You’re reading something churchy and all of a sudden there’s a plus sign on the page. What does that mean? Typically it’s one of three things.
#1 Make the sign of the cross on yourself.
In Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and high-church Anglican tradition, making the sign of the cross is a common gesture in the course of prayer and worship. Most often, one crosses oneself when the priest is pronouncing a blessing or absolution, or when the person praying says the triune name of God: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The opening acclamation of the modern communion service is typically said with the sign of the cross, as is the beginning of the Gospel Canticles (the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc dimittis). If you’re a regular worshiper in a high-church context, you may be able to identify more points in the liturgy where people do this.
In certain liturgical texts, though not any official Prayer Books, a plus sign or cross is placed alongside or amidst the words to indicate when the worshiper should cross him-or-herself.
#2 The celebrant makes the sign of the cross over something.
During the celebration of a sacrament or sacramental rite, it was traditional for the priest or bishop to make the sign of the cross over the object being blessed or consecrated. We saw an example of this last week in the 1549 Prayer Book’s eucharistic canon. When holy water or oils are being blessed, it is customary for the celebrant to make the sign of the cross over those elements also.
I’ve seen occasions wherein people cross themselves while the celebrant makes the sign of the cross over the object(s) being blessed, and it’s frankly a bit comical. There the bishop is, consecrating oil to be used in the anointing of the sick and whatnot, and there’s half the congregation crossing themselves at the same time! The reader has to be aware of whether the + is meant for the congregation or for just the celebrant. Usually context is perfectly clear. If nothing else, this is a reminder that one must always keep one’s brain engaged in the liturgy. “What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15).
#3 The priest or bishop is conveying a blessing in writing.
When writing a letter (or email, today) a priest or bishop may sign off with a blessing to his recipients by marking a + or † after his name if he’s a priest or before his name if he’s a bishop. As deacons do not pronounce blessings, they do not sign their name in this manner.
This is by far the most misunderstood use of the sign today. It’s frequently used as a name marker in internet communication:
I was talking with +William and James\ about the conduct of a member of our vestry, and would like your input.
The only correct use of the sign is in the signature. Father Fred and Bishop William should just be spelled out; the plus sign is not supposed to be a shorthand for ordination status. Occasionally people have even used the \ to denote a Deacon, such as Deacon James in this fictitious example. Yeah it’s kind of cute, imitating the slant of a deacon’s stole, but it’s also incorrect style. The plus sign or cross with someone’s name in correspondence is meant to be a conferral or wish of blessing on the part of the bishop or priest writing the correspondence. Hence, Father Lionel’s name is the only correct appearance of the + in the example above.