Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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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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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 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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Ancient & Modern: a review

Ancient & Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (2013).

My copy of Ancient & Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (2013) has just arrived. It is the ninth edition of what is the most enduring and popular lineage of hymnals in the Church of England. We currently use Common Praise (2000, the eighth edition of A&M), in the College Chapel. My former churches have used Sing Glory (1999), Ancient & Modern New Standard Edition (1983) and New English Hymnal (1986) as their main hymnbooks, which is progress of sorts! Unlike some churches, the Church of England has never had an official hymnbook, but the Ancient & Modern stable comes closest to a standard.

For some background and a couple of thoughts about hymnals in the 21st century, see Ancient & Modern: history and future.

Ancient & Modern has 847 items: the largest inventory in this hymnbook’s history, beating the 779 hymns of the Standard Edition (1916 & 1920). Not all of these are hymns, some are liturgical songs and ‘short chants’. It is not too much of a surprise that this is an increase on the 628 hymns of Common Praise. However, seeing that the intermediate supplement Sing Praise (2010) has 330 entries, there has been a bit of a cull. I guestimate that around 150 hymns in Common Praise have been cut (inexplicably, the cloying ‘In a world where people walk in darkness’ (CP 476, AM9 677) has survived!). I confess to some alarm that so many hymns that were thought necessary of inclusion 13 years ago have proved disposable. It makes me wonder how many of the current volume will last as long. The proprietors actually suggest that those who already have Common Praise should make the lesser investment in Sing Praise rather than switching directly to the new edition. I believe, though, that would mean that there would be around fifty or more items in the ninth edition that those with the two previous volumes would be missing.

Physically, the full-music editions of the two hymnals, eighth and ninth editions, are about the same size. Although this is perhaps due to my old Common Praise being stretched with use, the paper used for the ninth edition is clearly thinner, yet this has not lead to a reduction in print quality. Unlike some poorly produced editions of Hymns Old & New (nothing to do with Ancient & Modern), verso print does not obviously show through on the recto, and vice versa. The same typesetter and music engraver, the laudable Andrew Parker, worked on the two editions, yet there has been progress toward a brighter, clearer printing. Music and textual credits have been moved to the bottom of the page, into space, allowing for a little more information to be given. For the three translations of Phos hilaron are given their Greek title in Greek script: a nicely revived tradition that flatters the singer. These three are John Keble’s text set to John Stainer’s Sebaste at 17, Christopher Idle’s more recent offering at 18 and Robert Bridges’s at 20, with the latter being the preferred translation of the rival English Hymnal tradition.

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 arrangement of the hymns follows the tried and tested pattern of the A&M stable: the diurnal of morning and evening, the seasons of the church year, saints’ days, a few service themes and the lucky dip of ‘Hymns throughout the Year’ (the odd name of the category used in Common Praise) or ‘General’ (the more sensible title in the ninth edition). The ninth edition’s categories are a joy: after the saints’ days, there are decent selections of hymns for Christian initiation, marriage, and funerals and the departed. Then there are selections of hymns chosen for use in a generalised sequence of sections of church services: gathering, penitence, the word of God, canticles and affirmations of faith, prayer and intercession, Holy Communion, and sending out. These mix hymns with liturgical texts, like the three modern Kyries (370–2) in the penitence category; the first is that from James MacMillan’s Mass of the Blessed John Henry Newman. The word category begins with the traditional sixth-mode Alleluia (374), and goes on to provide an Alleluia setting by Bernadette Farrell (376) and James Walsh’s Pilgrim’s Alleluia (377) — I am left to wonder why the Stanbrook Abbey hymn ‘Bright as fire in darkness’ intrudes at 375. There is also a Marty Haugen song that can be used as an Alleluia at 385, demonstrating the problem that items are arranged mainly in alphabetical order within categories rather then rational groupings. Thankfully the metrical Magnificats and other canticles are grouped together. The category for prayer and intercession includes a number of simple, modern chants that can be used as sung responses to supplications. It is not necessarily obvious, but four metrical settings of Gloria in excelsis Deo (413–16) are in the Holy Communion category, followed by two settings of Sanctus (417, 418) and one Agnus Dei (419). The 61 items in this category could really have done with a finer level of grouping within the category.

The later categories of themes — the church’s ministry and mission, wholeness and healing, sorrow and lament, creation and the environment, justice and peace, and national and remembrance — are welcome, if still slightly thin. Even with all of these categories, there are still 246 ‘general’ hymns (29 % of the inventory). Still, this is an improvement on the like category of 265 hymns in Common Praise (42 %). There are hymnals, like Mission Praise, Sing Glory and Hymns Old & New, that take the unimaginative approach of arranging all their entries in alphabetical order of their textual incipits (though I do remember some old copies of Mission Praise took a unique approach to the alphabet!). Given a decent index, and the ninth edition has indexes aplenty (read on if you, like me, sadly spend more time in hymn indexes than with the hymns themselves), it makes sense to organise things by sensible categories and relationally. Thus, I am sure the compilers saw the need to keep the lucky dip to a minimum, recognising it as a sign of methodological laxity. A rough grouping of these hymns by theological themes would have been a welcome change, alongside better grouping of items within the other categories. The group of 17 ‘short chants’ at the end, mostly from Taizé and Iona, alongside some in other categories, will be a welcome addition in many churches.

The indexes include the now standard and practical parade of biblical index, hymn suggestions for each Sunday and major feast, alphabetical index of tunes, metrical index of tunes, index of composers, index of authors, and the index of first lines and tunes. Alongside these there is a list of hymns ‘suitable for all-age worship’ that some might use, but also a particularly handy thematic index that lists hymn numbers appropriate to a wide range of theological and other themes. Some of these (e.g. marriage) exactly reproduces a category, adding the belt to the braces. Yet this extra index shows an appropriate response to the problem of categories: what to do with those items that fit multiple categories. It also allows for themes that are too vague to have been categories (e.g. water).

The influence of Hymns Old & New (first Anglican Edition in 1986, with the popular New Anglican Edition a decade later, now superseded by others) can be seen in the ninth edition. Although Hymns Old & New has had major flaws in its musical arrangements and production quality, it brought together favourite hymns with choruses, praise songs and chants. Its coup was to provide what many churches wanted. Starting with Sing Praise, the Ancient & Modern tradition began to incorporate this wider repertoire, and the ninth edition includes symbols for guitar chords above the music for some items, thankfully not following Hymns Old & New in providing them for all items, even where they conflict with the musical arrangement.

For controversialists, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty‘s ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’ is included (678), with its words ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ in the second verse. Whereas some have rewritten the line, Getty has, understandably, refused to allow it to be used with an altered text. While American Presbyterians have recently decided to omit the hymn because of that line, it now makes Ancient & Modern look doctrinally brave/timid for including it.

For some background and a couple of thoughts about hymnals in the 21st century, see Ancient & Modern: history and future.


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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: Bosco Peters’s Thoughts

If you are interested in Anglican liturgy, or indeed liturgy generally, you may have already come across Bosco Peters’s video talk Some Thoughts on Liturgy. It is a thought-provoking paper on how we, as Christian ministers, use liturgy, and understand liturgy.

Bosco Peters begins by describing liturgy as a language. Indeed a linguist’s approach to its ‘grammar’ and ‘vocabulary’ might bear fruit, particularly when we distinguish between the prescriptive and descriptive methodologies — between what one should do and what one actually does. The analogy is good, but Bosco Peters immediately points out the major misunderstanding that is likely to occur: that, when we think of liturgy as language, we think it is all about words. Thus, he heads that train of thought off at the pass

So let’s be clear: The basic building blocks of liturgy are actions and gestures and people and space and symbols and signs and vesture and music and silence and movement and – yes – and words. Jesus said do this to remember me. Do this. And we turn his command into “read pages 404 to 429 out loud to remember me”. In lots of places, we come together for an hour or so on Sundays and read lots of lovely poetic stuff to each other, and sing four bits of poetry – and many of us give the impression that that’s liturgy.

This is what captured the imagination of commentators on the Anglican Communion LinkedIn group where I posted the video. An ECUSA priest spoke of a desire to share this video on a training day with fellow clergy. She added

This is the first time someone has supported my desire to be rid of ‘reading’ the liturgy instead of participating in it…body, mind, heart, spirit, gesture, Amens, over time becoming a Body of Christ which celebrates ‘by heart and body’ Reading the words gets in the way of prayer, of ‘inwardly digesting’.

Perhaps there is something of the Reformation in the wordiness and bookishness of many a liturgical approach. Yet, to be fair, the mediaeval catholic concept of ex opere operato treats the liturgy as a mutterance without social context that simply does the grace. I think our liturgical formation is perhaps better than it was in the past. Modern liturgies with their variations and choices demand our attention to certain details. Yet still, our churches publish liturgies and their rubrics in books, not videos, and thus emphasize the literary quality over the physical instances of liturgy. Even so, we would practice, hesitate, and even consider ourselves unworthy if we were tasked with an intricate poem to recite to maximum effect. Yet we do not treat each collect and eucharistic prayer with such sensitivity. Perhaps we cannot do so: it would impair our ability to function. An incarnational theology of the liturgy is simple: the Word became flesh, and so the literary must become performative action. We note that the Word does not cease to be the Word, but yet is outwardly transformed. The liturgy is performative action rather than performed action, as the latter points to the liturgical action as the drama, whereas the former shows that the action makes that drama in us, and in heaven.

Another commentator, from England, wrote

All to often reading is seen to be the norm. One of the brethren told me that he saw no point in liturgical “training days” because “all you have to do is open the book and read.” Liturgical formation of both clergy and congregations is weak. Clergy training in liturgy is so often history and no praxis: “They will pick it up from their training incumbents.” Liturgy is action, action, action; something that has so often become lost. The liturgy is also where many members of the church do theology together; they may not realise it but they are formed by the liturgy (by a sort of osmosis). that is why liturgical formation of worship leaders is so important.

I have heard similar comments about a local Anglican theological college, where experimenting with liturgy is encouraged above training, with the effect that bad habits are continued and showcased as the norm. I had a great training incumbent who taught me good liturgical practice and principles — and he is now a canon precentor — but we cannot expect every training incumbent to provide this.

Bosco Peters describes how environment, against our default formation, actually trumps words

But changing the environment, or changing our actions, I think often can have even more impact than changing the words.

Think of how differently the same words of a confession can be experienced in two different services. You can imagine one service with just a few people and they are kneeling spread around a large building. Now imagine another community where the people are all standing close together, and they are using the same words, and they are singing them. One is about being conscious of personal sinfulness – the other, with exactly the same words, is about a sense of community and maybe is experienced more as an acknowledgement of the communal
responsibility we all share for evil in the world.

Many of us get so caught up in thinking that changing the words is what will change the liturgy. But I’m emphasising that most of liturgy isn’t the words at all.

He goes on to describe how we treat liturgy like a foreign language, and we fail to progress to fluency. If it is foreign to us, we rely on the phrase book, struggle to produce a chain of awkward syllables, that, when they manage to get the message across, we feel are adequate. Perhaps one of the most valuable, simple liturgical education I received was a list of the prayers I have to learn off by heart. It is a cornerstone of catholic liturgical formation, and sounds oh-so trad, and yet it can lead to a deep internalising and naturalising of basic elements of liturgy.

I disagree with some things that Bosco Peters says, of course. Liturgical debate can be so factious that we often end up disagreeing with ourselves! I would point out that the concept of register in language has great validity to our discussion: liturgy need not model the register of everyday social interaction, and, perhaps, should not.

One thing that I take away from this talk is Bosco Peters’s insistence on uncluttered liturgy and the use of silence before the collect. These are things I know and do, but his description of the “deep silent prayer” before the collect, reminded me of this important dimension. I all too often consider how long I can hold the silence, and not how deep we can take it. Perhaps it takes little more than a good bidding to pray deeply, while modelling to our fellow worshippers one who takes this opportunity for deep prayer. As he says, “There’s the basic framework for gathering: greeting; singing; deep silent prayer”.

Watch Bosco Peters’s Some Thoughts on Liturgy

I am inspired; thank you. This article, thus, kicks off a series off liturgy bits.