Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Resisting the Alleluia Creep: A Guest Contribution

[This post comes by kind favour of the Revd Michael Povey, of Sarasota, Fla, USA. His blog can be found here.]

There’s a story that sometime around 1980 a Pentecostal Christian attended an Episcopal Church with her friend from work.  During the sermon, the visitor began to utter a few fervent “Alleluias” in accordance with her heritage. 

 A frosty man seated in front of her turned around and glared.  “We don’t say “Alleluia” in the Episcopal Church”, he hissed.

Her Episcopalian friend squeezed her hand and said in a loud whisper “Oh yes we do, it’s on page 366 in the Prayer Book”.

Indeed the 1976/79 Book of Common Prayer offers Episcopalians the chance to express fervent alleluias; indeed “double alleluias”.  We do so between Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost (The Great Fifty Days), at the dismissal. At that point the Deacon exclaims: “Alleluia. Alleluia. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”.  Then the congregation responds with “Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia”.

 It’s an exciting affirmation of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus it is a powerful liturgical moment which  the Prayer Book reserves  to those “Great Fifty Days”, which we observe as “Extraordinary Time”.

Many congregations are now, (aided and abetted in many cases by their Cleric) extending that “double alleluia” to “Ordinary Time”.  In some places the double alleluia is becoming the year round norm. 

The alleluias are often shrieked out, in a manner which Alan Greenspan might describe as irrational exuberance, or which I would call congregational self-congratulation.

This bothers me. So I was heartened to learn that a friend of mine, a Priest who lives in Maine is similarly bothered.

I suspect that we each would say that our “botheration” is rooted in this: “If the extra-ordinary becomes ordinary, then that “extra-ordinary” is sadly diminished.

That concept is not reserved to matters liturgical.  Most Americans enjoy our Thanksgiving holiday as an extra-ordinary day marked in particular by the foods we eat.  But if on every Thursday of the year we feasted on  turkey with chestnut dressing, sweet potatoes, peas with onions, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and pumpkin or pecan pie (etc, etc) then the fourth Thursday of November (in the U.S.A.)  will cease to have its particular meaning.

And so it is in the matter of the “Alleluia creep”.

In some places the “irrational exuberance” leads to the congregational recitation of a triple alleluia, each one being uttered louder than the previous.  

The American Prayer Book wisely reserves a triple alleluia to only one liturgy (so far as I am aware).  It is in the Liturgy for Christian Burial. There we hear these faith filled words “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia”. We are thereby  “thumbing our noses at death” – so to speak.

I respect and honour the biblical wisdom of the American Prayer book which restricts double Alleluias to  Easter, and triple Alleluias to Burials. That prayer book wisdom is meet and right.  

Indeed it is meet and right to resist the “Alleluia creep”.  What do you think?

[Feel free to respond below, or at the original post here]

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Date of Christmas

[A version of this essay, somewhat liberally edited, was published in 2001 in Bible Review, now rolled into Biblical Archaeology Review, where it has a startlingly large online exposure each Christmas. What follows is close to the copy actually submitted, less a few footnotes!]

Most have heard the explanation that Christians appropriated a pagan festival, date and customs and all, and simply renamed or reinterpreted it for their own purposes. The truth is rather different, and more complex.

Christmas as such was not celebrated in the first couple of centuries after the birth of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel, apparently the earliest written, does not narrate Jesus’ birth. Interest in Jesus’ human origins emerges in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which provide well-known but quite different accounts, and continues in second-century apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James, which claim to elaborate on the details that might have occurred to the curious - everything from Jesus’ grandparents to his education.

This “human interest” angle did not reflect or immediately spur a ritualized observance of the events, however. For the purposes of ordering worship and time, the last climactic events of Jesus’ ministry were far more interesting to the first Christian communities than the poignancy of his beginnings. Since Jesus’ last great conflict with the Roman authorities and their collaborators had taken place around Passover, his death was from a very early stage interpreted along lines suggested by the great Jewish festival, and his resurrection celebrated annually in some relation to it. As we shall see, however, this kind of observance may have had its own impact on the eventual emergence of the Christmas feast.

Most prominent among other early Christian festivals were the commemorations of martyrs, echoes of this Easter motif of noble death and eternal life, continued into the life of the persecuted Church. Celebrating the anniversaries of the deaths of heroes like Polycarp of Smyrna (d. 155?) or the young African convert Perpetua (d. 203), offered hope of resistance to the pagan authority that had taken their lives but made them effective imitators of Christ. These feasts were actually referred to as “birthdays,” but somewhat ironically. Origen of Alexandria (165?-264?) could write scornfully of the custom of celebrating the actual anniversaries of human birth (Hom in Lev. 8) as a pagan idea.

The observance of Christmas as a feast appeared only rather later, in the fourth century, or perhaps at the end of the third. The proliferation of holidays that allowed Christians to go through the year in connection with the life of Jesus has often been seen as linked to the end of persecution. In the fourth century particularly, evidence such as that of the pilgrim Egeria, who visited the Churches of newly-Christian Jerusalem, documents the emergence of a complex sanctification of time still reflected in the Christian calendar today.

The fourth century also saw greater emphasis placed by Christians on God’s personal presence in Jesus throughout his life - the “incarnation” or enfleshment of God, as teachers such as Athanasius of Alexandria put it. While this was not a new doctrine, fierce debates about the specifics, reflected in documents such as the Nicene Creed (325/380) indicate how Jesus’ own conception and birth could become matters of even greater concern and curiosity in popular belief, and ritual also.

Yet the choice of a specific date for this new feast, appearing centuries after the event it commemorated, is curious. The lack of specific information about the timing of Jesus’ birth has never kept the enthusiastic and the ingenious, ancient and modern alike, from speculating about the exact date of the first Christmas.  Extracting supposed hints from the Gospels about issues such as the time of year, however, involves the risk of asking questions they were not attempting to answer -  even the year of Jesus’ birth is somewhat unclear.

When the feast of Christmas emerged, there were two dates, December 25 and January 6 (now the Feast of the Epiphany) kept in different parts of the world; the first was mainly observed in the western provinces of the Roman Empire, and the second in places further East such as Egypt and Asia Minor. In time, each of these competing dates was transferred to the other areas too; December 25 prevailed as the primary commemoration of the birth of Jesus, and January 6 became associated with the story of the coming of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12). The period between – the twelve days of Christmas – became a holiday season, preceded by the fasting period known as Advent.

Both these dates were fairly close to the winter solstice - December 21 in our modified Gregorian calendar. Mid-winter festivals were common - the Romans had their Saturnalia, and peoples of northern and western Europe had similar holidays. In 274 CE the Roman Emperor Aurelian had established a feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) on December 25 itself. When one of his successors, Constantine, converted to Christianity just a few decades later, imagery and popular practice associated with these pagan observances were easily and readily adaptable to the Christian holiday that took their place.

Ancient Christian authors of the time had already noted this connection between solstice observances and Christmas – Church fathers such as Ambrose reveled in using the imagery of Christ as true “sun,” using the natural symbolism to its full potential while vaunting over fallen gods of the old order. For these, however, the coincidence was not a deliberate or recent piece of calendrical engineering, but a providential sign.

In more recent times, however, the parallel came to be treated as key to explaining the choice of an actual date. The idea first appears in a gloss on a 12th century manuscript, explaining not the origin of Christmas but its transfer from January 6 (taken by the scribe to be the real date) to December 25, because of the solstice holiday.1 Scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spurred on by new studies of comparative religion, seized upon this conjunction as a complete explanation for the Christian feast.  Since these dates were clearly not related to the birth date of the historical Jesus, which was unknown, were they not thinly-veiled pagan festivals, appropriated and Christianized only superficially?

Yet the holiday itself and “knowledge” of the dates appear a little too early to work with this theory.

In the first few centuries, the persecuted Christian minority had at least as great a concern to distance itself from the most important and public of pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, the games, and holidays. It was in the fourth century and after, following the conversion of the first Christian Emperor Constantine and the resulting “peace of the Church,” that strategies shifted more clearly to accommodation and Christianization of pagan practices.

Yet the first evidence for Christmas as a feast seems to be slightly too early to make sense as one instance of newly-triumphant fourth-century Christianity. It had already developed by 300 or so at least; about a hundred years after that time, bishop Augustine of Hippo refers to the Christmas observance of a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who celebrated Christmas (December 25), but not Epiphany (January 6). The Donatists had split from the wider Church in 312. In the East meanwhile, theologians and preachers of the late fourth century were working hard to introduce the December 25 date on top of the well-established January 6 feast (Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 38; John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem).

The second and more telling problem for the idea that the actual date of Christmas is taken from pagan solstice festivals is that while actual liturgical feasts of the incarnation were indeed late, the dates might have been identified much earlier. Clement of Alexandria, a Christian teacher who wrote around 200 – long before anyone suggests celebration of Christmas as a holiday – knows of a tradition dating Jesus’ birth to January 6 (Strom. 1.21.145).2 So in some places at least, there was certainly an interest not just in birth stories, but in the date of Jesus’ birth, long before the Christmas feast emerged.

There is no exact equivalent of this early evidence when it comes to December 25, which was to become the prevalent Christmas date in western provinces first. Yet there was speculation as far back as 200 by the Carthaginian Christian writer Tertullian about the date of Jesus’ death that landed on the surprising and suggestive date of March 25 (Adv. Iudaeos 8) – later to be kept as the Feast of the Annunciation, the point of Jesus’ conception.3

Is there a connection? The key to understanding the emergence both of January 6 and December 25 as specific dates for Jesus’ birth seems – strange as it may seem initially – possibly to lie in the dating of Passover and of Jesus’ death. Tertullian had calculated that in the year Jesus died, March 25 was, according to the Roman calendar, the day the lambs for the Passover Seder were slaughtered (Nisan 14). Following the chronology implied by the Gospel of John, Tertullian took this also to be the date of Jesus’ death.

In provinces further to the East, efforts to establish the date of Easter each year (and not just the first Easter) had led Christians to seek a firmer place in the solar Julian calendar for their Christian celebration. Instead of using the Jewish lunar calendar to find Nisan 14, they chose the fourteenth day of the first Spring month (‘Artemisios’) in the local Greek calendar – April 6 to us. The loyalty of these eastern Christians to their custom of keeping Easter on the actual fourteenth day rather than on the Sunday following (as others then held, and eventually all Christians came to practice) became a major debate within the Church - they themselves were sometimes referred to as “Quartodecimans,” “Fourteenthers.”

So in the eastern provinces we have evidence not only for a birth date for Jesus on January 6, as Clement indicates, but for Easter exactly nine months before. This may shed light on the December 25 date as well. These two dates for the Passover when Jesus died, March 25 and April 6, are of course nine months before the original eastern and western dates for Christmas. The implication is fairly clear, if odd: second-century Christians in different areas had apparently calculated the birth of Jesus on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day – and had come up with two close, but different, results. These calculations preceded any clear evidence for the actual liturgical celebration of Christmas – but may have been there, already “known,” when the interest in Jesus’ birth led to establishment of a festival.

Aside from the wildly complicated calculations involved, the connection between Jesus’ conception and death seems strange to modern readers, at least as history. Yet it was not so odd in ancient terms. Rabbinic writings reflect a similar belief that the great events of creation and salvation had taken, and would take, place on the same dates. The Babylonian Talmud preserves the view that the world was created, the Patriarchs born, and the world would be redeemed, all in the month of Nisan (b. Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a). This sort of speculation could go back as early as the second or third centuries. Thus the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on chronology, continuing such Jewish models; Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he was to die, and born nine months later.

This account of the origins of Christmas as computed from the presumed date of his death was first proposed in modern times by Louis Duchesne, and has fairly recently been restated with nuances by Thomas Talley.4 While questions remain, and gaps in the evidence still allow different scholarly interpretations on this question as on so many others, historians no longer wheel out the explanation of Christmas as a borrowed pagan festival in an unqualified way.

The connection between the date of Christmas and the solstice did make the feast of the nativity more strategically important and possible. In the new world of a Christian empire, the fourth-century Church was not backward in appropriating symbols already known to pagans. The various forms of Christmas observance across time and space have always and obviously owed much to local traditions and lore that preceded or grew alongside Christian faith.

The actual date of Christmas could really derive more from Judaism than paganism, both in the relation between dates in Jesus’ life and death and the time of Passover, and in the notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of year. In this notion of God’s recurring redemption, we may perhaps be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood too.

1. A gloss on an MS of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (2nd ed.; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991), 101-102.

2. In addition, Christians in Clement’s native Egypt seem to have known a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism – sometimes understood as the moment of his divine choice, and hence as an alternate “incarnation” story – on the same date (Strom. 1.21.146). See further on this point Talley, Origins, 118-20, drawing on Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 42 (1923) 81-134.

3. There are other relevant texts for this element of argument, including Hippolytus and the (pseudo-Cyprianic) De pascha computus; see Talley, Origins, 86 and 90-91.

4. Origines du culte chrétien (5th ed.; Paris:Thorin et Fontemoing, 1925), 275-279.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Changing the Oils

While an ancient tradition, the Chrism Eucharist as presently known is a surprisingly recent addition to the ceremonies of Holy Week, arising from reforms of Pius XII in 1955 and innovations of Paul VI in 1970. In general, Anglican versions of it have unfortunately been based on these recent Roman rites, which reflect a quite specific understanding of priesthood and episcopate, not ancient or catholic practice.

In the third and fourth centuries, by when oils had come to be widely used for anointing catechumens and the newly-baptized as well as the sick, they were all probably blessed according to need, in some cases by presbyters as well as by bishops. Oil of the sick, at least, could be also used by lay people from day to day at their own initiative, and Pope Innocent I and the Venerable Bede are among defenders of that tradition against the eventually-victorious clericalizing tendency more familiar today. Nonetheless the blessed oils are for the whole Church, not for clerics per se.

The idea of a Mass to celebrate the ministries associated with the oils emerged by the sixth century. While Medieval Roman liturgical books provided for the blessing of oils at the second of three Masses of Holy Thursday, in practice these blessings were often rolled into the rather full celebration of the institution of the Eucharist, the Mandatum.

The separate Chrism Eucharist was reintroduced in the Roman Catholic use in 1955, as part of reforms of Holy Week. Only in 1970 however did that Church add the renewal of ordination vows, which they and many Anglicans now treat as more fundamental to the rite than the blessing of oils. The readings provided in the Roman Rite and copied by many Anglicans (Isa 61:1-13; Rev 1:5-8; Luke 4:18-19) seem to be about ordination, not the ministries or sacraments associated with anointing.

The reason for this has much to do with inner-Roman Catholic politics; in the 1960s there were outbreaks of clerical disobedience especially in Europe, and the idea of renewing vows of loyalty to the bishop was taken up to address them. Apart from the fact that priests attended the Chrism Mass to receive the oils anyway, and were hence available for this ceremony, the connection has been built on the problematic idea that, as Pope John Paul II put in his Holy Thursday letter of 1997, clerical participants were gathering "round your bishop to commemorate with joy the institution of the priesthood in the Church." That is, Maundy or Holy Thursday is seen as much or more the founding of the ministerial priesthood as of the Eucharist. Some may find this astounding. I will merely say this is not a view all Anglicans will entertain.

It is doubly unfortunate then that the real purpose of the rite is often obscured, and what was originally a celebration for the whole Church with the bishop, not for the clergy alone or specifically, has become a sort of clerical love-in.

Anglicans could do this better, by going back to the roots of the liturgy and the meaning of the oils used for catechumens, for the sick, and at baptism. Some dioceses have extended the renewal of vows at the Chrism Eucharist to include deacons and lay ministers. This is attractive, but pre-empts the renewal of baptismal vows at the Easter vigil, which is the more important exercise (even for priests!).

More defensible might be a focus on specific ministries, lay and ordained, associated with the oils, and hence interpreting the newer aspect of the celebration through the older. The bishop might invite hospital chaplains and visitors, catechists and educators, to participate in this communal preparation of the oils which symbolize the formation and the healing of the Christian Church as a whole.

It might be too ambitious to suggest that the renewal of ordination vows be removed, but if it is included then this element should at least be handled more carefully as part of the whole Church's ministry and mission.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Percy does posture, or: Standing up for Jesus?

Some readers (but not all) will remember an Anglicanism in which kneeling was the done thing. The bidding "Let us pray" was instantly and easily understood as an instruction to kneel, and we did. The opening prayers, the Collect, the intercessory prayers (aka "Prayer for the Church Militant"), the whole of the Thanksgiving and Consecration...if in doubt, we knelt.

One of the messages of the liturgical movement that hit the Church in the second half of the twentieth century was that we had been kneeling a bit too much. It was true. The one-sided emphasis on penitence and submission found in much Anglican liturgy was one of those camels we had swallowed from the Medieval Church while straining at sacrificial gnats. The ethos of Christian communal action implied in the New Testament, and lived out in the ancient Church, was less focussed on individual breast-beating than on the collective celebration of God's grace.

The resulting message had one startling central theme: stand up! We had been used to standing only for singing - presumably for practical reasons related to our diaphragms - as well as for the Gloria, the Gospel, and the Creed. These had left a clue behind about the meaning of such a posture. We rediscovered through the sixties the fairly natural coherence between a theology emphasizing the victory of the Resurrection and the liturgical norm of standing. The new texts and orders that were introduced around the Anglican world - Series I-III, Australia '69, '77 etc, A Liturgy for Africa - all implied or stated their alignment with such different understandings of posture.

Of course it was not all about standing. Each of standing, sitting and kneeling had a place in this revised set of understandings about how our bodies reflect our belief. Standing was for corporate prayer, including prayers of intercession and the Great Thanksgiving. Kneeling was only for specifically penitential or reflective and personal elements, such as private prayer and the corporate confession of sin. Sitting was for readings and sermon only, aside from waiting before and after the liturgy.

This was, however, an incomplete revolution. Even where the liturgical movement took deep hold, there was hesitation, or appropriate variation, about some specifics. Many have remained deeply connected to kneeling to receive Communion, for instance. While some clergy were being actively and carefully taught such understandings of the new liturgies, others were less well trained. And those who had become liturgical-movement purists were not thereby necessarily good educators or effective pastors.

The result is a mixed bag. In the Diocese of Melbourne, Australia, where Percy has recent and decades-old experience, the basic news is of back-sliding and mess. Where in the 1980s parishes of progressive Catholic mood were standing more and kneeling less, what is most striking is how often they are sitting. Without sufficient education or leadership, sitting has become a norm for corporate prayer of intercession in particular. There is no good reason for this at all, but a perfectly reasonable explanation: sitting is the flaccid via media for people no longer sure whether or stand or kneel, or why.

A related phenomenon is the disconnect between the posture of ministers and that of congregation. It is increasingly common that at times when kneeling might still be expected or encouraged, ministers actually remain standing. Example is, as always, a powerful teacher; where ministers do not kneel, people see little point.

Sitting does have its place, we have acknowledged. And there may be circumstances where that place is larger - where, for instance, the liturgy is celebrated with a more-than-usual emphasis on the meditative or reflective, as in the ethos connected with the community of Taizé. Yet otherwise Percy suggests sitting is, in the tradition of the Church catholic, intended for listening and waiting.

Liturgy is based on the idea that the physical disposition of objects, space and our own bodies actually does matter. There may be different specific opinions about posture, but the present indifference and confusion evident in the Australian Anglican Church, and some other branches of the Communion, is not a matter for celebration.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I Don't Believe in Worship (2)

[Continued from this essay]

What then could ‘worship’ mean, if we sought to make the term meaningful again?

There are two ways to approach the question from the New Testament. On the one hand, there is the concept and language of ‘worship’, which originally suggests reverent orientation of the whole person towards God. This does involve speech and physical practices including ritual, which may be domestic and personal as well as communal and public (John 4:20, 12:20, Acts 8:27, 24:11); but although such language of ‘worship’ suggests something about the disposition of Christian life as a whole, it says relatively little about the specifics of proper Christian liturgy, except that it should be coherent with the rest of life.

On the other hand, distinctive practices are attested and urged for Christians. Christians eat at the table of the Lord, baptise, fast, pray, teach (Eucharist: 1 Cor 10:16-17, 11:17-34, Jude 12; Baptism: Rom 6:4, 1 Cor  1:13-17, 15:29, Acts 2:41 etc; Common Prayer: Acts 1:14, 6:4, 14:23, Col 4:2). This list could be expanded to include actions less clearly liturgical, such as practical concern for the poor (Gal 2:10, 1 Cor 16:1-2, James 1:27), which in the ancient Church was strongly linked to communal gatherings.

Many of these actions have ritual elements, such as prescribed forms of words, bodily performances and use of particular objects. Even if these are not referred to as ‘worship’, they can properly be understood as such in the later sense, if the connection is made between such distinctive liturgical practices and the wider demands made of the Christian community to serve God in our whole lives.

The two prominent and distinctive ways Christians have gathered together from the earliest times are the Eucharist (or Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper) and the daily ‘offices’, which in Anglicanism are expressed in the two-fold structure of Morning and Evening Prayer. The Eucharist was and is the most distinctively Christian communal action. 

The fact that much Protestant ‘worship’ is not Eucharistic is an unhappy historical accident; although the Reformers, and later leaders of renewal like the Wesleys, generally sought more frequent communion, they and their contemporaries had inherited a piety that dictated frequent attendance but infrequent participation. Rejecting the non-communicating Masses of Roman Catholicism, they were forced back onto using the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer—good and holy gatherings to be sure—for ends beyond their real purpose, and they became the main Sunday event.

While mainstream Anglicanism recovered the centrality of Eucharistic worship in the 20th century, it tended then to forget the importance of the daily prayer services, with their deeply biblical character, prayerful use of the Psalms, and sacred rhythms of rising and sleeping with God.

While Anglican liturgy will continue to change and develop, if it does not take these two forms of ‘Common Prayer’ as the touchstones for what we do together, the result will certainly not be Anglican, but neither will it be adequately Christian—and hardly ‘worship’ either.

God, Gluten-free?

A satirical version of a pew-sheet that has circulated over the past decade offers advice concerning the options available to the contemporary communicant:
To receive an ordinary, unleavened Communion wafer, kindly wink your right eye as the minister approaches. For a certified, organic, whole-grain wafer, wink your left eye. For low-salt, low-fat bread, close both eyes for the remainder of the service. For gluten-free bread, blink both eyes rapidly while looking at the ceiling.
Blinking aside, this isn't so far from reality in some places. Such announcements arise of course from the prevalence of coeliac disease, which is four times more common than fifty years ago, even taking into account different patterns of diagnosis and reporting. The reason for this new prevalence are not certain, but there is real suspicion that the kind of modern hard wheat we now eat in great quantity, and/or the presence of gluten and other wheat derivatives in other products, has triggered the spread of this auto-immune disorder. There are also much more common, if less critical, forms of allergy or intolerance to modern bread wheat found in a fair proportion of the population.

Anglicans can arguably consider gluten-free options for the Eucharist because the Prayer Book rubric states “it shall suffice that the Bread be such as is usual to be eaten” which allows alignment or correlation with cultural change; but it goes on to say “but the best and purest Wheat Bread that conveniently may be gotten”, both urging conscientious attention to the quality of the bread, and privileging use of wheat. What the tradition seems to have in mind is the desire to use what Jesus used at the Last Supper, instituting the Eucharist. The Lambeth Quadrilateral speaks of “unfailing use…of the elements ordained by him”.

Roman Catholics are officially less free about choosing Eucharistic bread. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (2000) states: “The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be made only from wheat, must be recently baked, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, must be unleavened.”

The insistence that the bread be wheat, noted in both traditions if not held with equal insistence, may well be a historical mistake, if intended as strict imitation of the Last Supper, the accounts of which do not specify of what the bread was made. For that matter, the species of grain known in Jesus’ time are not the same ones we have today; wheat in particular underwent repeated hybridization even in the pre-industrial world, let alone after the more aggressive changes of industrial agriculture and recent plant science, now including genetic modification. So it is not even possible to know exactly what Jesus used, let alone use it.

In slightly later Rabbinic traditions and since, unleavened bread – matzah – is made from the same grains that are otherwise prohibited at Passover, because they create natural yeast cultures and leaven—and hence bread: wheat varieties, including spelt and emmer, as well as barley. In subsequent history, rye and oats have certainly been included in this obligation, although they may not have grown in ancient Judea. Some rabbis included rice. In fact yeast itself is allowed at Passover, since it is involved in the fermentation of wine; but while yeast-derived wine is allowed, grain-derived drinks like beer and whisky are not.

So although it is likely that the bread of Jesus’ Passover would have been made from an ancient wheat variety, it is not stretching things too far to say that other ancient Jews, and hence early Christians also, may have eaten bread made from any of these grains.

Why then the more restrictive view in Roman Catholic circles?

In the Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas argues not only from the superior quality of wheat, and from the awkward ground that Augustine of Hippo had viewed biblical references to barley - which was admittedly cheaper and coarser - as indicating the harshness of the Mosaic Law. This is a little ironic since the insistence on unleavened wheat bread is supposed to reflect the Mosaic Law too!

Thomas' prescriptive advice about wheat apparently carries more wheat weight in Roman Catholicism than the ambiguity of the biblical texts. Anglicans will object that what cannot be established scripturally ought not to be insisted on for all and everywhere, even if customary for some. While wheat may be very appropriate matter for the sacrament, it is dubious to conclude that St Thomas' preferences and St Augustine's attitudes to barley (and to Judaism) should trump provisions at the Eucharist that have their own real claim to historical authenticity, and make sense in the present.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Don't Believe in Worship (Part 1)

‘Worship’ has become almost a meaningless term in some places; and where it does mean something, it now often has little to do with those distinctive practices whereby the Christian community across history has expressed and renewed its relationship with the God of Jesus Christ.

The problem is most profound in newer Church settings where ‘worship’ is equated with ‘music’, and ‘worship leaders’ are conductors or accompanists, rather than preachers or priests. Yet even Christians who belong to Churches of clearly sacramental character, such as Anglicans, may well see their liturgical actions simply as aesthetic options chosen according to preference for a certain activity or style.

It is then unsurprising if we find ‘worship’ events becoming more akin to sales meetings, arena concerts or whatever other cultural forms are available for adaptation, rather than recognizable forms of Eucharistic celebration or daily prayer.

Even fairly recently the English word ‘worship’ referred to reverence and service (cf. ‘with my body I thee worship’). In present Western Christianity however, this meaning has been lost, and ‘worship’ tends to mean whatever people do in Church on Sundays. Similarly 'service' has lost the earlier meaning of 'divine service', and refers to a meeting rather than a disposition.

So ‘Worship services’ (two vapid words combined in a desperate effort to mean something!) might seem to be constructed just to suit our tastes or passing preferences, rather than as particular activities characteristic of the Christian community across its history.

The possibility that our liturgy might really be ‘worship’ has to do then with how well we integrate it into the whole of life, lived faithfully and authentically – in Church as well as out of it. For Christians that does involve some characteristic patterns and actions.

If instead we make aesthetic preferences or ‘worship needs’ (as one recent publication called them) the determinant of liturgical practice, this certainly contradicts any real ethos of Christian worship; for if ‘needs’ are understood as the pre-existing wants of the participant, rather than either as the imperative to exist or act in a certain relationship to God, or as continuing faithfully in practices founded on Jesus' example and teaching, we are wasting our time or worse.

Of course Christians do and should borrow some elements of newer cultural forms, critically and carefully; Percy is not pleading here for a particular aesthetic of traditional liturgy, but for recognition that liturgy is founded on core actions and patterns, on scripture and bread and wine and prayer.

We can and should adapt forms; but if the core actions of our liturgies are not made more profound and more prominent in the process, then the result is a failure. We therefore need to pay as much or more attention to the real core or substance of specifically Christian liturgy, rather than to the trappings in which it is presented. Here we might have to admit that both traditional and commercialized forms of Christian gathering often fail equally, if differently.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wait for it...

Many Anglicans join in the annual rituals of rolling our eyes when Easter eggs appear in the shops before Lent has begin, or when Christmas fare stocks the shelves in October.

The same people however are doing some odd and unreflective things about liturgical time. Most obvious is the tendency to anticipate feast days. In quite a few places, Churches appear to celebrate any major feast, or feast associated with their life like a patronal festival, anything up to a week before the actual day.

Is this a problem? Well it's not a problem like poverty or pain, to be sure. In dealing with liturgical questions like those Percy addresses, it's always important to keep things in perspective - God will cope.

The problem is worth analysing however, because it is symptomatic of some broader issues about the wider reality of liturgy and ritual. Time itself is an important medium in the structure of Christian life, and failure to appreciate the underlying logic of the liturgical year is at best a missed opportunity. At worst, it may even reflect and reinforce problems that have real ethical and theological weight.

The tradition of the Church is fairly clear. Feasts are not celebrated before it is time for them. Feasts are actually preceded by fasts, not preliminary feasts. We all know this in theory, because of Lent and Advent (a particular challenge, admittedly). The Prayer Book of 1662 contains a table of "Vigils, Fasts, and Days of Abstinence" whose significance seems not to be understood by the framers of some later books, but Vigils in theory precede most feast days.

All this is a bit counter-intuitive to us, and we might well ask why. Scott Peck, of The Road Less Travelled fame, suggests that "delay of gratification" is one of the fundamental disciplines necessary to live a good life. Peck's language in that book is not theological, but it was not hard for many readers (and later him) to see the connection with spiritual discipline.

The structure of liturgical time reflects the call to such discipline, and the creative tension between feasting and fasting. If graphed, liturgical time would not merely be a gentle curve rolling from feast to feast, but a more angular and challenging trajectory, with lows as well as highs and - most remarkably - the two linked. That is to say, liturgical time is supposed to be a medium within which the logic of cross and resurrection is mapped and lived. This is why it is not trivial.

As things are, time has become a rather tame and sad thing in the Church's life. Leaving aside the neo-puritan dismissal of its significance, the catholic remnant in Anglicanism tends to baulk at the demands and promises of time. We see the passage from season to season, or from fast to feast, as a move from one flavour of liturgical ice-cream to the other.

Percy will write further about the temptation to do everything on Sundays - a related but distinct problem.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Read it!

It has become common in some parishes of more liberal and/or Catholic bent in Australia to omit one or more of the set readings from the Lectionary, on weekdays including feasts, and sometimes even on Sundays.

This is a very unfortunate development, for many reasons. It undermines the Catholic Anglican claim to present an appropriate relationship, 'both/and', as it were, of Word and Sacrament. It reflects and deepens a wider problem of biblical illiteracy. It undermines the intentions of the lectionary framers, and often particularly suggests a quasi-Marcionite view that downgrades the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (since this is so often what gets dropped).

The reason? Apparently nothing more profound than that the liturgy 'takes too long' with all the readings.

This is breathtakingly bad reasoning and practice, but there are a few factors to consider to understand it.

One is that the Revised Common Lectionary, commonly now in use in Anglican circles, has been ineffectively introduced and is poorly understood. The lack of connection across the readings of a given day (as opposed to the readings from week to week) makes it easier to dislodge one or more of them, without a deep sense of loss for the congregation. And without a pattern of preaching that engages with the Lectionary as a whole, the disparate lections are all the more precarious. So there is a serious unmet need for teaching about the Bible, and the Bible in the liturgy - its natural home!

Yet the concern about excessive length or boredom suggests a problem of performance, for the readings and for the liturgy more generally. If participants are not engaged with the readings, or with any aspect of the celebration, attention needs to be given to how they are presented.

There is no rubric, printed or arcane, that requires readings to be done badly or inaudibly just so people can have a turn. There is no rule that says anyone equipped to mow the lawn or do bookkeeping has the duty or right to mangle complex rhetoric in the NT Epistles. If a music group can rehearse, so can a reader - but we just don't seem to care as much.

In other words, this problem suggests not only some difficulties about our interest in the Bible, but about our seriousness regarding the liturgy as a whole.

Our plea, then, is 'Read it!'. The Lectionary is there for a reason, and those who treat it in a sloppy manner will be ill-equipped to defend use of any set pattern of readings against the critical and the ignorant who think it more 'biblical' to pick and choose whatever they want.

If the reading of three disparate pieces of scripture and the Psalm presents a challenge, treat it as a positive one, and consider how to train readers, how to expound the course-readings from the OT/HB in preaching, and how to use other liturgical opportunities to 'read, mark, learn and inwardly digest'. This process of serious engagement with scripture is essential to Anglicanism, and we are on weak foundations without it.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Welcoming those in attendance has become a particular sort of alternative or additional opening to the liturgy. I have written elsewhere about the importance of opening liturgically and theologically, rather with banalities or information focussed exclusively on the community itself, and those comments apply here as well.

There is a particular problem or pitfall with welcomes, however. Not that it is unimportant either that visitors are received warmly, or that the character of God’s gracious hospitality is communicated.

I have come to wonder, however, whether there is an inverse relationship, in Anglican congregations of liturgical and sacramental character, between the likelihood of a pained welcome to visitors by the presider and the likelihood of there actually being any visitors. Welcoming people has often become a shibboleth of inclusiveness for congregations which are not really lively enough to attract or keep newcomers.

To get to the heart of the matter, though: Percy suggests that it is not appropriate for a minister or presider normally to welcome the (other) members of the community to the celebration of the Eucharist. This would be to suggest that the minister(s) are themselves the hosts, and the other participants guests. Doubtless such welcomes are well-intended; but the message conveyed is less hospitable than clericalist. The Eucharist does not belong to the ordained, but to the baptized; the baptized do not need to be welcomed by clergy to what God has already made their own.

Some may object that the clergy—or at least a presiding priest—may be acting in such a way as to represent and communicate God’s continued gracious and open welcome. Percy does not dismiss this idea, or the notion of "priesthood" that it implies, i.e., that the ordained may have the particular calling and charism in the liturgy of representing God and people to one another. However these elements of priesthood are secondary to the more fundamental and biblical sense that the people themselves are a holy priesthood; it is for them to welcome newcomers, seekers and so forth. The ordained priest does so too, but on their behalf.

This does not mean there is no room for expressing warm greeting, or "welcome" to one another in the mutual rather than hierarchical sense being addressed here. And the presider can offer words that express this mutual welcome and the joy of being present. How about:

"The Lord be with you"?


These entries are relevant to the celebration of the Eucharist:

Percy discusses the very opening words of the liturgy at this post.

A more specific reflection about welcoming the congregation is found here.

Some critical notes about the Ministry of the Word are found here.

The orientation of priest, people and altar (ad orientem, versus populum etc.) are discussed here.

In this post Percy reflects on the "one bread" of the Eucharist, fraction and such.

A reflection on the matter of the Eucharist and the necessity (or not) of using wheat bread is found here.

More soon.

Let's Start at the Very Beginning...

The opening words of the liturgy are crucial. One does not have to think in sophisticated dramaturgical terms to realize how these words set the tone; they express and create the priorities, the atmosphere, the direction of what is to come. The folk at ‘Ship of Fools’ pick this up nicely in their ‘Mystery Worshipper’ reviews, which always note those words.

Percy suggests that it is profoundly important that these words be theological – that they express the commitment of the community, and orient the celebration to God whose service is being performed.

More and more often however we see or hear liturgies that open with reference not to God but to the community itself, or just as likely to the weather, or the time of day. Some will tell a joke, or otherwise "warm up the crowd". At one celebration I attended not long ago, the opening words invoked a trinity of sorts: the absence of the Vicar, the arrival of the locum priest, and the presence of today's presider.

Of course this is a sort of theology too, but it is a kind of insipid idolatry: we exchange the glory of God for banality, and particularly for clerical self-referentiality.

The reasons for this malaise invite some reflection, but space does not allow a complete treatment here. I note that for Australian Anglicans, the form of A Prayer Book for Australia tends to colludes with bad  liturgical theology, insofar as it contains many good texts but offers insufficient guidance on choice and use, at this point above all.

The opening rite of APBA seems caught between the Eastern-style invocation ("Blessed be God..."") borrowed from the Orthodox via the US Episcopal Church, and the more typical Western-style greeting ("The Lord be with you"). These are both potentially profound and appropriate ways of beginning, but they work in different ways. Some celebrations end up using both, but since the book offers no guidance for what is being achieved at this point in the liturgy, it is not surprising that some end up using neither. "Good morning", indeed.

Most of these set words have an actual function which seems frequently to have been forgotten. "The Lord be with you" is a greeting, as is "Good morning". The latter is very often more appropriate, but the Eucharist is not a random encounter in the street or the shops. If and when the set words that serve to greet the congregation (or dismiss it) are used, but framed by chatty or prosaic ones drawn from other kinds of encounter, the set words are being deprived of their significance and function - they are just churchy code-language that we are used to, but serve little real purpose.

There can admittedly be real needs, or at least concerns, which are relatively prosaic but whose acknowledgement at a very early point may allow fuller commitment and participation in the event. Page numbers, locations of children’s activities, even emergency exit arrangements, can in various ways allow or prevent fuller engagement,  or may simply be required.

These can often be dealt with by other means, with a little imagination or common sense. A minister (if one leading the liturgy, not yet vested in stole or at least not in chasuble) can address the congregation before the entrance or the introit. Ushers or welcomers can communicate a lot of this factual information, if they understand their role properly beyond handing out books or leaflets.

And should circumstance or custom require it, the presider can even offer announcements or directions within the liturgy but after the opening words, or at an appropriate early point. This ought not to happen however, before acknowledging and invoking the one who is the real host and guest and centre of our gathering.

Which words, then? Percy does not go so far as to prescribe. Where your liturgical book makes it clear, follow it. Where it does not, as in the case of APBA, use the wisdom of your local and diocesan community - past as well as present - to set a pattern and stick to it (with seasonal variations by all means). But remember - it's not about you.

The Lord be with you.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Percy has written here regarding the Liturgical year and the tendency to anticipation.

The Date of Christmas discusses the origins of the December 25 (and January 6) date of Christmas. A version of this essay, somewhat freely edited by the publisher of Bible Review where it appeared, attracts some annual interest on the Biblical Archaeology Review web-site.

Daily Prayer

The page will be updated as Percy adds material relevant to the forms of communal prayer variously known as the Daily Office, Liturgy of the Hours, or simply Morning and Evening Prayer.


The page will be updated as Percy adds material relevant to music and its use in liturgy.


The page will be updated as Percy adds material relevant to baptism and related issues of Christian initiation.


Articles about Church architecture and liturgical use of space:

 Here Percy discusses the orientation of priest and people, and of churches in general, including the ad orientem (eastward position) and versus populum options.


This page will be updated with original material and with links to essays Percy commends to the reader concerning liturgy and its uses and abuses.

About Percy is an introduction to the New Parson's Handbook.

I Don't Believe in Worship (1) questions the contemporary use of the term 'worship' and asserts the necessity of certain core elements in Christian liturgy.

I Don't Believe in Worship (2) reflects on the biblical roots of Christian worship and suggests the centrality of Eucharist and Daily Prayer, as opposed to generic 'worship services'.

Changing the Oils traces the origins of the current form of Chrism Eucharist and suggests reform.

The Date of Christmas discusses the origins of the December 25 (and January 6) date of Christmas. A version of this essay, somewhat freely edited by the publisher of Bible Review where it appeared, attracts some annual interest on the Biblical Archaeology Review web-site.

About Percy

The New Parson's Handbook (aka 'Percy') is inspired by Percy Dearmer's The Parson's Handbook (1899).

This manual reflects the side of Catholic Anglicanism which investigated and retrieved older English traditions, rather than imitating 19th century Roman and continental practice as a basis for Catholic renewal in the Church of England. Only partially correctly, it has been viewed as a manifesto of the "Sarum", as opposed to Roman, form of Anglo-Catholicism.

The Parson's Handbook is still worth reading - sometimes dated in detail, it remains relevant in spirit.  It does not have all the detail of Fortescue's Ritual Notes, having deeper concerns than mere formality. It connects liturgy with values, including social justice - Dearmer is as critical of the unjust labour relations embedded in ugly Church furnishings as in their aesthetic failure.

More than a hundred years later, specifics have changed but Percy's passion remains relevant. Anglicanism has seen the Oxford Movement and the Liturgical Movement come, and in large part go, with mixed and incomplete results. Meanwhile the Church seems to face larger issues than liturgical nicety, and flails around seeking fresh (oops) solutions to its failures.

This site is not for reminiscences about apparelled amices or musings on the length or surplices, but an attempt to make connections between past and future, and between liturgy and life. I start with liturgy though - because one of the convictions informing the New Handbook is that liturgy has too often become a sort of neutral medium for communication of ideas, good and bad, where in fact it should be a source for the Church's mission.

Percy appears again here to encourage further and deeper thought about liturgy, with a Catholic flavour and historical interest but with generosity of spirit and concern for mission including justice. Frank opinions are offered in charity, with openness to learning and change. Those who are not against us are for us!