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A Liturgical Christmas

Christmas is the time of year when, due to various bits of travelling and visiting, I get to sample services in churches I don’t otherwise attend. Over the past three or four years during the last week in December, I have attended services in places like Santa Barbara, London, Hull, Mullingar (Ireland), and others, and the denominations have included not just Anglicans, but also Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Roman Catholics; in addition to my own ‘home’ parish of the St Bartholomew, Dublin, where I will always be for the Midnight Mass (which indeed is so described, unusually for Ireland).

In these visits, I have been able to observe two things. First, there appears in some clerical circles to be a growing level of discomfort with the Incarnation — one member of the clergy suggested in a sermon that the Incarnation as a theological concept is ‘a disaster’. I might be tempted to explore that a little further, but perhaps that is for another time.

My second (and for this piece main) observation is that the idea of a liturgical church is under threat. And no, I am not talking about the Methodists and Presbyterians particularly, but the whole experience across the denominations. Of course, as my own wandering attendance around Christmas shows, services at this time of year tend to have an above-average number of visitors and strangers in the pews some of them on a break from their normal places of worship like me, and some making their annual or suchlike visit to a church, any church. It is quite possible that clergy faced with such congregations feel that they must offer them more easily digestible fare. At any rate — server and liturgical pedant that I am — I have tended to find plenty to make my hair stand on end.

Of course the polite thing to do is to show no sign of noticing anything untoward, and that’s the route I follow. But I nevertheless find myself sinning gravely by allowing my mind to drift into a state of irritation. I need to get a hold of myself.

But I do wonder whether the idea of Anglicanism as a liturgical movement is coming to an end. The movers and shakers of the new fundamentalist Anglicanism growing out of places like Sydney do not, I think, bother their heads much about liturgy. And every so often when, in various discussion groups, I raise liturgical issues, someone will invariably pipe up and say that liturgy simply does not matter when set against hunger, starvation, dictatorship and other evils. It is, I have to admit, easy to be bullied into submission at such moments.

And yet, it seems to me that liturgy matters. It is there at the moment where we come to worship God, and how can we say that how we address and speak with God doesn’t matter. It is how we in part express our faith, and it is how we allow God to touch us. And when it ceases to be familiar to the people, a lot of what we believe in theology can also become distant.

When I first became a liturgical Anglican, it was universal in churches I would attend for Christmas to bow, genuflect or kneel at the ‘incarnatus’ in the creed. Right then, it is a meaningful way for us to express something about the Incarnation. But, it seems, not so much any more. I notice that fewer and fewer people do it, even amongst the clergy.

Maybe I am just too old-fashioned. Or maybe, we are losing our way just a little.

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kieran crichton
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kieran crichton

As an organist, I’ve long concluded that good liturgical experiences can be few and far between. When I was doing some work playing for chapel services in a theological college a few years ago, the lecturer in liturgical studies was preaching one week. I remember being struck with a sense of relief when he said “liturgy without a burning desire for social justice is ready for the museum, because it has lost its reason to be. All the social outreach projects in the world will convert no-one without good, beautiful and poetic liturgy. Never oppose the two, because they are… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
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Pat O'Neill

I think there’s “liturgy” and then there’s “outward display”. To me, “liturgy” is the words we say, not the things we do while saying them.

Even when I was RC, I never kneeled or bowed at the incarnatus, or at every mention of Jesus’ name in the Mass as many do. To me, it smacks of the pious Pharisee, showing off how reverent he is. I know…and God knows…how I revere Christ–I don’t have to publicly display it by little gestures.

Aaron Orear
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Aaron Orear

The other argument I keep hearing is “we need to attract young people, and they don’t like liturgical worship”. This is invariably said by someone in his or her 60’s or older, of course.

BillyD
Guest

“To me, it smacks of the pious Pharisee, showing off how reverent he is.”

Better to work on the inward stuff, then. You know, stuff like : “Judge not , lest ye be judged.”

Pharasaically yours,

BillyD

(Now that I think about it, though, in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18, the Tax Collector beats his breast, a conventional Jewish (and Catholic) liturgical gesture showing repentance for sin. Evidently “outward display” has its place. Huh.) 😉

Ian Montgomery
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Ian Montgomery

This is something of a reflection as I am retiring tomorrow. I am convinced of the value of liturgy and believe that the appropriate liturgical apparel is helpful. Liturgy well done, and we have some of the best available to us in Prayer Book worship is expressive of the mystery that draws us to Christ and His Church. There is that sense of “otherness” which is engendered by proper use of liturgy. Hopefully we are not there to be seen by others! There is a sense of private engagement as well as corporate that makes sense of our personal ways… Read more »

L. Ryan
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L. Ryan

“This is invariably said by someone in his or her 60’s or older, of course.” Oddly enough, many of those in the pews today, especially the 60s and over, came to the Episcopal Church from something else, some other kind of liturgy (and other churches have “liturgy” even though they may not call it that or experience it in the same way) that didn’t touch them the way the Episcopal liturgy did. It is those people who fight to maintain that liturgy that drew them in and who know it still draws people in, even young people who can find… Read more »

Pluralist
Guest

In part I come from a tradition that was largely liturgical in practice but where liturgies were revised and with choices; a motivation for evolving them was changing beliefs and the individualism of belief. In the end that individualism undermined any possibility of a set collective words, words that became too ancient and divorced from actual belief. Then a good service became more themed, the material chosen or made by the preacher (I made much of mine) and the whole being a package. On the other side, I would write and choose material with which others could join in) but… Read more »

Richard Ashby
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Richard Ashby

I always think that the liturgy is designed to protect the congregation from the eccentricities of the clergy. Doesn’t the preface to the 1662BCP say something similar?

Ford Elms
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Ford Elms

“I know…and God knows…how I revere Christ–I don’t have to publicly display it by little gestures.” But, it’s not about making a public display, it’s about worshiping with all your being, not just your mind. That is something I have to be mindful of when I am in an Evangelical church and see all these people waving their hands in the air or dancing about like children at 10:00 on Christmas Eve. Are they trying to attract God’s attention, or show off that they are there, or are they actually worshiping with more than just their minds? I rarely decide… Read more »

Malcolm+
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When I was at college, there was a compulsory, non-credit tutorial in the third year, affectionately and unofficially known as Priestcraft. This was the point when we were taught “how to say mass.” Fr. Buchner was very clear that he was offering us a basic framework. Throughout our ministries, we would eveolve our praxis from what we had learned in this tutorial. The central principle seemed to be that things should be done for a reason. I was a little shocked to discover, a couple of years later, that the more near-by college, from which most of our diocesan clergy… Read more »

Brian McKinlay
Guest

Before one can honour customs such as bowing at the “Incarnatus” one must know or be taught that such customs exist. In the twenty-three years since I became an Anglican I have not once seen anyoneone bow at this point in the creed.

Fr Mark
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Fr Mark

I think there is a lot of truth in what Ferdinand says above. However, I think there is a change happening: the 60s generation tended to be concerned with “living down” their inheritance in liturgy, aethetics, etc, whereas I suspect my generation is more inclined to live it up. After all, if we go to church at all, we are well aware that we are, ipso facto, weird, so some stylised language and posture hardly add to the sum total of weirdness. The dumbing-down of the sacred practised by the bearded sandal-wearing type which was all the rage in 1974… Read more »

Rhiannon
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Rhiannon

I came to the Anglican church as an adult and by choice, and one of the major attractions was the liturgy. It created a balance between verbal and non-verbal worship, which I found lacking in the presbyterianism from which I came. The emphasis was not limited to the meaning of the spoken (or sung) words; but seemed to be equally shared by verbal meaning and non-verbal worship. A well-done liturgy is a beautiful thing; it contributes to the sense of sacred space, without which worship is impoverished.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski
Guest

Pat O’Neill wrote: ‘To me, “liturgy” is the words we say, not the things we do while saying them.’ Well, that’s very arguable. I quite like this explanation from a Jewish website: ‘In some ways, liturgy translates the Hebrew term avodah עבודה, which means worship (or work). Liturgy is, broadly, a description of the drama of worshipping God. Liturgy is not just the words that are recited, whether fixed or spontaneous, it also includes the actions, the occasions for the worship, and the gathering of the participants. Liturgy is in some ways akin to a screenplay, but just as screenplays… Read more »

Tobias Haller
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Malcolm+ that has to rank up there with Dom Gregory Dix’s parishioner who thought the manual acts included keeping the crab from escaping the altar.

I prefer modest, clear gestures, and I’ve always bowed at the Incarnatus, kneeling during Christmastide. I make a point about putting a note in the bulletin at this time of year. People can join in if they choose, or not.

peterpi
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peterpi

I am a frequent visitor to Anglicanism by way of The Episcopal Church. Years ago, in a spiritually low moment, I found myself in a small Episcopal church in Denver run by a few monks, sojourned there, and was uplifted. I’m not officially Episcopalian. I don’t believe in a central key tenet. But the priest of that church described worship there as “conservative in liturgy and liberal in theology”. For me, that formula works wonders. I love the ceremony, the music (I now sing in a church choir), the “smells and bells”, the garments, the motions. For me, they add… Read more »

Rev L Roberts
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Rev L Roberts

Tomorrow I shall don my alb and stole and say farewell using the liturgies and lectionary that are prescribed. The bishop will be present and all will be in order. God willing in this emotional time the liturgy will make Christ present in word, sacrament and community.

Posted by: Ian Montgomery on Saturday, 3 January 2009 at 3:22pm GMT

Best wishes for the future. God speed.

Rev L Roberts
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Rev L Roberts

Let’s not forget we are all different. We find different things meaningful or devotional or helpful. Also this may vary at different times of our life too. Sometimes the energy just goes out of something we once practiced with devotion, loved even. In the course of my life (almost 60 years)I have gone from no communion service(in childhoood and early teens), to weekly Communion, to daily Communion; and now I prefer other services (can be hard to find) and communicate about once or twice a year. I notice the BCP seems to envisage this kind of practice, but how I… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
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Father Ron Smith

“I think there’s “liturgy” and then there’s “outward display”. To me, “liturgy” is the words we say, not the things we do while saying them. – Pat O’Neill – Pat, my definitioon of ‘liturgy’ from the Greek, is derived from the idea of ‘the people’s work’, which might be rather different from just ‘what people say’. I have always understood that good liturgy, like an ikon, is a representation of the value we give to the object of our worship. It has been said that in order to preach well, one should use words if necessary – in other words,… Read more »

Erika Baker
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Erika Baker

“Malcolm+, I love your story about touching the wall. How many symbols of the current-day liturgy once had a practical purpose, like the pall, and are now mostly ceremonial?”

I love it too.

But a question to all the priests who posted here: how often and how carefully to you explain the liturgy and the gestures to your congregations?
In all the churches I have ever been in, I have never heard an explanation for any of it. Astonishing, if it really should be so important.

RPNewark
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RPNewark

Tobias Haller: “… that has to rank up there with Dom Gregory Dix’s parishioner who thought the manual acts included keeping the crab from escaping the altar.”

I don’t have a copy of his book to hand but I think you’ll find that it was the great Dom Gregory’s grandmother.

Fr. Mark, take care! There’s at least one “bearded sandal-wearing” bishop who is a regular contributor to this list and he’s not much in to dumbing down.

Fr Mark
Guest
Fr Mark

RPNewark: I know the bishop to whom you refer, and think he’s a Good Thing. But beards are not part of the Latin tradition (except for missionaries in the tropics, of course)… and sandals, well next thing we’ll all be looking like Jesus (and/or Rolf Harris), and then maybe acting like him (and/or him) too, and then where would the Church be? Harrumph.

Ford Elms
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Ford Elms

“Astonishing, if it really should be so important.” Isn’t it, though? We have had an Instructed Liturgy a couple of times at our place, people found it very informative. But nothing important in the Church is ever explained by the clergy. I have often stated how OOW was never explained in Canada, isn’t now, even. Liturgical reform was never explained either, we were just told that people couldn’t understand the old language and if we didn’t like it, we were just being conservative fuddy duddies and should get with the times. Neither is acceptance of gay people explained. This unwillingness… Read more »

Erika Baker
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Erika Baker

What I’ve done with my life? Lord, in accordance with your calling I was duly concerned about whether bishops wear beards or not, and what impression they might give in sandals.

I have been faithful in observing all the rituals we have instituted and I have spent time on the Internet assuring everyone of how important they are.

And I have made sure that everyone knows that the Evangelicals/Catholics/Anglo Catholics…insert your own favourite…. worshipped in a way that is surely tedious to you.

That WAS what you wanted from me, wasn’t it?

Fr Paul
Guest
Fr Paul

Ian Montgomery wrote: Tomorrow I shall don my alb and stole and say farewell… May God bless you in your future journey.

I also became an Anglican from a ‘less liturgical church’ and it was the liturgy including the vestments, bells and smells of a (1928 BCP) Midnight Mass that called me home. On the other hand I was involved in creating a ‘fresh expression’ using simple eucharistic liturgies which brought back many who had stopped attending more traditional services. Room for all in God’s mansion.

BillyD
Guest

“That WAS what you wanted from me, wasn’t it?”

God, I thank you that I am not like other people: conservatives, misogynists, homophobes, or even like this Anglo-Catholic. I read (and comment on) progressive blogs twice a day; I give a tenth of all my income to Medecins sans Frontieres…

Rev. Lois Keen
Guest

Ford Elms’ comment on 4 Jan at 6:45 pm is close to my heart. He reminds me of a parishioner in the first congregation for which I was rector. She was known as cantankerous and hard to get along with. After nearly every Sunday service she would ask me a question at the church door and I would answer her, she’d thank me and off she went. One day after her question and my answer (this time it was “Why do you hold your arms out during the Eucharistic prayer?”), she thanked me and added, “I just want to know… Read more »

Fr Mark
Guest
Fr Mark

Erika: I wonder whether you might have invested my comments on beards and sandals with a seriousness which they were not intended to merit…

JCF
Guest
JCF

“This unwillingness to explain change, or anything else, causes a great deal of problems, since people will resist change for which they see no reason”

But isn’t it also true, Ford, that change is *perceived* in the eye of the individual beholder (but some individuals go out of their way to make sure as many as possible can be *induced* to perceive “change”, exactly as they do!)

counterlight
Guest

Speaking as just another crank in the pews, I’ve always loved liturgical worship. The Protestant worship of my childhood was very word centered and deliberately barren. It was very intellectual and rationalizing for all the happy and the clappy. When it tried to be “feeling,” then I always got the sense that I was being sold something, or that I had to be persuaded of something. I’ve always thought of liturgical worship as worship with the hands, and not just with the tongue. It’s about doing and touching as well as speaking and singing. Our thoughts during these services remain… Read more »

John Bunyan
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John Bunyan

I rarely look at blogs especially the rather boring and repetitive ones from obsessive fundamentalists (especially fundamentalist atheists!) However, I appreciated this courteous discussion of liturgy enough to print it out in full and appreciate very much some of the points people have made. As a now retired, former Rector of a working class parish in Sydney Diocese, I now go by train or coach about once a month – as a parishioner – to the historic S.John the Baptist’s, Canberra, 200 miles from Sydney, for BCP Holy Communion and especially for BCP Matins. Morning Prayer, carefully presented in various,… Read more »

Israel J Pattison
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Israel J Pattison

I believe that liturgy can get in the way of sacramentality. Sacramentality (and I believe I am paraphrasing Augustine here) is that notion that anything that is always true everywhere must be recognized at least sometime, somewhere. I gather with my parish for liturgy to remind myself that God is present always, everywhere. I gather for liturgy to remind myself that I am in communion with the Church and with the mystical body of Christ. I believe that it is possible to become some focused on the rubrics that we miss the miracle of God’s grace that is the key… Read more »

Ford Elms
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Ford Elms

“But isn’t it also true, Ford, that change is *perceived* in the eye of the individual beholder” If I understand what you’re getting at here, it’s that people can react to small changes as though they were earth shattering. Which is another reason changes need to be clearly explained. How many “Prayer Book Society” people, for instance, actually understand that modern liturgical forms are actually far more traditional than Cranmer’s brush with Calvinism? Granted, most modern liturgies are unspeakably ugly, but liturgical ugliness was no reason to go into schism, like some did, and might not have had they gotten… Read more »

choirboyfromhell
Guest
choirboyfromhell

Wasn’t there something about the rubrics and the prayer book in general checking one’s ego in worship? And although we call ourselves a liturgical “church” (communion?), it is often the variances in it that cause both amusement and rare concern. There was a previous letter on this thread about crossing oneself at the beginning of the Magnificat. I had observed a friend doing this during an evensong out on the east coast (U.S.), and had never known of it before. Now, if my mind isn’t concentrating on the music, I’ll glance up towards the congregation at our cathedral’s evensongs to… Read more »

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

“Now, if my mind isn’t concentrating on the music, I’ll glance up towards the congregation at our cathedral’s evensongs to see if this happens”

For me, it’s not whether or not anyone else is doing it, but that if I DON’T do, it feels like there’s something missing. I try to be discreet, since in some places the Sign of the Cross is at best something to be suspicious of. But I really don’t care if others do it or not, they can worhsip in their way, I’m sure Our Lord doesn’t mind that sort of thing! 🙂

James
Guest

What a wonderful post and what wonderful comments. I believe that what “young people” and old people want is continuity. That is found in the BCP and well executed ritual. It will always be there like a loving mother to wrap her arms around us and hug us in our good times and our bad times and when we are absolutely miserable. A hug from someone who says she’s mum, but doesn’t look or smell like our mum, is not a hug from mum at all. “Change” and “adaptation” are good and necessary or we would still be worshipping in… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
Guest
Pat O'Neill

Maybe it’s just my parish–but I have experienced it elsewhere–but the problem with the length of hymns in many Episcopal churches isn’t the number of verses sung, but the tempo at which they are played.

I’m sorry, but the “Ode to Joy” is not intended to be funereal in tone and Cat Stevens had the right tempo for “Morning is Broken”–anything slower sounds like the singer is struggling AGAINST waking up! And in the season just passed, “Adeste Fidelis” is a triumphant march, not a slow trudge to the manger!

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

“That is found in the BCP and well executed ritual.” Pick me as someone who wants continuity. I felt the same way about the BCP till I read some Liturgics. There are problems with the BCP rite. The Liturgical Reform movement grew out of a realization that Eucharistic liturgies had deviated significantly from the originals in structure and intent. It was a movement to return to the traditional Eucharist, so, in an odd way, the new rites are more traditional than the BCP. For someone who used to be something of a Prayer Book fundamentalist, I no longer find the… Read more »

Rev L Roberts
Guest
Rev L Roberts

Yes, you go to a lot of trouble JB to follow your religion. Inspiring. Yes, to my mind we ( / I) could do with more mattins type sunday worship ‘As a keen member of the Prayer Book Society, and certainly culturally conservative, I greatly regret the absence today of anything resembling Anglican liturgy in most parishes in our vast, wealthy and what has become in recent years an almost monochrome Diocese. Though I must confess that, at the same time, as a liberal Christian, I belong both to the Modern Churchpeople’s Union and to the (unitarian Christian) King’s Chapel,… Read more »

Rev L Roberts
Guest
Rev L Roberts

Now, would someone please tell me about Dix and the crab on the Altar? Posted by: James on Monday, 5 January 2009 at 4:09pm GMT Yes, its in The Shape of the Liturgy(Dom Gregory Dix) –can’t remember which page ! The old woman made what she would of the various ceremonail acts of the Old Rite , including the Elevation(s) of the Host. What she made of it was that a lobster (yes it was a lobster!) from a lobster pot and it would leap in the air and the priest would catch it and bring it down ! Priest… Read more »

John Holding
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John Holding

“Maybe it’s just my parish–but I have experienced it elsewhere–but the problem with the length of hymns in many Episcopal churches isn’t the number of verses sung, but the tempo at which they are played.” Absolutely. As a musician, my constant task is to try to speed up the music. You have to understand, though, that the organist is not entirely free to do whatever s/he wants. There is a cultural problem (expectations), of course. But the main culprit in most Anglican churches I know is the length of the nave. I’m fortunate … I play (and my orchestra plays,… Read more »

BobinSWPA
Guest
BobinSWPA

As an organist, I had the opportunity to play in some of the various denominations present in Western PA. My other half goes to a very liberal Presbyterian church as do many of my friends. As much as I love them, I find saying three or four prayers and listening to a 40 minute sermon a bit tough. It reminds me more of some of those college lectures without note taking. I don’t like having people bring communion around to me and sitting at gospel (which several Protestant denominations do). I think our liturgy has a good balance between that… Read more »

superanglican
Guest
superanglican

As a fellow student of Fr. Buchner’s at a different time, I have had the same experience of being one of the seemingly few Anglican clergy with some liturgical training. The actual celebration of the Eucharist was taught at Trinity to our class by Fr. Warren Eling, who gave us the full ceremonial with gestures, etc. he said that it was easier to take some of it away than to add on. it is interesting that the Trinity grads,myself included, have often been approached by clergy with other backgrounds to show them how to celebrate. In my Diocese, the Trinity… Read more »

Malcolm+
Guest

I think the issue of appealing or meaningful liturgy has less to do with the use of Elizabethan or English than it has to do with liturgy done well and liturgy done poorly. I’ve seen majestic Book of Alternative Services liturgy that leaves no doubt we worship in company with heavenly choirs. I’ve see botched Book of Common Prayer liturgy that leaves one wanting to slit one’s eyeballs. Liturgy deserves to be done well, whether one it is high mass at an Anglo-Catholic shrine or U2charist or a youth group camp out or a simple Sunday morning. Liturgy done poorly… Read more »

Malcolm+
Guest

On the matter of BCP v BAS, I fail to understand how Eucharistic Prayer 6 (based on the Basilian canon, also Eucharistic Prayer D in the American BCP) can possibly be called ugly.

It is an established Anglican principle that liturgy should be in “a tongue understanded of the people.” As pretty as the Prayer Book Elizabethan is, it is not such a tongue. I do not recall Howie Meeker ever saying: “Verily, Gretsky doth shoot! Lo, he scoreth!”

Ferdinand von Prondzynski
Guest

Malcolm wrote: ‘It is an established Anglican principle that liturgy should be in “a tongue understanded of the people.” As pretty as the Prayer Book Elizabethan is, it is not such a tongue. I do not recall Howie Meeker ever saying: “Verily, Gretsky doth shoot! Lo, he scoreth!”‘ Well, yes and no. The Anglican principle is ‘understanded of the people’, not ‘as the guys talk, like, know what I mean?’ No liturgy that I know of (or would have much truck with) uses popular language in the strict sense, and there is plenty of evidence that worshippers react better to… Read more »

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

“I fail to understand how Eucharistic Prayer 6 (based on the Basilian canon, also Eucharistic Prayer D in the American BCP) can possibly be called ugly.” We can all find individual examples of things that are not ugly about the BAS. I am fond of one of the blessings of the font at baptism. Nor am I making an argument for Elizabethan English, though I do believe the scorn heaped on such language at the time by those who promoted reform was completely uninformed. Look at Common Worhsip, a far better put together book, and far more pleasant to the… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
Guest
Pat O'Neill

I forget which one it is, but my fave Eucharistic prayer is the one teasingly called the “Star Trek” prayer among Episcopalians…the one with references to the stars and planets and Earth as our “island home”. To me, it combines majestic language with a modern understanding of cosmology.

Back to the music question I brought up…I understand the acoustical problems. I come from a theater background and know all about the sound delay, etc. It still seems to me that we manage to make everything sound like it’s too early in the morning and we’re all sleepy yet.

BillyD
Guest

“I forget which one it is, but my fave Eucharistic prayer is the one teasingly called the “Star Trek” prayer among Episcopalians…”

Eucharistic Prayer C. I remember hating this as unbearably corny when I was a teenager, but I recently re-read it and found that it wasn’t nearly as hokey as I thought thirty-odd years ago.

bobinswpa
Guest
bobinswpa

Pat: I too enjoy the “Star Trek” Eucharistic prayer except for the “we turned away from you in sin,” part (I’m not real big on the brokeness of the world and sin. My parish was overun by evangelicals).