Some ramblings through the Common Worship liturgy with one or two asides.
Rev’d Paul White
This booklet is a compendium of a series of short articles that were published in the Pew News of St Mary’s Hadlow, coming out of covid in 2021.
Those articles were written as a very ‘user-friendly’ introduction both to the Common Worship liturgy used in the church, and as a way of answering any other questions about our worship style as they arose. It was never intended to be comprehensive or academic in style. It has been lightly edited to make more sense in this format.
If it helps anyone draw closer to God through our worship then that is enough.
Why do we have ‘liturgy’ at all?
Every service at St Mary’s has an ‘order of service’, which contains the words of the service. In broad terms, this is the liturgy and it tells us what to say, when to sit and stand, when we sing (hopefully soon) and when we can leave!
Some churches don’t have printed orders of service and appear less ‘liturgical’ but, in my experience, all churches follow their own pattern of worship whether it is on paper, on a screen or only in the habits of those who attend. And having a pattern of worship is good as it ensures that we have order in our worship (1 Cor 14:26) and it maintains a balance between hearing the lessons from the bible, singing God’s praises, praying, sharing communion and the other things we do.
But this is the important thing. The word ‘liturgy’ means ‘work of the people’ and this emphasises the point that what happens in church is never intended to be a performance by the Vicar (or the Choir) which is simply watched or heard by a congregation. Celebrating the liturgy is, first and foremost, a work of all the people present. That is why the congregation has certain words to say (which we will look at later), why we sit and stand at various points and why members of the congregation do things like lead the prayers, read a lesson and serve at the altar. The priest does not perform the liturgy at the people, rather we the people of God work together to celebrate, with the person ordained by the church doing the bits of the liturgy we are ordained to do.
During lockdown I was always keen that our online services should be done on Zoom because this was the best way of ensuring the proper ‘to and fro’ of our liturgy – without that interaction, that call and response, there is always the danger of making our worship performative rather than collaborative. Which is a good word, as that also means ‘working together’, which is what liturgy is all about!
Why do clergy wear strange clothes?
The clerical collar, also known as the ‘dog collar’. There is obviously nothing ancient about wearing a piece of flexible plastic around one’s neck! Before our current plastic collars they were made from cotton (attached to collarless shirts), before that clerics would have worn a simple white cloth tied around the neck and before that one would probably have recognised a priest more by their cassockthen their collar. I tend to wear a black clerical shirt and I quite like the symbolism of the white collar representing the light of Christ shining through the darkness of our fallen nature. However, that is not Gospel! Of course, the main purpose of wearing a clerical collar is to make one recognisable as a priest and it sends the signal that one can be approached in that way. Some priests worry that the collar makes them look unapproachable but, in my experience those ‘big’ conversations of life, death and the meaning of everything only tend to get started when people see the collar and know they can talk to you. Of course, it does put some people off, and I think of it as acting like a magnet, which attracts and repels in equal measure, but at least people know who you are. Because when one puts the collar on there is a feeling each time of not only representing the Church of England but of removing the bushel from the lamp and being a public Christian.
The shirt I have mentioned – I go for a simple black, whereas bishops tend to wear purple, probably because that colour was associated with the nobility in the past, and bishops used to be both wealthy and powerful. That is not usually the case any longer! Some bishops espouse purple and stick with black, notably Rowan Williams, even when he was archbishop. Other clergy, of a less catholic persuasion, may wear a variety of coloured shirts, from blue to grey via African prints (Justin Welby wears a lot of these). The worst I have seen was a shiny jade green worn by a hospital chaplain. That put me right off chaplaincy work.
The cassock. This is the long black garment, which reaches to the floor and with lots of buttons down the front. No, I don’t undo them all each time! Strictly speaking a cassock is not a Eucharistic vestment but was worn by clergy as the ‘top layer’ when going about normal life. In that sense, it is simply a coat or a long jacket. I ought to wear mine more often in daily life because if the collar makes me feel priestly then the cassock amplifies this tenfold! Interestingly I have friends who minister in inner-city areas who wear their cassocks much more than I because it helps them be recognised as religious leaders by, for example, the Muslims around them. Perhaps when the weather cools down again you may see me ‘cassocked-up’ more frequently.
So the collar, shirt and cassock are the everyday base layer for clergy. On top of those go the vestments for worship.
At the risk of stating the obvious it may be worth saying that, because of the huge diversity within the Church of England, not every priest or church will do things the same way or even agree with my interpretations below. Nonetheless, here I stand!
The services which don’t involve celebration of the Holy Communion, e.g. choral evensong, weddings, funerals and baptisms the priest will wear ‘choir dress’. This means wearing a ‘surplice’ over the cassock. The surplice is the knee-length white garment with big sleeves. For a choral evensong then the priest would put their academic hood over the surplice. The academic hood shows which university was attended and which degree the priest has – a simply signifier that one is sufficiently ‘learned’ for the role! On top of the academic hood is worn a black preaching scarf (if one is preaching) which, again, is a signifier that one is authorised to preach in the church. I always try to ensure that the preaching goes on top of the learning, rather than the other way around.
For weddings, funerals and baptisms the academic hood and scarf are replaced by a ‘stole’ in the appropriate colour, which is white for weddings and baptisms and purple for funerals. This is because these services are ‘sacramental’ and the stole signifies that one is a priest who is ordained to take such services. There are several theories about the origins of the stole, which simply means ‘garment’ in Greek. Some say that it came from the Jewish prayer shawl, from Jesus wearing a towel around himself to wash the disciples’ feet or from the scarf of office used by imperial officials in the Roman empire. I have also seen it connected theologically with the ‘yoke of Christ’. (Matthew 11.30). Whatever the historical and theological truth the reality is that the stole is now deeply associated with the role of priest celebrating a sacrament. When I put on and take off the stole I normally kiss the cross in the centre of it and I am always deeply conscious of both the privilege and the responsibility of bearing the yoke of Christ in that way.
Things are a little different when celebrating the Eucharist. Instead of a surplice one would normally wear an ‘alb’ over the cassock. Alb simply means ‘white’ and is a long white garment which completely covers the cassock. This is reminiscent of the long white robe worn at baptism, which reminds us that we are not here primarily by ordination but by baptism. If using an alb then one would also use an ‘amice’ which ties around the neck and covers the clerical collar, which symbolises that this service is not about us personally.
However, for my sins, I currently don’t use either an alb or an amice, instead I use a ‘cassock alb’, which is a combined cassock, alb and amice. The cassock alb is a source of much controversy in certain church circles! As mine starts to reach the end of its lifespan (I have used it since ordination) I shall probably replace it with the ‘proper’ garments.
Over the alb (or cassock alb) goes the stole, in the proper colour for the season. Green for ‘ordinary’ time, Purple for the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent, White for the celebrations of Christmas, Easter and other festivals, Red for Pentecost and martyrs and Rose for Gaudete and Laudate Sundays in Advent and Lent respectively.
On top of everything, finally, goes the chasuble. Again, the colour of this large, top, garment is the colour of the season and this is the Eucharistic vestment par excellence. Whilst the origins of the chasuble are reasonably unremarkable (it was simply an adaptation of outerwear in common use in Roman times) it has become deeply associated with the celebration of the Eucharist and, again, it is always a privilege to vest in it knowing that one is about to celebrate the most central rite of our faith.
Now, you may think, ‘what a load of faff, I don’t believe that Jesus is the least bit bothered what we wear.’ On one level, I understand that and, as I said last week, when we stand before God he is not fooled by our covers or our vestments!
On the other hand it is also clear to me from the bible that God takes our worship seriously. Although we don’t worship in the temple in Jerusalem if you look at the book of Exodus there are numerous chapters going into detail about what priests should wear and how worship should be offered. Whilst we are not bound by those laws, because of Jesus, nonetheless God the Father is still the same and I don’t believe we are called to worship in a chaotic or careless fashion. If the Queen came to visit we would probably dress up in our best gear so when we come before the King of Kings I see no harm in making an effort!
The Gathering (“In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit“)and The Greeting (“Grace, mercy & peace etc.”)
This is not merely a formal way of saying ‘hello’! For most of the week we live our lives apart from one another. However, on Sundays (which is always the day of resurrection) we gather together in the church building as the church in this place. The word ‘church’ comes from ‘ecclesia’, which has its roots in ‘assembly’. Although it is certainly possible to be a lone Christian (and there is a long history of Christian hermits) the church and the Christians within it are most fully themselves when we assemble.
By starting our service in the name of the Trinitarian God we are making it clear that this is not a social gathering or a business meeting but is intended to be a sacred occasion. We are sanctifying (making holy) this place, this time and ourselves for our worship. Although we want our worship to be interesting, lively, informative, interactive, uplifting and all those good things we are also making it clear that for one hour in this week we are directing our thoughts and our actions unapologetically towards God. The music we hear or sing, the liturgy we say, the prayers we pray, the lessons and sermon we hear, the Eucharist we share, the blessing we receive and take into the world are not intended for our entertainment but for the worship of God and for the building up of the body of Christ which is the church.
So, we gather together as disparate Christians and become a worshipping assembly and we dedicate ourselves to this purpose. And we greet one another, expressly in the name of Christ. Even if you are intensely private about your faith in every other part of your life here we are saying publicly that we are gathered as followers of Christ and that our time and our worship is directed towards the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I usually ‘cross’ myself at the opening words, and at other times during the liturgy, making the sign of the cross over my body. This has been part of the worship of the universal church since about the Second Century (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sign_of_the_cross) and is not merely a ‘Catholic’ affectation – according to this article even Martin Luther approved. Again, it is about sanctification and being sacramental – an outward sign of an inner grace. For me, at least, worship is never just about words and thoughts but also about our senses and physicality. Which is why I also love incense in worship, but more of that another time.
“Let us prepare our hearts and minds to enter into the presence of God“
Having dedicated this time and space to worship, and having greeted one another not merely as friends but as fellow-disciples of Christ, we now journey further into the presence of God in both word and sacrament. Some faiths require their followers to leave their shoes at the door, to cover (or uncover) their heads or to ritually wash themselves before praying. In our tradition, we seek purity of heart through prayer and, in Common Worship, we say the Prayer of Preparation, and the Prayers of Penitence, which include both confession and absolution.
Christianity sometimes gets a ‘bad rap’ for being all about sin and guilt, and sometimes we overreact to that charge by saying ‘come as you are’, which is fine but if we also ‘leave as we were’ then nothing much has happened. However, we all know that none of us are perfect and, moment by moment, we all fail to be the people that God wants us to be. However, and this is the good news, we are not stuck in that place. Every week, or more frequently if we wish, we consciously open our hearts to God, confess that we have got it wrong and hear the words of absolution.
Provided that we have truly confessed our sins, which does mean examining our consciences in the light of the Gospel, then we should know that the absolution is real – God forgives us and makes us clean and new again. Although the absolution is pronounced by the priest it is not the priest forgiving your sins but telling you in no uncertain terms that God forgives you.
I want to reframe ‘sin and guilt’ into ‘forgiveness and joy’.
We can’t approach God in our sin or because of our own goodness. We draw close to him because he has the grace to forgive us, because we seek to follow Jesus, and that should give us joy.
As with all the words of the liturgy if we say things in a perfunctory way then they will not scratch the surface. But if we truly open our hearts to the cleansing of the Holy Spirit and truly know that God’s cleansing has burned away our sin.
And, as we are freed from our sins, we give thanks by singing to God’s glory!
Having confessed and been absolved of our sins we are a renewed creation and our first response is one of joy – which is expressed in a great hymn of praise to the Trinity – the Gloria in Excelsis. Its full title is ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’, which means ‘Glory to God in the highest’ which, of course, are the opening words. These words echo those sung by the angels when they announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:14) and so the Gloria is sometimes also called the Angelic Hymn, which is lovely. The remainder is a doxology (a hymn of praise) to the whole Trinity, a bit like the extra-biblical ending to the Lord’s Prayer. There are other parts of the liturgy which also recall the words of the angels in scripture (e.g. the ‘Holy, holy, holy’ in the Eucharistic prayer) and this should remind us that our liturgy has deep biblical roots and that as we praise God we are literally joining our voices with the angels and archangels. When I worshiped in an Eastern Orthodox church I asked for an order of service (being an Anglican) and the priest said I should just let the worship of the angels wash over me. We don’t say or sing the Gloria during the seasons of Advent or Lent (as these are the sombre penitential seasons) but this omission should renew our joy when we sing them again. Interestingly the BCP puts the Gloria at the end of the service, just before the blessing, so that we are sent out with the Angelic Hymn in our hearts whereas in Common Worship it is close to the beginning of our worship. Either way, when we sing to the glory of God a little bit of heaven comes down to earth. More of that later.
After the Gloria we take a moment of quiet before praying the Collect. This has nothing to do with collecting money, which has been said to me before! Rather it is a prayer which changes every week and it collects together the theme of the day or the week. For example, last week was the Petertide season of ordinations and the collect included a prayer for ‘vocation and ministry’ of all God’s faithful people, and that collect was prayed not only on Sunday but at morning and evening prayer through the week. Most collects will be used that way for the whole week, unless there is a celebration of a saint or other event in the life of the church, in which case that collect will be used. If you are ever stuck for a prayer then it can sometimes be useful to refer to the collect (always printed on pew news) as this can establish our prayers in the prayer of the whole church for that week, and which may remind us that, as part of the church, we not only sing with the angels but we also pray with one another.
Having sung the Angelic Hymn (I mean the Gloria, but I do love that name) and prayed the collect of the week we now come to the readings from the Bible. We currently have two readings but some churches have four each week – an Old Testament, a Psalm, an Epistle (i.e. one of the letters of the New Testament) and the Gospel. When I arrived at St Mary’s I was ‘surprised’ to learn that even though there were only two readings the Old Testament was virtually never read at all. Yes, it can be difficult in places for lots of reasons, both to hear and to preach on, but it constitutes about four fifths of the bible and we should not exclude bits of the faith we find difficult. This is also the reason that I am committed to using the ‘lectionary’ to tell us what our readings are each week. The lectionary is a 3 year cycle of readings (Years A, B & C) which emphasises a different Gospel writer each year, but with John sprinkled over each for good measure. Using the lectionary readings ensures that we don’t just pick our favourite bits of the bible each week, but are compelled to look at the whole ‘sweep’ of the bible and to go into the bits we find most difficult. The prevents Christianity just becoming a local expression of what we enjoy and keeps us rooted in the whole story of which we are part.
Before covid-times I would process down the aisle with the Gospel, with cross, candles and sometimes even incense. We sang the gradual hymn and then announced the gospel reading using a seasonal acclamation. Everyone stood in the presence of the Gospel and turned to face it during the reading. Taken together this not only emphasises the importance of the Gospel in our worship but is also meant to enact the word of God coming down and appearing amongst the people – it is a representation of the incarnation of Jesus! If Jesus appeared in our midst then I hope that we would stand and acclaim him! Our worship, understood and enacted properly, is always meant to be so much more than just hearing the lessons and then applying them to our lives. It is about ‘living out’ the greatest drama of all times and we should not be shy of doing so with meaningful drama, which is part of the purpose of our liturgy.
Of course the readings are an important way for us to learn about the story of God’s interaction with the world. But even many years of just hearing the Sunday readings will not give us a joined-up picture of everything in the Bible. I would encourage everyone to engage with the Bible regularly at home, and to join that also into a regular time of personal prayer. A Sunday feast is great but we also need regular meals during the week!
Following the readings, we come to the sermon. Interestingly priests have not always been trusted to preach in the context of the Eucharist; in the early church this would be done solely by a bishop. At the time of the Reformation (when the Church of England became separate from the Roman Catholic Church) there was a desire to ensure that only the ‘correct’ protestant theology was preached in churches and so two “Books of Homilies” were published (in 1547 and 1571) and clergy were required to preach only by reading those pre-written sermons. How much simpler life could be! Those books still have certain authority in the Church of England by virtue of Article 35 of the 39 Articles of Faith so I suppose I could give it a try.
We are now encouraged to preach our own sermons; however, this is not as straightforward as you may assume. There is an apocryphal story about a curate who showed their training incumbent their proposed sermon and asked ‘Will it do?‘, to which the incumbent replied ‘Will it do what?’ This is an important question. Are sermons meant to educate, entertain, challenge, enthuse, convert, explore scripture, comment on the world or help people in their Christian journey? How long should they be? Someone I know told me that, during his curacy, if he preached over three minutes his incumbent would simply get up and start saying the creed. Others I know think that anything less than 40 minutes is short-changing the people. Should they look at the readings line by line, perhaps exploring the Hebrew and Greek, or should they be more ‘big picture’? In what context is a sermon being delivered – what is appropriate in a parish church might not be appropriate in a university chapel.
Being allowed to look at the word of God we find in the Bible and to stand before the people of God we find in church and to expound how those things might relate not only to each other but in the wider context of life is a huge and awesome responsibility and privilege. It is not always easy. Some sermons arrive almost fully formed, but others have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the world. My only constant is prayer. Before I sit down to write I always pray something along these lines: “Father, as I come to write today please just give me the words that this congregation needs to hear at this time.” Even with a few years’ experience it is impossible to know how people will react to one’s sermons. The sermons I am most pleased with will sometimes get no reaction whereas the ones that have felt most rushed will speak to people in ways I could not envisage. Which is the point. A sermon in the context of the Eucharistic liturgy is not merely a vicar having a soapbox – it is an integral part of worship and a means of God working with his people, perhaps just one needy soul at a time.
After the sermon, we stand together to recite the Creed. The word ‘creed’ comes from the Latin ‘credo’, which means ‘believe’ which is both the opening words of the creed and summarises what we are doing – saying together what the church believes. Words such as ‘credence’ and ‘credibility’ have the same roots.
We most commonly use the Nicene Creed. It is named after the Council of Nicea (where is was approved for use as the universal statement of the church’s beliefs) which met in 325 AD and was amended in 381 AD. So, this is not new stuff! Despite the fact that the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are not ‘in communion’ with one another the fact that we say this statement of beliefs, which dates to the pre-schism days, should comfort us that we are in continuity with the deep roots of the church.
It is not always popular to have boundaries of belief – many people view both faith (and morals and politics) as all being fluid and subject to change. However, the whole point of the creed is to state concisely what the church believes about the central tenets of the Christian faith. So, it is Trinitarian – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God. I have nothing against Unitarians, for example, but to deny the Trinity, I would suggest, is to stand outside the boundaries of the universal church. Similarly, the creed is clear about Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. This view would not be shared by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.
The creed concisely tells the story of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and return as King. Every line is packed with meaning and rewards prayerful reading in its own right.
However, the purpose of the creed is not to exclude those who don’t share beliefs but, rather, to preserve the inheritance of faith. The fact that we can stand in continuity with the church who wrote them 1700 years ago speaks for itself. If the church changed those core beliefs with every passing generation, or simply said ‘believe whatever you like’ then it would soon bear no relation to those who followed Christ from the beginning.
Of course, practices within the church can and do change, and recent examples include the ordination of women and questions such as same-sex marriage. Interestingly neither of these are credal matters.
In addition to the Nicene Creed we sometimes also use the Apostle’s Creed, and Kelly will be using this in her service on the 8th August. Although this is the shorter form of the creed it’s history and development is less clear-cut than the Nicene Creed. The Orthodox Church don’t use the Apostle’s Creed, not because they disagree with any of it’s statements (it is thoroughly Trinitarian) but simply because it does not say as much as the Nicene Creed and, therefore, makes the boundaries of belief too fuzzy for them.
Finally, despite all this talk of boundaries and fuzziness, I should make it clear that no individual needs to be able to fully assent to every line of the creed – I know many on a journey of faith who may struggle with bits of it, whilst still seeking after Jesus. It is the church together which asserts the creed (“we believe”), so provided we are each clinging to something larger than ourselves which asserts those beliefs, then we are each still part of the church whilst also seeking after understanding.
Our liturgy contains many prayers – from the Prayer of Preparation to the Prayer of Thanksgiving, via the Eucharistic Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. Even the sermon starts with a prayer. In many ways the whole of the liturgy could be categorised as an act of prayer.
But now, after the Creed, we reach the part of the service which many might think of as ‘the prayers’. These are the ‘prayers of intercession’, which are normally led by a member of the congregation. This is the time when we particularly ask God to intercede in all those areas of life in which people are suffering – either personally from illness or distress, where there might be collective suffering in times of war or famine, we also remember those who have died recently or those whose memorial of death falls in this week. In essence we bring before God those people, places or situations in which we want God to be present and make a difference.
Now, of course, if God is already all-present and all-knowing then He knows those needs without us having to ask. However, it is clear from the bible that God wants us to pray for one another. Perhaps the most dramatic intercessor of all time was Moses who regularly prayed to God to spare his people, by parting the Red Sea as they fled from Egypt (Ex. 14.21) or even by getting God to change his mind about punishing them following the whole ‘Golden calf’ incident (Ex. 32:11-14).
The other reason, I suspect, that we are called to pray for one another is not to change God’s mind, and to get Him to do something that He wouldn’t have done otherwise, but perhaps it is to change our minds and to get us to do something we wouldn’t have done otherwise. If we take the time to bring the suffering of others to mind, week after week, then we cannot pretend that suffering does not exist and we should be reminded, week after week, that God is not simply ‘up there and elsewhere’ but is amongst us in the Holy Spirit and that we are, together, the Body of Christ, who are called to serve the world. If your neighbour is suffering and you help them then never forget that you might be the answer to someone’s intercessory prayer.
Some people love ‘the peace’ and some people loath it. My father-in-law is a great example of the latter – if he wants to be sociable then he goes to Train Club, not to Church! The gregarious may enjoy it and the shy and the newcomers may be mortified by it, but I hope that by explaining something of the reason and history of it then we can, at least, understand why we do it.
Some people seem to believe that the peace is a liturgical innovation of the 1970s, which belongs in the same box as guitars and ‘trendy’ vicars 😉 Nothing could be further from the truth. Justin Martyr (c.100 – c.165 AD) wrote the earliest description of Christian worship (after the close of the New Testament) in c.155 AD and he mentions ‘the kiss’ between the prayers and the Eucharist. (http://media.bloomsbury.com/rep/files/primary-source-31-justin-martyr.pdf)
During ‘covid times’ we have kept the peace as a friendly, socially-distant, wave to one another from our seats. Before covid there was much moving around the church and shaking hands with friends and, hopefully, being welcoming to those in church for the first time. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being friendly with everyone and, although I am biased, I think that St Mary’s is a wonderfully friendly church, that is not the actual purpose of exchanging the peace.
The primary purpose of the peace is to make peace with those with whom we may not have peace – i.e. to make up with someone with whom we may have fallen out. In the same manner as the prayer of preparation and the confession and absolution are about getting us spiritually ready to encounter God in the sacrament, so too we must be careful that we don’t approach God whilst also harbouring enmity to our fellow-Christians. I can’t put it any clearer than Saint Matthew:
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:22-24)
“Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
So let us be at peace and love one another as we draw closer to God in the beauty of holiness.
Having made our peace with one another we are now, almost, ready to enter into the heart of the Eucharist, and there will be much to say about that over the coming weeks. However, before we get there, there is a small part of the service which looks purely functional or utilitarian but which, like everything else, has more meaning than may be first apparent. I am talking, of course, of the Offertory.
If you cast your minds back to pre-covid times we would have an Offertory procession in which the bread and wine and, yes, money were brought up to the altar in order to be blessed and used. From time to time the churchwardens would ask our young people, or perhaps even visitors to church, to carry the offerings and that was always a joy to see.
In the story of the feeding of the 5000 in John the loaves and fish were offered to Jesus by a child (John 6:9), and we know that he then blessed and multiplied those offerings. We are also reminded here (once again) that attending a service does not mean the person in the collar at the front ‘doing church’ to an audience but that we are all the church and that the bread and wine can only be blessed and shared if it is first offered by the people.
When the bread, wine and collection are presented at the altar I say a prayer over them, which may not always be heard:
“Heavenly Father, bless these and all our gifts to your praise and glory. Amen.”
I then ‘prepare’ the altar, which means first putting the wafers into a ‘ciborium’ (which simply means a covered container) and taking the veil from the chalice and pouring sufficient wine into it, together with a drop of water. Why do I mix water into the wine? Because the wine is the blood of Christ and we are reminded here when Jesus’ side was pierced by the Centurion and ‘blood and water’ came out (John 19:34).
In pre-covid times my hands would have been symbolically washed by one of the servers, whilst I prayed some of the words from Psalm 51:
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Ps 51:7
But now, in covid times, the cleansing comes just before the distribution of communion and I don’t use water but hand sanitiser!
Having confessed our sins, received absolution, prepared our hearts, heard the word of God, made our peace with one another and taken our offerings to the altar, we now come to the central mystery of our worship, which is the Eucharistic prayer.
It starts with the threefold call and response: “The Lord be with you. And also with you. Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give thanks and praise”.
This dialogue between priest and people (remember that liturgy means ‘work of the people’) is called the sursum corda, which literally means ‘lift hearts’. Although the wording varies slightly this is an ancient part of the liturgy, shared by Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox, it dates back to at least the 3rd century and is found in all ancient rites. In it we are reminded that God is already present amongst us, that we should direct our attention (our love, our hearts) towards him, and we should give thanks (remember that Eucharist is Greek for thanksgiving) for what Jesus did for us in his life, death and resurrection. I love the idea that the final question and answer is the congregation giving their assent to the Eucharist proceeding – which again reminds us that this is about the Christian community celebrating together, rather than simply attending an event as observers.
After the sursum corda but before the ‘Holy, Holy Holy’ (the sanctus which will be next week) comes the preface or the proper preface. This is the bit of the Eucharistic prayer which changes the most as this is the seasonal introduction to the Eucharist. Unlike the collect it does not change every week (and does not change for long stretches during ordinary time) but it does change with the major church seasons or saints days, to reflect something of the theme of the season or saint. Keep an eye out for the changes as we journey through the church year!
You may recall a few weeks ago that I wrote about the Gloria in Excelsis and referred to it as the ‘Song of the Angels’ as it is based, in part, on the angelic chorus to the shepherds in Luke 2:14.
Well, today, we come to another part of the liturgy which reflects the singing of angels, at least in part. At the end of the proper preface we come to the Sanctus (which is Latin for ‘Holy’) as it starts ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord.’ The first half of the Sanctus echoes the angels in Isaiah’s vision of God in the Temple (Isaiah 6:3). If the first half of the Sanctus is angelic and about God the Father then the second half (‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’) is human in origin and is the acclamation of the crowd about Jesus as he entered Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9). So, we have both angels singing about God the Father and humans proclaiming Jesus as blessed, which is both heavenly and incarnational at the same time. If anyone tells you that liturgical churches are not biblical churches then you can point to how much scripture and theology is packed into just those few lines!
We then come to the Eucharistic prayer ‘proper’, in which we hear the timeless story of Jesus telling his disciples that they should remember him in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of wine, which is his body and blood. These are the events which took place at the ‘Last Supper’, which we now celebrate on Maundy Thursday, but which also forms the core of our worship week by week as we ‘re-member’ (i.e. put back together) Jesus in our church, in our lives and in our community.
The form of the Eucharistic prayer which we use most commonly at St Mary’s is called Prayer E, which was one of a number of Eucharistic prayers authorised to be used as part of Common Worship. We use others from time to time, most recently when we had a baptism in the communion service. Although this form of words is not ancient nonetheless it follows a pattern of such prayers going back to the earliest celebrations.
In the first verse you may notice the words ‘send your Holy Spirit’ and, if you watch me, I always bring my hands down from the upward facing position onto the elements of bread and wine. This moment is called the ‘Epiclesis‘, which means the invocation, and here the priest invokes or invites the Holy Spirit to bless bread and wine and make them holy for us as we re-enact the feast of the Last Supper as Jesus commanded us.
Much ink, and sadly much blood, has been spilt over what happens to the bread and wine at communion. Do they physically become the body and blood of Jesus, do they spiritually become the body and blood of Jesus or are we only remembering Jesus (in the ordinary sense of that word) by sharing bread and wine? Let me be clear about two things: 1. It is possible to be a fully Christian believer and take any of those positions; and 2. That I believe in the ‘real presence’ of Jesus in the Eucharist and, for me, it does not matter how the Holy Spirit achieves that! When bread and wine is ‘consecrated’ in this way (i.e. made holy) then I believe that it is fundamentally transformed and, at the very least, comes to represent Jesus to us.
I think I have written before about the Sanctus bell which rings during the Eucharistic prayer (to draw our attention especially to this moment of holiness) and you may notice that I also bow at those moments, acknowledging the presence of Jesus in the newly consecrated elements.
Finally, in the Eucharistic prayer, we come to the elevation (as I lift up the wafer and the chalice together), which dates back to about the ninth century, and this is simply for everyone to see, and perhaps adore, the consecrated elements before they are subsequently broken and shared. The Eucharistic prayer finished with the great ‘Amen’. In the same way that the prayer started with the people saying that it is right to give thanks and praise so now it concludes with the whole church giving their ‘Amen’, their agreement and approval, of the consecration which has taken place in their midst.
After the Eucharistic Prayer, but before the distribution of communion, we come to the Lord’s Prayer. As the name suggests it was Jesus himself who taught these words to the disciples when they asked him how they should pray. (Matthew 7:9-13 & Luke 11:2-4).
The disciples were concerned about how they should speak to God. On the one hand the Jewish priests in the Temple seemed to have a very complex life of prayer and sacrifices and, on the other hand, the Pagan Romans worshipped a panoply of gods using all sorts of different prayers. So, how should the followers of Jesus speak to God?
With simplicity and with relationship. Because of Jesus, and our sibling relationship with him (and one another), the God we speak to is not a far-off deity but is ‘our Father’, and can be addressed as such. Although we may take this for granted now, addressing God in this way was a radical departure; we are not subjects of God but His beloved children. We are encouraged to speak to him simply, to forgive us when we get things wrong, to help us forgive others, to give us our basic needs each day and to protect us from the evils and temptations which surround us.
Of course Jesus never said that this is the only prayer we are allowed to say to God. The Lord’s Prayer was meant to liberate that relationship rather than constrain it. After all, if we are encouraged to speak to God as a loving Father then we must be able to take to him whatever is on our hearts. It is also meant to be a help to those who need a way into prayer. If, like the disciples, you don’t know what or how to pray then we always have the simple, but profound, words of the Lord’s Prayer. If you pray nothing else each day then I would encourage you to pray this.
If you compare these two gospel accounts of the Lord’s Prayer you will see that Matthew has a slightly longer version than Luke. However, you will note that neither version has the ending: “For yours is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, for ever and ever, Amen.” This ending was never part of the biblical Lord’s Prayer, but is called a ‘doxology’, a bit like that used at the end of the Psalms. Interestingly this ending / doxology is virtually never used by Roman Catholics (which may be a useful corrective to those who think that ‘Protestants’ have a more biblical version of Christianity) and in Order 2 of the liturgy (which we use both on Wednesdays and at 8.00 am on Sundays) the Lord’s Prayer is used twice, once without the doxology and once with, so both are ‘correct’!
Finally, which version to use? ‘Our Father who art in heaven‘ or ‘Our Father in heaven’? Whilst we may assume that the modern language version is better for those who are not used to church I am always interested to see that those who come for baptisms, weddings and funerals nearly always choose the traditional language version. But, of course, it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that we approach God as Father and bring him ourselves and our needs with simplicity and faith.
Following the Eucharistic Prayer we come to the breaking of the bread: “We break this bread to share in the body of Christ. Though we are many we are one body, because we all share in one bread.”
In some ways this feels like a repetition of the part of the Eucharistic Prayer when the wafer is first elevated, “This is my body which is given for you…” and, when we celebrate using Order 2 / BCP then the wafer gets broken at this point in the Eucharistic Prayer, rather than afterwards as, here. Sometimes it is all I can do to stop myself breaking the wafer too soon at the 10.00 am service!
If you watch closely at this point in the service then you will notice that two main things happen: firstly, as you might expect, the wafer is broken into two halves. But, as the congregation say the words “…we are one body…” I bring the two halves back together to demonstrate the brokenness made whole again.
Although the action of breaking the bread is done by the priest note also that it is “We break…” Again, we are reminded that communion is a community activity – the congregation are not simply spectators at an event, but it is the gathered Christian community which enacts the event. And this communal activity is exactly the point of these words – although we are all individuals we are all one body, the body of Christ, because we all share in the one bread, which is also the body of Christ.
In only a couple of lines there is some important theology going on here. The body of Christ is broken, as the bread was broken at the Last Supper but also as the physical body of Christ was broken on the cross, but as it is broken and shared amongst many people it does not disappear amongst the crowd rather it is re-membered (both put back together but also recalled to memory) and, perhaps, even resurrected as all those who receive it actually become the body of Christ, which is the Church.
I love the fact that the words do not say that we share in the bread of communion because we are the church – i.e. the sharing of the bread is not an activity which the church does. Rather, it says, that we are one body because we share the bread. It is the act of sharing Jesus (both in word and in sacrament) which creates the church. Jesus was broken and remade for us. We are broken and remade into the church by Jesus and we are sent out into a broken world to share the wholeness of Christ.
One of my favourite windows in St Mary’s is on the south side of the Chancel, just above where the male choir members sit.
It depicts Jesus going to meet John the Baptist and, if you look closely, you can just make out the words: ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’.
This means ‘behold the Lamb of God’ and this window (and these words) depict the events recorded in John 1:29 and John the Baptist’s full words were: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Of course, these words form the start of a sung part of the service called the Agnus Dei which, you may be interested to know, was introduced into the Roman mass by Pope Sergius I (687–701), and thence it flowed down into the BCP and Common Worship.
Thinking of Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ is related to the use of sacrificial lambs in the Temple in Jerusalem. In particular, this relates to the lambs sacrificed at Passover as a thanksgiving for the ‘passing over’ of the Hebrew children not killed prior to the escape from Egypt (Exodus 12:1-28).
But sacrificial lambs are usually passive creatures and without any agency in the forgiveness of sins or in the ‘passing over’. One of the criticisms that atheists often make of Christianity is that God the Father must have been cruel to sacrifice his son on the cross, as if Jesus were merely a sacrifice who had no control or agency.
Which is why the second part of the sentence is also important ‘who takes away the sin of the world‘. Jesus isn’t just the helpless sacrificial lamb but he is also the Good Shepherd, the one in control. The oneness of God the Father with Jesus means that in sacrificing Jesus the whole of God knew what it meant to be on the cross but, also, that the one on the cross was not simply a sacrifice but was also the God who was actively cleansing the world through his actions.
The Lamb and the Shepherd are one.
God the Son and God the Father are one.
By joining ourselves to the sacrificial lamb we are also joining ourselves to the one who cleanses us from all sin, so when God looks at us he sees not our distance from him in our imperfection but he sees only our closeness to Him because of the sacrifice of Jesus. There is no cruelty there, only perfect love.
Having sung the Agnus Deiwe are now almost at the moment of receiving the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. (Although we are only actually receiving the bread at this time you should be aware that this still represents a full communion and, for many centuries, most communicants only received the bread and never the wine. Nonetheless I hope that the full fullness will be restored soon).
But, before receiving communion, there is one final prayer, which is the Prayer of Humble Access. I preached on one of the readings which lie behind this prayer quite recently but, just in case you have forgotten, it is the story of Jesus speaking to the woman from Canaan from Matthew 15:21-28. The woman’s daughter was sick and she begged Jesus to heal her. At first Jesus seemed to decline, saying that he was sent only for the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ and that ‘it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’ To us this looks rather insulting to the poor woman but she took his words and turned them around, saying, ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ At this, Jesus said that she had great faith and her daughter was healed.
This is challenging stuff, and we may continue to object to the idea of eating crumbs from under a table, but it is a reminder that we don’t come to the great banquet in heaven because of our own power and goodness, but solely because of the power and goodness of Jesus.
Humility may be unfashionable but, if pride is a sin, then it can only be good to challenge our pride with the perspective of humility as we not only come into the presence of God but ask him to enter our lives. We may start with humility but we are given a promise of cosmic significance:
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.
God does not come to us because of our goodness and greatness, but because of his goodness and mercy. When he comes to us we are promised that we will dwell with him and that he will dwell with us forever. We are lifted into God’s life, and God comes into our life because he loves us, he longs to heal us and to have an eternal relationship with each one of us. So, let’s get over ourselves and let God get to work in us. Which, I suspect, sums up much of what we seek to do in the Christian life.
A quick aside.
Someone asked me today, quite reasonably, whether the Church of England is Protestant or Catholic. I answered, quite truthfully, that it is complicated!
The Church of England arose at roughly the same time as Protestant reformation was sweeping across Northern Europe, Martin Luther protesting against the sale of indulgences and so forth. However, the reasons for the Church of England breaking from Rome were never purely theological, but were as much motivated by Henry VIII’s desire to be free from the political control of the Pope. Although Henry VIII had his reasons for this (mostly marital!) he was not a Protestant at heart.
In 1539 he published the Six Articles which confirmed the Church of England as part of the Catholic church and Protestants who denied the Catholic faith were persecuted and burned.
His son, Edward VI, was much more Protestant, the English language Book of Common prayer was published, priests were allowed to marry (hoorah!) and it was the turn of Catholics to be persecuted.
Then, under Mary I, the Pope was restored as head of the Church of England, the Latin mass was restored and the Prayer Book banned. About 300 Protestants were burned to death.
Finally, under Elizabeth I, the monarch becomes the ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England (i.e. not the Pope) but many elements of Catholic worship were restored. This ‘balance’ between Protestant and Catholic theologies was known as the ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ and it set the tone for much of the 450 years which followed. During that time there have been both Protestant and Catholic ‘revivals’ within the Church of England and different Dioceses, Parishes and Priests would identify as more or less Protestant or Catholic.
The reality of the current Church of England is that we all exist along a spectrum. We are all ‘reformed Catholics’ and, even as someone who loves incense from time to time, I am also a married priest who can’t speak Latin so there can be no doubt that I am as much a product of the slightly complicated Church of England as anyone! But, as I have said many times, my deepest prayer is that these divisions and wounds within the body of Christ will heal and that the whole body will be reunited in worship.
In relation to the journey through our liturgy we now come to the invitation to communion:
Draw near with faith.
Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ
which he gave for you,
and his blood which he shed for you.
Eat and drink in remembrance that he died for you,
and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.
Interestingly even this invitation touches upon the whole ‘Catholic / Protestant’ question because of the language used about the body and blood of Christ. I shan’t revisit the whole ‘consubstantiation / transubstantiation’ debate now but, in terms of the Elizabethan Settlement and the complicated nature of the Church of England, it is interesting that even this short invitation uses language which both emphasises the realness of the body and blood of Christ in the elements of bread and wine, but also talks about ‘remembrance’. It also makes it clear that what we are doing here is all motivated by ‘faith’ – we both draw near with faith and feed on him with faith. We don’t see Christ in the Eucharist with the eyes of science. Of course, if you put the bread and wine under a microscope it would still physically be the same bread and wine which existed prior to consecration. But, by faith, they have become something different for us as both a community of faith and as individuals of faith. In whatever way we believe our community prayer life, and the Holy Spirit, have made these things into Christ and we are called to consume the Christ who is broken and shared amongst us and to feed on him with ‘thanksgiving’ – which, as we know, can be rendered in Greek as Eucharist.
We now go forward to receive communion.
If you can remember as far back as pre-lockdown then everyone (who could) knelt at the altar rail to receive both the bread and the wine: ‘The body of Christ, keep you in eternal life.’ ‘The blood of Christ, keep you in eternal life.’
For many Christians, for much of the last 2000 years, this moment of receiving Jesus in the sacrament is the most deeply spiritual moment; a time to kneel and know that we are cleansed of everything that separates us from God, that everything we have done in the service has led us to this moment of encounter with God, in a manner which Jesus gave to his followers. But, this is not purely a spiritual moment. For that we could sit in our pews and not move at all. The reason we have come forward is to receive the physical elements. In that way we are reminded that God himself is not purely spiritual but, in Jesus, he took on physical form, became one of us, that our physicality was taken up to God in the Ascension and that God also wishes to give us real food and drink. The embodiment of Jesus which took place in the first Christmas is reflected in the embodiment in our worship of him with all our senses, and our reception of him in bread and wine.
And, as Mary became the God-bearer (the Theotokos) when she carried Christ in her womb so, we too, become God-bearers when we receive the sacrament, as when we receive the Holy Spirit at baptism. Of course, it is the God the Holy Spirit who leads us to receive God the Son and, through being cleansed of our sins and united with him, we are re-united with God the Father.
At present we are not all able to share the wine. Sadly, for reasons beyond telling here, the Church of England does not allow individual communion cups and there is too much concern about sharing a common cup at this time. Theologically I can assure you that in receiving Christ in one kind only (the bread) you are still receiving the whole of Christ (so the sacrament is not deficient in any way) but I absolutely know and understand that it feels deficient. I had hoped that we would be in a position to share both bread and wine before I left, but that is looking impossible as I write. Nonetheless, trust always that Christ is sufficient and that when we become bearers of Christ in the world we carry a great and wonderful gift and responsibility.
Come forward in faith and go out in joy!
Having mentioned one wise spiritual director (above) another wise spiritual director once said that ‘with God there is never co-incidence, there is only providence.’
When I started this series of ramblings through the liturgy I had no idea either how many weeks it would take or when I would be leaving St Mary’s. And yet, here we are, having reached the end of the liturgy in my final week. It is almost as if God knows the timings, even when we don’t!
But before we come to the final prayers, blessing and dismissal it is worth mentioning silence. Everything we have done so far has been about words in one form or another. But, when we return to our seats having taken communion I would urge you to take some time of silence with God, and even to revel in it. If you are worried or bored by silence then know that it won’t be long before some more words will be along but, just for a moment, spend some quiet time with God giving thanks that the Holy Spirit who dwells within you has led you to communion, that God the Son now also dwells within you in the sacrament and that both seek to lift you up to God the Father. This is a holy moment.
And then we give thanks, out loud, for this time of union with God and one another. First the priest says a ‘prayer after communion’ which changes each week and then we give thanks together. Our most commonly used prayer asks God to make us into ‘living sacrifices’ and that we should be sent out to live and work to his praise and glory. We shall come to the dismissal in a moment but even this prayer reminds us that this time of communion which we have shared is not intended to be a purely private matter, which is between us and God and which changes nothing about us or our lives outside the hour or so of each Sunday morning. On the contrary we are being prepared, equipped and transformed to be the people of God in our day to day lives. Each of us have different callings but each of us is still called to live as Christians in the world in the 6 days and 23 hours when we are not in church.
Then the priest pronounces God’s blessing upon the congregation. The words of the blessing may change with the seasons but the intention is always the same: to convey and to remind everyone that the God we know and love as Father, Son and Holy Spirit loves us right back, that God dwells amongst us and within us, that we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. In a world which so often lacks love, belonging and togetherness we are told, loud and clear, that we are deeply loved and blessed by the creator and upholder of all things. I usually make the sign of the cross during the blessing, which is a reminder both of the cross of Christ and of the trinitarian name in which we are blessed, and many choose to sign themselves with the cross in response. Again, there is nothing ‘magical’ about this but I would say that it is ‘sacramental’ in the sense of being an outward sign of that inner grace.
Finally, we reach the words of the dismissal, which may be said either by the priest or by another minister. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We are reminded of the peace which we shared before communion – that laying aside of enmity as a precursor of coming into God’s presence. That peace is not meant to end as we exit the church. On the contrary we should extend our peace not just to those with whom we are in communion, but to all those around us. Christians should be known as people of peace. We are going out not simply to return to our normal lives as if nothing had happened this morning – but we are sent out to love and serve the Lord. What does that look like for you? It doesn’t have to mean working harder or taking on more commitments or rotas, but it does mean asking ourselves whether how we are living our lives is loving and serving the Lord. Take it to him in prayer and ask constantly to what you are called.
And we do it all in the name of Christ. Jesus, God the Son who stepped into creation and took on human form in order both to teach us what God looks like to us and to show us the way back to God the Father. When we follow Christ, when we act in his name, we are all called into a future which is not guaranteed to be easy or pain-free but which is guaranteed to be the right way.
With that we all step into a future which is both unknown, and therefore slightly scary, but in which we also know that we are blessed by God, that we have entered into communion with him and that, whatever our circumstances, we are sent into the world by him and for him and in his name. That is something to hold onto!