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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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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.