The collects of the Church of England and the Catholic Church preserve many old Latin models.

The structure of collects are widely discussed and well known — being

  1. invocation, e.g. Almighty God
  2. divine attribute (quiclause), e.g. unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid
  3. petition, e.g. cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit
  4. consequence (ut-clause), e.g. that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name
  5. doxology, e.g. through Christ our Lord

The major division of the collect is between clauses 1–2 and 3–4, often marked with a semicolon. In collects for saints, the second clause says something about the saint in question rather than describing a divine attribute. Rather wonderfully, this shows the holy life as a glimpse of divine revelation. Most collects address God the Father, and so the doxology (which is often not written out in full) declares that our prayer is made through (per) Christ (or ‘the same’ Christ if he is mentioned in the body of the collect), and may add the unity of the Holy Spirit too.

Some have remarked that the quality of the collect is frame for our petitionary prayer which should flow from an understanding of God’s nature. It is a snapshot of how lex orandi models lex credendi, or, put another way, how doctrine should feed into our spiritual life.

At the eucharist, the praying of the collect concludes the gathering rite, the first part of the liturgy, and thus herald the Bible readings. The placing of collects for Sundays and holy days together with the epistles and gospels in the Book of Common Prayer (which makes sense, because one reads the collect, epistle and gospel in order) has led to some Anglicans, particularly evangelicals, to desire collects that reflect the readings or themes of the day. I think this is wrong, seeing as the collects are designed succinctly to draw divine qualities into our daily lives, and so belong to our gathering and preparation rather than an introduction to the readings. The gathering rite at its simplest (and ’tis a joy to be simple) has just a liturgical greeting (The Lord be with you) and a collect, although prayers of penitence usually occur between the two.

The Catholic Church developed a series of other collect-like presidential prayers: the prayer over the gifts and the post-communion prayer. Common Worship has fully embraced post-communion prayers, gathering them with the collects proper, and it suggests some ‘prayers at the preparation of the table’ that cover some elements of the traditional offertory prayers.

In daily prayer, the collect comes at the end of the intercession. In the Book of Common Prayer, three collects (or four during Advent and Lent) follow the preces toward the formal conclusion of matins and evensong. Common Worship has followed the modern practice of retaining just one collect where a series of such had previously been used. However, its structural framework means that an unchanging ‘opening prayer’ is also used.

Let us pray, and its praxis

Modern liturgical sensibility around the collect can be summarised

  1. The bidding ‘Let us pray’ (oremus) is important
  2. The use of silence between bidding and collect is important
  3. The collect should be prayed deliberately: it is important
  4. The congregational ‘Amen’ is important

It has taken fifteen years of ministry for me to begin to internalise and practise this. It is not as simple as it sounds. I might bid ‘Let us pray’, but it was as if I were saying ‘I shall now read a prayer out of the book’. There is still the problem that some hear those words as a direction to get on their knees, but there are some relics of an instruction flectamus genua for the silence with levate for the collect. Knowing that oremus could be expanded into a fuller bidding, I would sometimes select a bon mot from the collect and say something like ‘Let us pray that God might cleanse our hearts that we may worship him’. It was a good idea, but it ended up like a liturgical wink: ‘see what I did there? I can read ahead!’

The silence proved a problem too. How long should it be? If it were too long, people would fidget, or think that I had forgotten the book of collects. The fundamental problem with my praxis was that is was superficial, skin-deep. The bidding, even if it be the simple ‘Let us pray’, should convey a call to deep, heartfelt prayer. As Romans 8.26–27 has it

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

If the bidding can convey the merest sense of those verses, then the silence just works. The bidding then is not an introduction to the collect, but to the silence. The collect then is a voicing of an aspect of the heartfelt silent prayer. A good trigger that works for me is a simple bidding like ‘Let us pray deeply’ or ‘From the depths of our hearts, let us pray’. Words alone are not enough; as a priest I need to model this deep prayer. I must not be looking at the book or looking around, but I must pray with bowed head. Whether the silence is ten or twenty seconds, or more, does not matter, as quantity of silence is replaced by quality. In a church full of people who want to be led in prayer, this works well. However, at weddings, funerals and baptisms, among those who may not be regular churchgoers, and who may not be focused mainly on spiritual things, the collect becomes transformative. There is a witty saying when people see me in a cassock — ‘Say one for me’ — and this is ‘Say one with me: it’s deep within you, and you want to pray’.

The celebrant faces the people squarely during all this in modern rites. Hands are folded for the bidding and silence. The arms are raised to the orans position for praying the collect. At the doxology, the hands are folded once more. The orans position is somewhat Y-shaped. The hands are raised upward, but no higher than the shoulder. The expansion of the gesture should be determined by whatever looks natural (not too tight and Tridentine, not too large and theatrical) and the space (it can be larger at a high altar, smaller in a cozy chapel).


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Liturgy bits: the Lord be with you

The phrase ‘The Lord be with you’, in various languages and in its Latin Dominus vobiscum, has been the greeting that gathers Christians together in worship for over a millennium. I might say that it is the church’s Hello, and I quite like that jolly interpretation. Nevertheless, it is important not to dumb it down: this phrase has power.

‘The Lord be with you’ is a presidential greeting, which is most often encountered at the beginning of the a liturgy and and the beginning of the eucharistic prayer. It is also found before the reading of the Gospel, before a blessing, before blessing baptismal water, in the middle of Exsultet, and before praying a collect.

The biblical references of Ruth 2.4, II Chronicles 15.2 and Matthew 28.20 are given in support of this phrase. It can be clearly dated back to the 6th century (Council of Braga and, later, Gelasian Sacramentary), but can be inferred from the Apostolic Tradition and other early texts.

Grammatically, of course, the Latin original has no verb: Dominus vobiscum means, more literally, ‘Lord with you’. English needs the verb ‘to be’ to act as a copula. An obvious choice would have been to translate the phrase with ‘The Lord is with you’ (this is in the indicative mood). Instead, our English reformers chose ‘The Lord be with you’, in the subjunctive mood. Unlike much spoken English, and indeed written English, the subjunctive mood is on quite frequent duty in the Book of Common Prayer. The subjunctive is often used in blessing formulas, and this shows an important interpretation of this phrase: it is not about stating a fact — the Lord’s presence — but is the blessing of the Lord’s presence. A major feature of a lot of liturgical language is that it is performative: it does something. This particular phrase is the greeting — the benediction — that constitutes the Christian assembly for worship.

The Eastern churches have ‘Peace to all’ / ‘And with thy spirit’, but its use is different.

And with thy spirit

The Latin response to Dominus vobiscum is Et cum spiritu tuo. The traditional English translation of this is ‘And with thy spirit’, and the agreed ecumenical translation into contemporary English is ‘And also with you’. The modern translation is clearly more of a paraphrase than a direct translation of the Latin. This paraphrase understands the use of the word ‘spirit’ as metonymy for the minister’s person or self.

The Epistles use this phrase at Galatians 6.18, Philippians 4.23, Philemon 25 and II Timothy 4.22.

The new Catholic translation of the missal has taken us back closer to the original by using ‘And with your spirit’. A friend who is a Catholic priest commented to me that he finds the former translation — ‘And also with you’ — more affirming of his whole person than the new translation.

Et cum spiritu tuo is clearly not a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit does not belong to the minister. At its simplest, ‘your spirit’ is metonymy for ‘you’, and avoids the short, ungainly Et tecum, ‘And with you’ (even ‘And also with you’ uses extra syllables). Other commentators have described the phrase as an acknowledgement of the spiritual grace given the ordained minister by the Holy Spirit. It is similar to the Eastern affirmation of a priest’s ordination by the acclamation of the people: axios, ‘worthy’.

Praxis

It is important to speak about how we do, and should do, Dominus vobiscum. This is where I believe that the choice of the subjunctive in English is informative. The greeting is not a statement that Jesus is here so let’s get on with it. It is a benediction that recognises the icon of Christ in the assembly of the baptized, and draws out this image, verbally constituting the ekklesia. At the commencement, and at other high points of liturgy, the minister thus constitutes the church, and the people, in response, declare the human being before them to be their minister by grace.

Some principles

  1. It is important: do not rush it or belittle it.
  2. It is the greeting that constitutes the liturgical assembly.
  3. It should not be preceded or followed by more colloquial stock phrases of greeting, like ‘hello’, ‘good morning’, etc.
  4. The only thing that should preface the opening greeting is the Trinitarian invocation.
  5. Giving notices, and even announcing a hymn, before the greeting takes away from its impact.
  6. It is easy to remember, so it should not be read from a book.
  7. It can lead into words of welcome and introduction (the ‘intention’).
  8. It should be accompanied by the appropriate gesture: arms open in a welcoming embrace.
  9. The gesture should not be either poky or overlarge.
  10. The gesture should not be stiff or vague.
  11. Traditionally, a deacon makes no gesture with these words.
  12. The priest or deacon should be attentive to the people’s response, and drink in their affirmation before proceeding.

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Advent antiphons

As Christmas approaches, Western Christian tradition has hallowed each evening from mid-Advent to 23 December with the singing of particular antiphons at Magnificat of Evening Prayer. Each antiphon recalls an epithet of Christ, and begins with the vocative ‘O …’, giving them the name of ‘O Antiphons’. The texts of the antiphons is the basis for the Advent carol ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel‘. These evenings are often also known as ‘Golden Nights’.

The Sarum Rite, on which much English liturgical tradition is based, begins on 16 December with O Sapientia, ‘O Wisdom’, and the Book of Common Prayer marks the date as such in its calendar (yet provides no other text or instruction).

The official use of the Roman Catholic Church is to start a day after, singing O Sapientia on 17 December, and Common Worship follows that use .

It seems that the Sarum version of eight antiphons from 16 to 23 December was a development of the use of seven antiphons from 17 to 23 December, adding O Virgo Virginum (‘O Virgin of virgins’) to the end of the series. There is a good theological reason to revert to the use of seven antiphons: all seven are addressed to Christ in prophetic epithets, while the additional, eighth antiphon is addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although devotion to Mary right before Christmas is commendable, it does break the unity of the antiphons.

Titles of the ‘O Antiphons’
Latin title English title CW dates Sarum dates
O Sapientia O Wisdom 17 Dec. 16 Dec.
O Adonai O Lord 18 Dec. 17 Dec.
O Radix Jesse O Root of Jesse 19 Dec. 18 Dec.
O Clavis David O Key of David 20 Dec. 19 Dec.
O Oriens O Dayspring, O Morning Star 21 Dec. 20 Dec.
O Rex Gentium O King of the Nations 22 Dec. 21 Dec.
O Emmanuel O God with Us 23 Dec. 22 Dec.
O Virgo Virginum O Virgin of Virgins 23 Dec.

Some traditions added another antiphon O Gabriel, while some had O Thoma Didyme for the feast of St Thomas on 21 December instead of it. That brought the number to nine antiphons, and it was natural some would expand the series to the biblical twelve, adding O Rex Pacifice ‘O King of Peace’, O Mundi Domina ‘O Mistress of the World’ and O Hierusalem ‘O Jerusalem’, and beginning on 12 December, the eve of St Lucy. The New English Hymnal provides the plainsong music for the antiphons (NEH 503, with the chant for Magnificat at 504).


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The Anglican tradition of daily prayer, and a year of praying the Roman Office

Prayer, Rosary, Book of Common Prayer 001

Image by bhsher via Flickr

I have spent the last year praying my daily prayers from the Roman Office with my parish. Over the years I have used a number of Anglican office books, from the Book of Common Prayer, the Alternative Service Book, Celebrating Common Prayer and Common Worship: Daily Prayer. The traditional Anglican approach to ordering daily prayer might be summed up in the word from the introduction to the Book of Common Prayer

Moreover, the number and hardness of the Rules called the Pie, and the manifold changings of the Service, was the cause, that to turn the Book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.

For Anglicans then, daily prayer has been governed by the aesthetic of the simple; if this is the daily work of the clergy, then it should be likened unto the ploughing of furrows and not bookish cleverness. Of course, traditional Anglican daily prayer can be a thing of great beauty when Solemn Matins (if such a thing still be done) or Evensong is accompanied by a robed choir: simple, yet sublime. The Alternative Service Book 1980 followed this principle of simplicity, but in its updated ‘committee prose’ the business of prayer felt more like it needed to be moved and seconded rather than Amen-ed! The times I prayed the ASB are mostly blanked out as bad memory. Into this spiritual desert we welcomed Celebrating Common Prayer almost lasciviously! Being built through the experience of Anglican Franciscans of the Society of St Francis (SSF) it was tested at the prayer desk. It encouraged Anglicans to think about the occasional Midday or Night Prayer (Compline). It gave us prayer that, while remaining fixed in its shape, moved with the seasons of the liturgical year and flavoured them appropriately with joy or sorrow, hope or conviction. This formed the basis of Common Worship: Daily Prayer, the current standard for the Church of England’s office. E’en so, the Anglican method has always been to take two or three books to the prayer desk: prayer book and Bible, and now the lectionary that reminds us of saints to celebrate and which psalms and readings to use. We Anglicans are not good at knowing our own tradition, so it seems necessary to offer this here as and aide mémoire.

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