Before the Sunday service starts

Sunday mornings can be very busy times for pastors and other ministers, there can be a lot of preparation involved before the liturgy begins, especially a Communion service, and double-especially a Communion service with any semblance of high church ceremonial – candles to light, vestments to don, ministers to assemble and coordinate. It’s wonderful when everything goes to plan and everyone does their part and the whole result is a dignified and beautiful offering of the people of themselves unto God and a faithful reception of His Word and Sacrament.

But, as Mother Teresa said when her sisters warned her that the work was getting to be too much, the answer to a busy situation is not to pray less, but to pray more. Sure, it’s “inconvenient”, but it’s often what we need. So, straight to the point, what or how should we pray before the Sunday Communion?

There are a number of possibilities.

Some like to gather the ministers together beforehand and offer/prompt spontaneous prayers unscripted.

Some like to use traditional forms of preparation descended from the traditional “Fore-Mass” (prayers before the Introit where the Mass formally begins). There are also traditional prayers for the minister to consider the Gospel in the donning of each vestment, as well as prayers that are written to prepare priests and other servers for the liturgy. There are also some preparatory prayers in the draft ACNA Altar Book; you should check them out if you haven’t yet!

If you want something more middle-of-the-road in terms of churchmanship – you don’t want to troll an Anglo-Catholic agenda, and you don’t want to go all loosey-goosey about it either, how about grab the Prayer Book for a 5 minute block of time sometime before the liturgy starts?

the Great Litany in the Prayer Book (2019) next to my photogenic Bible (left)

Yesterday I grabbed a few minutes to pray the Great Litany before people arrived for Holy Communion. It was a little hectic with my kids running around and I must admit I had to interrupt myself at one point (and not just to take this picture!). Still, it was a moment of stillness for my soul, which would then go on to share the burdens of my parishioners and feel rather more clogged up thereafter. Praying for them, the whole church, and the world, in the words of the Litany prepared myself for ministering to them. It also just plain gave me a chance to worship and pray on my own, which can be something that priests and ministers sometimes struggle with, especially in small congregations where the leadership roles are not as widely shared.

The Litany is a great traditional choice for an Anglican, also, because the original Prayer Book order for Sunday morning expected Morning Prayer, Litany, and Communion all in a row! So bringing some of that back, even if only by yourself (as a clergyman or as a lay person) can only be good and upbuilding for us.

Any other tips or approaches that you like which help you (and/or the ministry team) prepare spiritually for the worship service? Leave a comment!

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.

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 the Collect for Purity

Before the Reformation, this was a vesting prayer said by the celebrant before the Mass began. Archbishop Cranmer moved it to the second prayer of the Communion liturgy (following the Lord’s Prayer) in the Prayer Books.  The celebrant was to pray this kneeling at the Altar Table.  When the Communion liturgy was substantially re-ordered in the 1979 Book, this collect was rendered optional, but was still the second prayer (now following the Acclamation).  The present edition has retained the position of this prayer in the liturgy, returned it to a required piece of the liturgy, but opened it up to be a prayer said also by the congregation rather than only by the minister on their behalf.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid:
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

When reception of Holy Communion was less frequent, greater efforts were taken by the typical church-goer to prepare for its worthy reception.  Special acts of self-examination and other devotions on the holy mysteries of God’s grace toward sinners were standard fare for Christians of many stripes and traditions.  In this age of weekly Communion as the standard practice, the strictness of preparation and the depths of eucharistic piety have waned.  This prayer, when said by the congregation with the celebrant, reclaims an aspect of historic devotion in preparation for the Sacrament.

The Collect for Purity also provides for the worshiper both instruction and a model concerning right preparation for worship in general.  When we come to worship the Lord, we do not invite God’s presence among us, but rather seek his aid in preparing “the thoughts of our hearts” to enter into his.  God is already with us by virtue of his Word and Spirit; it is we who must be invited and aided to love him perfectly and worthily magnify his holy Name.

On the Decalogue

In the classical Prayer Books these commandments were the first words the priest spoke to the congregation in the Communion liturgy (although Communion at that time would almost never be celebrated alone, but typically after Morning Prayer with the Litany). The inclusion of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, in the Prayer Book began in 1552.  After praying the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect for Purity, the priest would stand and turn to the congregation, reading each commandment, and the people responding “Lord, have mercye upon us, and encline our heartes to kepe this lawe.”  Apart from the 1979 Prayer Book, these responses have remained unchanged.

The anomalous change to the responses in 1979’s Rite II to “Amen.  Lord have mercy” expressed godly sorrow but not the full resolution to the amendment of life.  Proposed improvements included the phrase “give us grace to keep this law”, but even this was an ironic misappropriation of the doctrine of grace: we need not only grace or assistance to live holy lives, but our very hearts need to be “inclined” or redirected by the Holy Spirit.

As for the text of the commandments, the first American Prayer Book added the option of reading the Summary of the Law after the Ten Commandments (“Here also what our Lord Jesus Christ saith”), and in 1892 a rubric was added permitting the Decalogue to be skipped entirely, in which case the Kyrie should follow the Summary of the Law.  It was stipulated that the Decalogue should still be read at least once per month.  In 1928, the very text of the commandments was given an option to be shortened, which then became the normative text for the Decalogue in 1979 and the present edition.

Although the Decalogue remains optional in modern liturgies, it is a significant part not only of our history but of the Communion Rite in the Anglican (and broader reformation) tradition.  It is not only the biblical standard which the Summary of the Law only summarizes, but it is one of the three definitive texts of Christian catechesis alongside the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.  It is vital that our tradition uses all three of those texts in the course of regular worship – putting the foundational words of belief (Creed), spirituality (Lord’s Prayer), and ethics (Decalogue) upon the lips and ears of every worshiper.

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.

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.

Considering the Wedding and its Due Preparation

After the theological drift in the past two American Prayer Books, the service of Holy Matrimony in the 2019 Prayer Book is a breath of fresh air, its content rooted in the traditional material of the classical Anglican tradition. The format of the service is very much in the modern style, but language and doctrine it contains are long-awaited returns to historic orthodoxy.

The opening text on BCP 198-199 outline the doctrine of marriage and call for “great care” in the preparation of all candidates for Holy Matrimony. The word “candidate” should be taken seriously: just as in Confirmation and Ordination, those preparing for marriage are merely candidates, and the minister is well within his rights to deny officiating the wedding if the couple is not prepared or ineligible for marriage. The Banns of Marriage are one line of discernment, wherein the congregation is to be given at least three opportunities to offer any “cause, or just impediment” that the wedding should not go through. Furthermore, the minister is expected (and in many dioceses required) to have the couple sign the Declaration of Intention on BCP 200. This, and its accompanying liturgy on BCP 213, is essentially a formalized betrothal ceremony, and serves as the primary “gateway” to the path to marriage. If the couple is unable to sign the Declaration in good conscience they need further instruction and catechesis concerning Christian marriage before they can receive the Church’s blessing. The minister should take this role with grave solemnity, as many believers have slipped through the cracks in recent decades, entering into marriage with (at best) anemic views of biblical marriage.

What follows is but one way of approaching pre-marital counseling, which the minister can adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the couple in question.

“Marriage is two people made one flesh in community bearing fruit for life before God.”

1. “Marriage Is”

  • Examine the Declaration of Intent study its four-fold purpose of marriage
  • Examine Holy Matrimony as an image of Christ & Church
  • Gateway: Sign the Declaration of Intention

2. “Two People”

  • Profile the personalities of the man and the woman with appropriate social and religious tools and measures
  • Consider their schedules, lifestyles, interests, personal spaces
  • Gateway: Make plans for Confirmation if not yet done

3. “Made One Flesh”

  • Consider the unity of the couple, especially their disciplines (spiritual and otherwise)
  • Examine their conflict resolution past and present, and where peace is found
  • Gateway: Have them paraphrase the Wedding Vows for their own understanding

4. “In Community”

  • Consider the community, especially the future in-laws, for this couple, and their relationships
  • Explore their baggage, expectations, history, and wishes about family and friends
  • Gateway: Offer Healing Prayer

5. “Bearing Fruit”

  • Explore the subjects of agape love that sacrifices & spreads, especially with regards to sexuality, family planning, and child-rearing
  • Examine their sexual desires, history, expectations, and ethics
  • Gateway: Offer private Confession & Absolution

6. “For Life”

  • Consider ordinary household plans like finances, spending & saving habits, occupations
  • Explore the subjects of homemaking and domestic duties and expectations
  • Gateway: Have them prepare a budget and list major milestones as a couple for their first year

7. “Before God”

  • Explore spiritual habits shared by the couple and pastoral accountability for the future
  • Consider the religious life of their family-to-be
  • Gateway: Plan the wedding ceremony’s liturgy together

Video: the Holy Days in the Prayer Book

The video series I started a year ago nears its conclusion. Here is a summary of how the Holy Days (commonly, the Major Feast Days) fit into the Christian Calendar.

Subject Index:

  • 00:00 Definition & Major Themes
  • 05:20 Historical Features
  • 10:13 Walk-through in the 2019 Prayer Book
  • 15:36 Daily Office & other features
  • 17:36 The Collect for All Saints’ Day

Links for further reading: