Learning to sing or chant mass parts

I have always served a small church. And for all but one year of my pastoral ministry I have doubled as the musician, which is how I actually began my service for Grace Anglican Church. As a result (by necessity) the selection of music has been part and parcel of liturgical planning. This is sometimes a fair bit of extra work for me, but also can be pretty rewarding for all of us in that the songs we sing usually tie closely with the Scriptures and prayers of the day. In fact, I’ve even started working on a booklet to collect the “best practices” I’ve developed (and learned from others) which will be available for sale sometime in the coming months.

One thing which is common in many Anglican (and Episcopalian) churches which we’ve only dabbled in, however, is the singing or chanting of mass parts. “Mass parts” is a phrase that refers to the parts of the mass, or Communion service, that are traditionally sung or chanted by a choir and/or the congregation. Traditionally there are quite a few of these, but the main ones are:

  1. the Kyrie
  2. the Gloria in excelsis
  3. the Sanctus
  4. the Agnus Dei

In the classical Prayer Book tradition, there is no Kyrie but instead the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) which could have chanted/sung responses, and the Gloria is placed near the end of the liturgy instead of near the beginning. And most of the old Prayer Books had no place for the Agnus Dei, either, come to think of it. But contemporary Prayer Books (and contemporized versions of the classical Prayer Books) restore all four of these to the liturgy one way or another. Every Anglican hymnal these days worth its salt has at least one (if not a handful) of different musical settings for these parts of the liturgy.

The main reason my church never got into these is because we used the 1940 hymnal for years, and then switched to the 2017 hymnal. The former only has the traditional-language texts for the liturgy and the latter has only one setting for the contemporary language that we use 96% of the year. When we had a different music minister for a little while, he brought in a contemporary Gloria and Sanctus, which we appreciated, but I was not able to keep them up when he was gone. In fact, after his departure I quickly became a hymnal-only musician, no longer having the energy to learn and teach contemporary-style worship songs. The demographics of our congregation matched this preference anyway, so it was not an issue one way or the other.

But this past year, coming out of COVID-tide, I’ve started taking these mass parts seriously. It was time to start singing or chanting these parts of the liturgy again. I started at the Easter Vigil this year, introducing the Gloria in excelsis Deo. The contemporary-language set in our new hymnal is the New Plainsong set by David Hurd, first copyrighted in 1981 and featured in the 1980 Episcopal hymnal. It’s not an especially ground-breaking new and exciting set of music, nor is it a re-make of one of the old classics, but it is stately and singable. Since Easter, we’ve sung that Gloria on the major Sundays of the year, but not every Sunday… yet.

Shortly thereafter I introduced the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy), which went over pretty well. We’ve been singing it ever since.

And now that we’re moving our worship indoors for the season I’m about to introduce the Agnus Dei which is nicely similar in sound and contour to the others. After about a month to get used to that, I’ll add the sung Kyrie (just threefold, not ninefold), and then we’ll have all four together for a solemn few Sundays before Advent.

In Advent it is traditional to omit the Gloria, so we will not sing or say it at all for those four weeks until it returns at Christmas. From there I will be free to use or omit some or all of these sung parts to emphasize the tone of the church calendar. We can sing everything on the most celebratory Sundays and other feast days, sing some of them on more ‘normal’ Sundays, or simply just speak them at penitential times. The solemnity of the liturgy style can become a tool in the celebration of the Gospel from week to week, and season to season.

As I was planning this, though, and preparing to type this up, I could just hear in my head the anti-traditionalists, as the ACNA is sometimes a bit infamous for, asking the question “and how will this help the mission of your church and its growth?” To which I will confidently reply that it will neither help nor hinder the missional character of Grace Anglican Church… at least directly. Instead, it will help teach us to worship with reverence, and perhaps to respect the Lord just that little bit more. And, with its periodic use and omission to accentuate the gospel that we proclaim over the course of the year, it may just help people grasp that gospel more nearly to their hearts. In which case, I dare say, we may become a people more apt for the missio Dei.

The Orchestral Feast of the Prayer Book Liturgy

One of the more baffling and frustrating things I find in common discourse regarding the nature of Anglicanism, and more particularly our way of worship, is the identification of our liturgy as a distinctly “catholic” expression of spirituality. This is true one sense – it is a heritage that we have happily received from the wider family of Western liturgies. But it is equally true that our beloved Prayer Book liturgy is very much a Protestant treasure also. One need not be a high churchman or an Anglo-Catholic to love and defend the Prayer Book way of life. Indeed, our low church or reformed members can be just as fierce defenders of our heritage.

In our own day we need look no further than the recently departed J. I. Packer of blessed memory. This quote of his, for example, captures the respect any (and indeed every) member of the Anglican tradition can have for the Prayer Book:

The Prayer Book Liturgy on the Large Scale

The Prayer Book liturgy, in both its “pattern” and its content, provides a veritable symphony of Scripture. It is filled with intricate lines of biblical theology and thought, it is permeated with a robust spirituality that is both Patristic and Protestant, it is stately, yet simple; English, yet ecumenical; poetic, yet precise. It would admittedly be the height of hubris to claim this or any other liturgy to be utterly perfect. But the great Teachers of the Church have always agreed that the wisdom of those who have come before us are guiding lights in matters of faith’s practice, particularly in worship and liturgy. The formational power of worship, repeated over days and weeks and years, cannot be underappreciated; and the intentionality of a life of worship, rather than attention only to punctilious moments of worship on individual Sundays (as is the mentality of modern evangelicalism), will yield much greater spiritual gains in the long run. The Prayer Book offers us a full symphony that runs not just for “the Sunday service”, but throughout the day, throughout the week, and indeed all year long. No sextet, quartet, chamber ensemble, let along pop song, has the same scope, size, and sound of a full orchestra.

The music analogy is excellent, and speaks well to the beauty and craft of the liturgy, but perhaps another analogy speaks more pertinently to the sustaining power of worship – that of food. The worship of the Lord in Word and Sacrament are literally life-giving to the Christian soul. Liturgy is the meal planning. When a worship service is considered in isolation, only a single meal is being addressed; the Prayer Book prepares not only individual services but the whole meal plan, the full diet, for each day, week, and season of the year. A healthy diet needs to take the bigger picture into account, after all, one can’t usefully prepare a single meal or snack without accounting for what has been eaten already and when & what the people will eat next. Too many cheese sticks will complicate digestion. Not enough liquids will dehydrate the body. Junk food staves off starvation, but doesn’t contribute to bodily health in the long run, but rather, kills.

The Prayer Book is not unique in that it provides for the full orchestra or plans the long-term food plan; all liturgical traditions before it did so, and these were not inventions of medieval Christians but date back to Christ and the Apostles attending the Temple and the synagogue, which in turn dates back to various stages of Old Testament history. Obviously the Old Covenant prayers had to be “updated” in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of the world, but the continuity of worship from B.C. to A.D. is remarkable.

The Prayer Book, is, however, unique in that it provides all this in one single volume. Over the course of time, liturgical traditions (especially in the West) grew more and more elaborate. As one reads in the Preface to the first Prayer Book, “many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.” Liturgy had become over-specialized, elitist, the provenance of priests and monks, the laity reduced to mere spectators most of the time. The gem of Anglicanism has been to provide the essential material of our historic liturgical tradition in a single book that can be used (albeit with some practice and guidance) by anyone who can read.

Thus the Prayer Book is a vital tool not only for the work of the priests and other ministers, but for everyone in the pews, as it protects the laity from the clergy. Instead of being subject to the whims of individual ministers, who might pray as they wish and provide no guarantee of orthodoxy apart from personal trust, the Anglican with a Prayer Book is assured that no matter what church or chapel one might visit, the worship of God will be sound, no matter how well- or ill-disposed the minister might happen to be.

The Prayer Book Liturgy on the Small Scale

It has become something of a popular mentality since the 20th century to pay more attention to the shape, contour, or outline of a worship service than to its specific ingredients, contents, and phraseology. It is true, as our Articles of Religion confess, that rites and ceremonies need not be everywhere identical. Language changes over time and varies across distances and cultures. The Prayer Book, especially the 1662 Book which is effectively the mother of all other Prayer Books since, is not a golden tablet received from the hand of God himself to be used unchanged and unvaried for all time, but it is the gold standard by which we measure our changes and variances over time. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it is a Book that we understand to be reliable, having fed and nourished one local national church into a global communion of tens of millions.

Thus it is important that we appeal not only to the types of worship services in the Prayer Book, or the ideas of the Prayer Book services, or their shapes or outlines, but also the specific contents thereof. A long-term meal plan must use specific ingredients to make its meals; a symphony orchestra must appoint specific notes to played by specific instruments at specific times. What we pray is an essential part of how we pray.

Many volumes of books could be (and have been) filled to comment on the truth and beauty found within the Prayer Book’s pages; this essay can only address a few brief examples and perhaps point beyond itself for further reference. Let us consider how we confess our sins, how we confess our faith, how we approach the Communion table, and how we commend our prayers unto God.

Confession of Sin

The Prayer Book tradition has two different prayers of confession, which modern practice had sometimes simplified and sometimes diversified.

In the Daily Office, the minister prepares the way for confession with Scripture and exhortation, providing a compelling biblical case for the practice of confessing our sins especially “when we assemble and meet together.” In this confession we not only offer a functional admission of guilt and wish for forgiveness, but we use sober and uncompromising biblical language to express it with clarity and sincerity. “We have erred and strayed from [God’s] ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against [God’s] holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Here we express general ways in which we have sinned (by commission or by omission) and detail the means in the language of straying, following other ourselves, and offending against the Law. This culminates with the admission that “there is no health in us,” – that on our own we are dead or dying, unless or until God’s grace changes that. Our plea for mercy and forgiveness follows, with the hope that we might “hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life” to God’s glory.

At the Communion service we “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed.” Or, in more modern terms, we “acknowledge and lament our many sins and offenses, which we have committed“. We further acknowledge our sins manifest in thought, word, and deed, cutting deep into our souls, and we acknowledge these sins provoke God’s wrath, or righteous anger, against us. For this we are deeply and heartily sorry, and we confess that our sins are an intolerable burden, more than we can bear, already hinting at the solution in Christ who could and did bear our sins on the Cross. We offer a three-fold plea for mercy which is followed by a prayer for such forgiveness that we may evermore serve him in newness of life to the honour and glory of God’s name.

These prayers are thorough, biblically rich, personal, and far more honest than we otherwise would be on our own. They express the depth of our sinfulness and proclaim the Gospel of salvation – especially when followed by the minister’s words of Absolution and (in the Communion) the Comfortable Words from four New Testament passages.

Contrast this with the pithy confessions of modern liturgies and the loss is clear.

Lord God, we have sinned against you; we have done evil in your sight. We are sorry and repent. Have mercy on us according to your love. Wash away our wrongdoing and cleanse us from our sin. Renew a right spirit within us and restore us to the joy of your salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Common Prayer (2000, UK), page 31

If you look at the shape or contour, you will see that the outline of the prayer is basically the same. But the substantial content is massively reduced – we say we are sorry but we don’t express we are sorry. It is like playing an excerpt of a grand symphony on a plastic recorder – it sounds the same functionally but carries little of its gravity. Thus even though the worshiper here is speaking truth, there is far less impetus take that truth into the depths of one’s heart.

The American prayer of confession from 1979 is a little longer, but ultimately suffers from the same problem:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Book of Common Payer (1979, USA), page 79

There is more room to “feel” the truth of penitence here than in the previous example, but there’s still more “tell” than “show.” The grave wickedness of sin is not mentioned, the standards of God’s law or holiness are not put upon our lips. True confession of sin, or contrition (to use the language of Psalm 51 and Isaiah 57, and the Church’s traditional discourse ever since) must be heartfelt. Short and simple confessions like these run the risk of a rubber-stamped contractual obligation – “I’m supposed to say I’m sorry before I’m allowed in.”

Confession of Faith

Something that is popular in some modern liturgies is to provide fresh new confessions of faith to use in the course of worship. Take, for example, this Affirmation of Faith:

Let us declare our faith in God.

We believe in God the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.
We believe in God the Son, who lives in our hearts through faith, and fills us with his love.
We believe in God the Holy Spirit, who strengthens us with power from on high.
We believe in one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Common Worship (2000, UK), page 148

This is an authorized “Affirmation of Faith” that may be used in place of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds. It is noted to be drawn from Ephesians 3, and in that sense it is a lovely confession of faith. BUT, of course, it is incredibly limited in its value as a Creed. Gone is the name of Jesus, let alone his death and resurrection. Gone is the forgiveness of sins, holy baptism, the creation of the universe, the church. For a private devotion this “creed” can be a beautiful reflection on Ephesians 3, but a real Creed it is not.

Instead, in the liturgical tradition we have always used Creeds that have been accepted across the global church with almost perfect unanimity. There were complications with the Nicene Creed in a few small quarters, and the Athanasian Creed is not used in the East, but as far as our family of liturgical practice is concerned we have received three Creeds: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian. At the Communion, we recite the Nicene Creed, in the Daily prayers we recite the Apostles’, and on special occasions the Athanasian Creed makes an appearance. Again, this is not a “catholic” versus “protestant” thing; my Reformed colleagues outside of the Anglican tradition also argue that the Apostles’ Creed is inferior to the Nicene Creed when it comes to parsing out the full divinity and humanity of Christ. And the Athanasian Creed remains the most useful resource in all of Western Christianity for explicating the doctrine of the Trinity. When it comes to rehearsing the basic articles of our faith, there is no better place to turn than these three creeds.

Furthermore, these are not ingredients in isolation. In both the Daily Office and the Communion service, we recite a Creed soon after the Scripture readings. The Creed therefore serves not only as a summary of our faith but also a summary of biblical teachings. Whether is is a sermon (as at the Communion) or not (as in the traditional Daily Office), the Creed still stands as at least a brief teaching to follow up on our hearing of the sacred Scriptures.

Approaching the Communion Table

One of the most-beloved specific prayers of the Prayer Book tradition is entitled the Prayer of Humble Access. Its precise location in the Communion service has shifted from one Prayer Book to another, and there is merit to discussing its precise role in those different places. But in all cases, it serves as a preparatory prayer, a voice of humility and devotion before receiving Holy Communion. here it is in traditional and modern language forms:

We do not presume to come to this thy/your Table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy/your manifold/abundant and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy/your Table.
But thou/you art/are the same Lord, whose property/character is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy/your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body,
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Modern liturgies often remove this prayer entirely. Some forms axe the two penultimate lines (“that our sinful bodies…” and “and our souls washed…”). Some offer alternative prayers:

Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared; we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table. But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation, and share your bread with sinner. So cleanse and feed us with the body and blood of your Son, that he may live in us and we in him; and that we, with the whole company of Christ, may sit and eat in your kingdom. Amen.

Common Worship (2000, UK), page 181

As with the modern confession prayers, this alternative follows the same “shape” as the original, but it lacks much. Most notably, this example has no language of cleansing. It sets up our unworthiness truthfully and God’s gracious invitation is biblical, but God does not simply share his bread with sinner, but rather he transforms us through this bread and cup into people who are cleaned and washed so that we may live in him forever.

There is a lot going on in the celebration of Holy Communion, and the Prayer of Humble Access is one of the most “personal” moments in the liturgy, whether it’s read only by the minister (traditionally) or by the whole congregation with him (in some modern forms). We have already heard God’s Word, we have already confession our sins and heard words of absolution and comfort; the Prayer of Humble Access is where each one of us recognizes the ongoing nature of our unworthiness and cleansing-in-Christ that happens before, during, and after the eucharistic feast of which we are about to partake. To confuse this prayer with the Confession of sin, or to remove it utterly, would be a great loss to the richness and power of the liturgy.

Commending our Prayers to God

It is perhaps one of the most arrogant things in popular evangelicalism today that we presume upon God as if he is obligated to hear us and answer our prayers. It is true that we have a gracious God who has dwelt among us sinners precisely to open the way to eternal life to any sinner who repents and turns to him, but that does not translate to an attitude to flippant presumption on our part. We do not invite God’s Spirit among us when we begin to worship, nor do we offer him prayer without humbly beseeching him to hear us. The Litany, in its extended list of supplications, is a prime example of us principle in action, but perhaps the best single-prayer summary of this is the Prayer of Saint John Chrysostom, found at the end of the Daily Office. As the name implies, it has a fair bit of history before the advent of the Prayer Book, but its role in our liturgy is significant.

There we acknowledge of our prayers that God has “given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto Him, and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in His Name, He will grant their requests“. This is, in one sense, an affirmation that the liturgy – what we’ve been praying so far – is acceptable to God (cf. Psalm 19:14 and Psalm 69:13, Proverbs 10:32 and 15:8), and that we can be confident in the content of the liturgy. It is also, of course, a more personable reassurance that God is with his people. The prayer then continues with us asking God to “fulfill now the desires and petitions of His servants” So we not only express humble confidence that God has listened to our prayers, we ask that he would answer them. God has no obligation to us apart from his own promises – we have no power over him, there is no magic force in true faith.

So we ask him to hear and answer our prayers, and even that we do humbly: “as may be best for us [or most expedient for them], granting us in this world knowledge of thy/your truth, and in the world to come life everlasting.” God knows best how to answer our prayers, whatever is best or most expedient for our true needs. And, whatever the specifics of our prayers, there is always an underlying intention in our worship to gain knowledge of God’s truth and to attain to everlasting life. These intentions are mirrored in the Blessing at the end of the Communion service – that the peace of God which passes all understanding would keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and that his blessing would be among us and remain with us forever.

Thus even our “meta-prayers”, our prayers about prayer, are instructive to the worshiper and humbly worshipful before the Lord.

World without end

Our liturgy, our Prayer Book, is indeed a symphony and feast that stretches from winter to summer to winter again; from birth to death, from baptism to last rites; from the dead souls at the Gates of Hell to the regenerated, justified, and sanctified soul stepping through the Gates of Heaven. Could there be another symphony written, as elegant and effective, as beautiful and true, as ours? Certainly it could. The wealth of liturgical history is ample evidence of this – the Liturgies of Saint James and Saint Chrysostom have been observed for over a millennium in the East, the West has enjoyed the Mozaribic Rite, the Sarum, Gallican, and Roman Rites, various monastic institutions such as the Benedictines and the Dominicans have developed their own forms of the same liturgy… the variety is beautiful, and periodic moments of cross-pollination have been very enriching for the church at large.

But each of these liturgical traditions are the work of centuries, crafted carefully, slowly, reverently, and lovingly, over many generations. The 1662 Prayer Book itself represents the work of many individuals spanning over a century beginning with one Archbishop’s consolidation of the Sarum Use of the Western liturgical tradition. And since 1662 standard practices have gradually shifted and developed; the liturgy is living and active, a sharp sword in its own right, dividing the demons of ambition and personal preference in public worship, much like how the spiritual sword of sacred Scriptures divides the joints and marrow of our souls to uncover our underlying sinful nature in all realms of life. Thus it is foolhardy and dangerous to presume that we can, in one fell swoop, overthrow and replace a liturgy as developed as our heritage has delivered to us. Alternative services, variations or order and wording, have their places on the fringe of experimentation and the occasional what-if’s of Christian worship, but to replace our Prayer Book history wholesale with something new or different is to cast ourselves adrift in the chaotic ocean of the world a new untested ship. It may deliver some to their desired port of rest, but if the new Titanic has sunk en route one can hardly say the massive loss was worth it.

As my province’s Prayer Book admits in its Preface, “The Book of Common Prayer (1979) in the United States and various Prayer Books that appeared in Anglican Provinces from South America to Kenya to South East Asia to New Zealand were often more revolutionary than evolutionary in character. Eucharistic prayers in particular were influenced by the re-discovery of patristic texts unknown at the Reformation, and often bore little resemblance to what had for centuries been the Anglican norm. Baptismal theology, especially in North America, was affected by radical revisions to the received Christian understanding, and came perilously close to proclaiming a gospel of individual affirmation rather than of personal transformation and sanctification.” In the wake of such wide-ranging revisions and changes, it is all the more difficult (yet necessary) that we take steps to rediscover and reclaim our rightful heritage, which nurtured our forebears for centuries and led to the great and global growth of our tradition which many since the 20th century have gone onto squander. We must labor to further work of true reform and restoration, seeking the historic confines of what is authentically the Christian Faith and the Anglican patrimony, to restore their fullness and beauty.

Vigil fast today!

In the 1662 prayer book there are several fasts appointed on the eve, or vigil, or day before several of the holy days in the church year. Curiously, not all of the holy days in that prayer book get their own fast day beforehand; perhaps about 75% do and the rest do not.

Today is one such vigil fast, preparing us for the feast of the nativity of Saint John the Baptist tomorrow! This pairing of fasts and feasts is both an ancient and a sound practice:

Here, the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, points out that grief and joy are two states of heart and mind which excellently summarize human life, and in her fast and feast days the church uses grief and joy to help Christians grow in virtue and holiness.

So if you are not normally one who observes days of fasting consider adopting the prayer book tradition of vigil fasts today!

On Prayers for the Departed

“Why would you pray for the dead? They’re already with Jesus!”

Such is the common well-meaning retort from most Protestants today when they hear us pray for the faithful departed. This is an ancient practice of the Church, but it seems that the Romans have cornered the market when it comes to explanation. They, famously, believe in Purgatory, wherein the souls of ordinary Christians are purged of their lifetime of sin before beholding the fullness of the Beatific Vision, or (more crassly), going to heaven. While this doctrine could be interpreted in a benign fashion – simply the clearing of our spiritual eyes after a life of sin and darkness – it has typically been presented in very penitential terms: the soul is tortured, exposed to the pains of hell for a period of time depending upon how much sin went unconfessed, lightened by indulgences and prayers and masses on their behalf.

Anglican prayers for the departed has no place for that.

Actually, some say that Anglicans have no place for any prayers for the departed. We had some in the first Prayer Book, and got rid of them a few years later, only to see the extreme Anglo-Catholic wing bring them back in the 20th century and the liberals tolerating it under the guise of “tradition.” But this explanation is not strictly true. The Prayer Books have always included prayer for the departed.

If we look at what our reformed liturgy, 1549 to the present, actually says, we will find that our practice is quite far from Roman superstition.

The Prayers of the People in the 1549 Prayer Book’s Communion liturgy prayed for

all other thy servants, which are departed hence from us, with the sign of faith, and now do rest in the sleep of peace: Grant unto them, we beseech thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, and that, at the day of the general resurrection, we and all they which be of the mystical body of thy Son, may altogether be set on his right hand, and hear that his most joyful voice: ‘Come unto me, O ye that be blessed of my Father, and possess the Kingdom, which is prepared for you, from the beginning of the world’.

This was dropped from subsequent Prayer Books until the American book of 1928, which prayed

for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.

In between, the 1662 Prayer Book contained a similar, if more subtle, prayer for the departed in the penultimate prayer of the Burial rite:

Almighty God… we give thee hearty thanks, for that it hath pleased thee to deliver this our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world; beseeching thee that it may please thee, of thy gracious goodness, shortly to accomplish the number of thine elect, and to hasten thy kingdom; that we, with all those that are departed in the true faith of thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in thy eternal and everlasting glory

The final Collect in the 1662 Burial service reuses some of the material from the 1549 Prayer Book quoted above, acknowledging the future consummation of the Christian hope of resurrection unto eternal life.  This is the common acknowledgement throughout the Prayer Book tradition – that God’s will, or plan, for his people has not yet reached its conclusion.  We pray for the departed no longer with the fear or urgency of late medieval piety, which errantly believed in the departed souls’ need to move through Purgatory, but instead with personal affection and biblical hope that all is not as it yet should be.

The Prayers of the People in the 2019 Prayer Book summarize it this way:

We remember before you all your servants who have departed this life in your faith and fear, that your will for them may be fulfilled

The 2019 Litany offers a more specific explanation of this will:

To grant to all the faithful departed eternal life and peace, We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.

Thus the prayers for the departed in the Prayer Book tradition is drawn from biblical doctrine rather than from later superstitions.

Finishing Compline

Although in the classical Anglican Prayer Books the Nunc Dimittis is resident in Evening Prayer, its place in the spirituality of liturgical time most fully comes into its own here in Compline.  The language of “let your servant depart in peace” is an integral part of this office’s devotional emphases on sleep as an image of death, and the light of Christ transforming both the worshiper and the world.  For further notes, see Evening Prayer.

This Canticle has been a part of the service of Compline since at least the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the antiphon is also of ancient use in the Church.  The positioning has shifted in different breviaries – some before the Prayers (such as the Sarum) and some after the Prayers (such as in modern Prayer Books and the Roman Rite).  Precise translation of the antiphon into English varies among different sources; ours retains the wording of the 1979 Prayer Book.

The addition of three Alleluias during Eastertide is also a pre-Reformation tradition, marking one of the heightened features of praise during that festal season.

The call and response, Benedicamus in Latin, is a common closure for many offices.

Retained from the 1979 Prayer Book, the final benediction said by the officiant is drawn from the Roman Rite.

The almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
bless us and keep us, this night and evermore. Amen.

In the monastic setting where most of the daily office tradition was developed, these prayers would be the worshipers’ last words before going (back) to sleep. The benediction is not a formal blessing in the sense of a priest’s role, and thus is proper for an officiant of any order to say.  It draws from part of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24) but is made explicitly Trinitarian and occasioned for Compline in the adding of “this night and evermore.”  Although it is a traditional benediction for this office, it is an appropriate final bedtime prayer to use in family settings and other late-evening occasions.

Fasting has a Purpose

Fasting is perhaps the most prominent and well-known feature of the season of Lent, even though many people today don’t practice it. One of the issues that presents itself to people seems to be that fasting is often misunderstood. Since today is Friday, a fast day, let’s take a look at a few examples of what fasting isn’t, and what it actually is.

Fasting is not an end unto itself

Simply “giving something up for Lent” or refraining from eating certain foods at certain times does not make a person more holy. All foods were created for our enjoyment, provided we give thanks to God. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). Fasting, however, is a powerful tool in the toolbox of spiritual disciplines if used rightly. Fasting is a discipline that we can celebrate and use in conjunction with prayer and alms-giving. You can read more about that connection in Isaiah 58 and in part of this short article.

Fasting is not abstinence

It is not always clear in the Bible, but there is a difference between fasting and abstinence. Fasting is a reduction, abstinence is an elimination. When Moses, Jesus, or others fasted for 40 days, it does not typically mean that they ate or drank nothing at all – the human body can survive without food that long if properly prepared, but certainly not without water. One might appeal to divine providence in certain cases, but to belabor that point would be to miss the spiritual point: the discipline of fasting before special occasions or for special intercessory or penitential purposes is valuable to every believer. To fast is to reduce the amount or luxury of a thing. The biggest traditional example of this is to cut meat out of the diet because eating meat was associated with feasting, celebration, even worship. If you want some tips on what fasting might look like in today’s world, you can check out this article.

Fasting is not self-harm

Again, fasting is a spiritual discipline. It is geared toward exercising self-denial such that your spiritual attentions are provoked and improved in some way. Thus, fasting in such a way that your health suffers is not a true fast. The goal is redirect your passions, not make yourself sick. This is not about self-punishment, but self-control. This is why, traditionally, the young, the old, the sick, and pregnant women have been exempt from rules of fasting. It’s not that we’re going easy on “the weak”, but that people must not be encouraged to harm themselves. If you’re on medication, have dietary issues, or other food-related situation, fasting from food is something that you should not pursue without pastoral and medical advice.

Fasting is not just about food

Last of all, there are many other things that can be reduced or eliminated by way of the spiritual discipline of fasting. Social media, television, other activities of leisure or entertainment, are all excellent examples of things that can profitably be reduced or set aside for the sake of increased spiritual pursuits. Don’t get hung up on “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent!” when there are so many other possibilities out there. Look to where your habits and desires are found, and explore ways to curb and control those habits and desires – that is where you truly learn self-control.

Faithfully Stay the Course

February 24th is Saint Matthias Day in the traditional liturgical calendar. Some churches and provinces have moved him over to May 14, closer to Ascension Day and Pentecost, where his story in Acts 1 fits right in from a biblical-narrative perspective. But we’ve still got him in late February, usually in Lent. It’s always nice to have a feast day in Lent – we get a little break from the penitential tone! – but there’s also something appropriate about observing this Saint during Lent: Matthias is only one of the twelve Apostles because he was selected to replace Judas, the traitor.

There are two lessons that I’d like to draw from this liturgical observance (and from Acts 1:12-26).

  1. Apostolic authority is a critical point for the unity of the Church.
  2. Every Christian must faithfully stay the course of the faith.

On the point of apostolic authority, this is something I like to try to mention during Ascensiontide but often don’t have time – (there is a lot of fantastic theology and lessons about Jesus and his ministry to us to tease out in that brief mini-season, and I seldom have opportunity to write or preach about ecclesiology then) – the eleven considered it vitally important that they replace Judas and restore their number to twelve apostles. Jesus had just told them that while it was not for them to know “the times or seasons” concerning the Kingdom of God, but that they would “receive power” when the Holy Spirit would descend upon them. And this wasn’t entirely in the future; Jesus had already “breathed on them the Holy Spirit” giving them authority to forgive and retain sins. In that authority they’d already been entrusted with, they took it upon them to select and ordain a new twelfth man – Matthias. St. Peter even quotes Psalm 109 to acknowledge the necessity of this act: “Let another take his office.” And in the Greek, the word translated “office” is the source for the word “episcopate” – the office of an overseer, or bishop.

They knew that when the Holy Spirit would descend upon the whole church (on the day of Pentecost) the leadership had to be ready. Ancient Israel was founded with Twelve Tribes, and the New Israel was to be re-founded with Twelve Apostles – this was a very self-conscious and -aware decision, they knew the significance of what they were doing.

And, although the nature of the authority of those first Apostles is different from the authority that has been passed down among the Bishops ever since, the apostolic role of the bishops assembled is still critical for the church today. On their own, bishops might be little more than super-priests, pastors of megachurches, or of multi-site churches. That’s where cynicism from tired or burned church-goers (or skepticism from presbyterians and congregationalists) thrives. The real power, or authority, of the bishop is not so much in the individual as in the episcopacy as an institution and a group. One bishop can go astray about as easily as one priest or pastor, honestly. But a group, or college, of bishops, is another matter. Yes, a group can be corrupted too – we consider the entire Roman Church to be in error for example. But a church is at its best when its bishops speak together with one voice, in accord with the Church global and temporal.

An example of this was just demonstrated last month when the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America concluded a year of deliberations concerning the issues of ministering to people with same-sex attraction. It’s one of the greatest ministry challenges of our time, and must be met with careful biblical attention and loving attention to the situation of people today. Their excellent statement can be read online here.

But of course, there are always people who want to add their own nuances, pick at words, and even twist or re-cast what has been said. No small online furor has followed, muddying the waters and making some people wonder what the exodus from the Episcopal Church was all about if we’re just going to re-tread the same ground all over again. One of the angles of corrective response is an article in which a respected Anglican examines for us the nature of the teaching authority of bishops as a unified body. I commend that reading to you also!

But this also leads us to the second point about the election of Matthias to be the new 12th Apostle – he was “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us“. And, critically unlike Judas Iscariot, Matthias faithfully stayed the course. He did not falter from the way of Christ; he remained constant like the other eleven.

Other Scriptures read on this day attest to this also: Psalm 15 asks the hard-yet-important question of who can dwell on God’s holy hill; Philippians 3 gives us the example of “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus“. Simply put, there is a way that leads to life, and a way that leads to death. Judas chose the latter for himself; we must choose the former. Yes, salvation is not simply about what you choose – the real work of salvation is Jesus’ death on the Cross for the sins of the world, but if you reject his sacrifice on your behalf then you’ll have to find another way to pay for your sins… and there isn’t one.

The story of St. Matthias taking Judas’ office, or episcopacy, is a sobering reminder. Please, faithfully stay the course of the faith. In Christ alone is salvation wrought, and only his Body (the Church) offers him to us.

Liturgical care for the dying

It goes without saying that what we say to people as their time of death approaches is very important. With limited time left for them to live, we find the need to cut to the chase, say what needs to be said, make amends, confess the truth, and so forth, bubbles up to the surface. Sometimes this can be emotional and difficult, and this applies to the pastoral relationship as well. How does a clergyman minister to someone who is dying?

Various pastoral manuals have always been around to help parish priests care for the flock at time of death, but only in modern times have Prayer Books started including actual rites for such occasions. The rite provided in our 2019 Prayer Book is well-crafted to be a few minutes long, one minute long, or just a few seconds, depending upon the situation’s need. When there is ample time to prepare and space for family members to gather, it can be a strangely beautiful time of worship. Other times it will be a simpler matter: the priest visiting the barely-conscious patient in a hospital bed – time for interaction is just about over and the Last Prayers and Commendations simply need to be given (still heartily and clearly). Or there might be an emergency or other crisis, the priest having only seconds to speak before the chance is lost. This rite provides all you need for any of those situations.

Of course, all that careful liturgical crafting will go to waste if the minister, in a pinch, doesn’t know what’s in this rite and how to implement it when put on the spot. So here is the Saint Aelfric Customary’s explanation of the Ministry to the Dying and how to put the page into practice.

Anointing the Sick with Oil

The Customary has been updated with guidance for the Ministry to the Sick!

Those already familiar with modern Prayer Books will find here a very familiar rite; those used to classical Prayer Books may be surprised to find provision for the anointing of the sick with holy oil. This is an ancient practice, stemming all the way back the New Testament (James 5:13-16).

You can read the full entry here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-ministry-to-the-sick/

About Private Confession

Private confession of sin to a priest is a subject of some controversy among Anglicans. Some argue that it has no place in our tradition whatsoever, while others advocate it as a good and proper practice worthy of normalization. A look at the historical Prayer Books reveals something in between: this practice was allowed, but not normal. Two references to private confession stand in the old Prayer Books:

  1. The Communion of the Sick provide an absolution for the Priest to say if the sick person wants to make a confession to him.
  2. The Exhortation at Holy Communion (the one announcing an upcoming celebration of Holy Communion) invites people to make a private confession if their consciences are particularly troubled, “to remove all scruple and doubt” and receive godly counsel.

Thus we find a clear outline of an authentically Anglican approach to private confession: it is a special pastoral ministry whereby a priest can provide more particular spiritual guidance to his flock and bring the benefits and comforts of the regular liturgy to those who are shut up sick at home.

To this end, modern Prayer Books (like our new one) provide an actual form for private confession. In the 2019 Prayer Book, the absolution from the old 1662 Visitation of the Sick is retained for this very purpose! It’s an excellent resource for priestly/pastoral ministry, drawing upon both ancient and specifically-Anglican tradition, in our modern context.

One of the things that people new to the practice often misunderstand is the issue of secrecy. Our Prayer Book notes that “The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken” – no exception is provided. As far as the East is from the West, so far has the Lord put away our sins from us.  That established, it must also be noted that a true confession involves contrition.  The penitent concludes “I am truly sorry” and “I firmly intend amendment of life” and “ask for counsel.” The confessional is no more a place for ‘cheap grace’ than the Holy Table or the pulpit. For more specific guidance on how to use this rite, and how to handle the issues of particular sorts of sins that may be confessed, read the full Customary entry here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-reconciliation-of-a-penitent/