Friday, November 25, 2011


In this essay Percy reflections on the ritual of ordination of priests.

The page will be updated as Percy adds material relevant to ministry, lay and ordained, in liturgical and other settings.

Ordination and the Laying-on of Hands: College of Presbyters, or Moonie Wedding?

Percy recently attended an ordination of priests where the prescribed ritual for sharing in the laying on of hands was ignored, to problematic effect. Instead of all priests participating in laying-on of hands, individuals who had some sort of special relationship with or interest in the particular candidate came forward, lunging for the head in question before scurrying away, lest they be seen too close to the next ordinand, who might be of the wrong social network or theological stripe.

The Book of Common Prayer, which is authoritative in Percy's own Church, is clear enough: "the Bishop with the Priests present shall lay their hands severally upon the head of every one that receiveth the Order of Priesthood". This clearly envisages a collective action, not by certain priests but by the whole group present.

The practice is not an Anglican peculiarity; although Roman Catholic ritual involves a sort of serial hand-laying, with each priest in turn going from candidate to candidate after the bishop's own prayer, the intention is the same, and in fact Roman canon law requires each priest present thus to act.

The significance of the action is however sometimes misunderstood; in a Church with episcopal polity, some may imagine that what really counts is that the bishop lays on hands, and the presbyteral involvement is icing, rather than cake. In a controversy of a very different kind, a writer of a more conservative stripe than Percy refers to a conversation with a bishop of the Church of England who thought the priests' action at ordinations was "just a blessing". Not so, right reverend sir.

English liturgical books may reflect this slippage; the notes to the current ordinal for the C of E state that "priests" (not "the priests present") who take part "do so at the invitation of the bishop, who determines where they stand, and by what gesture they indicate they are joining in prayer with him". This is unfortunate language, for granted the need for the bishop to lead, the involvement of presbyters in this rite is not a matter of a bishop's "invitation" or other discretionary act, but an imperative that derives from the character of the relationship between bishop and priests as a collegium.

The ultimate authority however is biblical: "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders" (1 Tim 4:14). So priests do not take part in this action to bestow some sort of individual grace from their own private hands or prayers or office, but as members of a group, into whose membership the newly-ordained are moving in the very act of ordination.

The cost of failing to uphold this ancient and general custom can be very great. In a situation where, as in many places today, there is difficulty holding together the reality of the Church, the failure to express a corporate presbyteral identity at ordination is at least a lost opportunity. Each priest present is receiving a new colleague in every ordinand, not merely a new fellow-traveller for their own cause if and when certain conditions of theological agreement are met.

More than this however, the emphasis on individual relationships in this rite is coming to signal a new and pernicious form of clericalism. Ordinands are sometimes treated like (e.g.) graduands, or like newlyweds, whose individual "big day" is celebrated with liturgical trousseau, family fuss and such (in the case that provokes this reflection, family members and supporters of each candidate are told to stand during "their" person's ordination prayer, distinguishing them within the group rather than reflecting their common ministry). The collective character of the event is thus relativized quite drastically; it is more and more like a Moonie wedding, where the individual's celebrations happen to take place together. And it is hardly surprising if the result is clergy who understand their own ministry as a matter of individual tastes, opinions, and prerogatives, rather than as part of a greater whole.

Some will object that there is a practical problem at ordinations when dozens of clergy are present. It is simply not possible for every priest to lay on hands in the "scrum" that forms around each candidate. Yet it is not uncommon, even in circumstances like those discussed here, for a larger group of priests to form something like a layered set of circles, where some are immediately around the candidate and others then around them, perhaps extending into a group on either side or otherwise to accommodate the reality of a particular space and group. The Roman solution of "serial" hand-laying is another real possibility, but would have its own cumbersome character where more than a handful of candidates are involved.

These logistics would be worth struggling with to state clearly what is being achieved in a priestly ordination. Priests are ordained by the Church, for the Church, not by their teachers or mentors or friends. To be ordained is to be available for more than those with whom you have learned to agree - it is to be at the disposal of a Church with different members, whose sprawling character and unity might well be expressed in the awkward crowded space of a Cathedral, and in the clumsy but faithful efforts of a diverse group of presbyters physically to welcome one more into their midst.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

One bread?

Although Christians celebrate their sacramental meal, the Eucharist or Holy Communion, with bread and wine, the ways they use that food and drink are sometimes distinctly odd. Paper-thin wafers unlike any bread you will find elsewhere, and fortified wine you'd never otherwise drink, are often the order of the day.

Someone has irreverently but tellingly remarked that "the problem isn't believing that they're the body and blood of Christ, it's believing that they're bread and wine". There is more to be said about these forms, and some of it has already been addressed here.

The contemporary Anglican liturgy with which Percy is most familiar cites the words of the apostle Paul at the "fraction" or breaking of the bread at the Eucharist:

"We who are many are one body in Christ, for we all share in the one bread" (1 Cor 10:17).

All eucharistic rites known to the writer have some provision for the breaking of the bread, which is a feature not only of the Last Supper stories understood by Christians as instituting the Eucharist, but also of other feeding stories in the Gospels, such as the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the risen Jesus' meal with disciples at Emmaus. The Acts of the Apostles uses the phrase "the breaking of the bread" as a way of referring to the earliest communal meals celebrated by the Christian community. The great twentieth-century liturgical scholar Gregory Dix saw this as one element of a four-fold pattern characterizing eucharist rites: bread is taken, blessed, broken and distributed.

The participant in the Eucharist may often receive something in their hand that shows no sign of this. Although many worshipping communities have moved to adopt forms of bread that really can be broken, others continue to use individually-stamped wafers which say nothing either about the "one bread" or the meaning of its brokenness. The fraction is then practiced only with the "priest's wafer", a slightly larger bread that allows visual communication of the fact that (some) bread is broken - but then also underlines clerical privilege in a not-too-subtle way.

The apostle's affirmation that we share from the one bread is not a mere liturgical rubric, but an observation about the character of sharing and communion. Participation with others in this one bread is a kind of solidarity with them of a profound and serious kind, with implications for love and justice. Augustine of Hippo commenting on this same text from 1 Cor says, strikingly, "be what you see, receive what you are" (Serm. 272).

These implications are not removed by the failure of our liturgical symbols to convey them adequately, of course. But liturgical practitioners have an obligation to ask whether their practices go beyond mere repetition of accepted custom, or maintenance of a certain sober dignity, to allow adequate reflection of their core message.

Percy is not one of those liturgists of whom it is joked that they, unlike terrorists, do not negotiate. There are more serious matters for the Church than the aesthetics of bread - such as the hunger of many in the world, who have insufficient bread of any kind. However the Church has opportunities to connect its liturgy with the needs of the world, and should take them when it can.

What to do with the bread, then?

Percy suggests a hierarchy of desired elements which might be considered according to the need, capacity and tradition of a congregation.

Ideally, all might eat of literally one bread, as Paul says. A single loaf ("loaf" can be interpreted broadly), from which all can share, represents the ideal most adequately. This could have drawbacks if, say, large crusty pasta dura-style bread were consecrated in one piece and most of it were left over. Percy assumes a sufficiently traditional piety (and respect for the rubrics) to allow reverent consumption of the whole. But not all loaves are as large or as crumbly as others. Many smaller congregations could, for that matter, use the large forms of traditional wafer bread now readily available, or pita-style bread that can readily be broken, shared, and cleaned up without much waste.

Second, whether or not all can realistically share from the one loaf, all could receive broken bread. Use of just a few loaves (including large wafers) does not diminish the symbol too greatly. At least here there is an sign that the body of Christ is something shared.

Last, Percy's intention is not to disparage those who will, for some mixture of practical reasons, maintain the use of individual wafers for the congregation. Perhaps those who maintain this position should be particularly careful to ask whether they otherwise embody the apostle's point. If we really are the body of Christ, we had all better be doing something about it.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Date of Easter

The quirky study of the chronology of the Passion recently published by Sir Colin Humphreys claims that his "discovery" that the real date of the crucifixion was April 3rd solves the problem of the variability of Easter. Of course, as soon as Humphreys adds "Easter Sunday should be the first Sunday in April", you realize it was never going to be quite that easy. The first Sunday in April might well be before April 3rd, after all?

The date of Easter has been controversial almost ever since there has been an Easter. In the second century, at any rate, the first serious dispute erupted when Christians in different parts of the Mediterranean realized they had been interpreting the meaning of Jesus' death in two different ways. One group simply continued to celebrate Passover, but with the new meaning provided by the passion and resurrection of Jesus. This practice gave precedence to the lunar calendar which provides the months of the Jewish year, and on which observance of Passover must be based. Since they celebrated on the 14th day of the month Nisan (or its local equivalents), these Christians became known to others as Quartodecimans, "fourteenthers".

The other practice suggested that the days of the week, which roll forward independently of months and years, also needed to be accounted for, since Jesus was raised on the first day of the week, Sunday. Hence the celebration should be on the Sunday after the celebration of Passover. This pattern won the day, doubtless at some cost to the sincere and reasonable commitments of the losers, as well as with the loss of the more immediate connection with Passover - in fact, a desire to distinguish the now predominantly-gentile Church from Judaism may have been influential in this process.

The relationship between months and years, as well as months and weeks, has made the date of Easter complex. Since months in Roman reckoning lost their connection to the phases of the moon but were calculated variously according to local customs, it was deemed necessary to specify that the date of Easter not fall before the equinox (as well as to reiterate that it was a Sunday) - this was one of the results of the famous Council of Nicaea. Hence the familiar pattern: Easter is the Sunday following the first full moon (the 14th day of the lunar month) after the vernal equinox. However since the equinox and/or the moon might be observed differently depending on your location, the problem did not go away entirely until standardized tables were developed and circulated.

This held as a more or less universal way to set the date of Easter until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the West in the 16th century. The Eastern Churches generally retained the older Julian calendar, with the result that Easter can again be on different days in the eastern and western Mediterranean, and elsewhere. Attempts to find a common date continue, but conservative elements of the Eastern Churches have already fulminated and split over modest attempts to re-align the calendar.

The idea of a fixed date is therefore doomed to founder on the lack of agreement that would arise among Christian groups. A fairly serious attempt to fix the date of Easter was made in the UK in 1928 but was abandoned as impractical - it is no closer to being realistic or appealing today.

There are, I suggest, at least three reasons Colin Humphreys' suggestion will be quickly ignored. One has already been given, i.e., that any fixed date will only find limited acceptance. A second is that his research is unconvincing, based on mistaken premises about the character of the Gospels as history and about related issues concerning Jewish sources. Third and most important, I suspect, is that Easter is not commemoration of an "anniversary" - it is the Christian interpretation of a feast more ancient than the death of Jesus, from which Jesus derived part of the meaning of his death. The obscurities of calculating this date are a reminder of the world from which this feast comes - not one of bank holidays, but of harvests, full moons, and the remembrance of ancient liberation.

Happy Easter.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

By the Book: The Bible as Artefact in Christian Liturgy

The arrival of various hand-outs, bespoke orders of service and other small pieces of printed liturgical ephemera brings good and bad things to liturgical practice. Percy is not sure why, in an otherwise environmentally-sensitive context, there is so little thought given to the paper being consumed, for one thing. Yet there is no doubt that having all the elements needed by the congregation for full participation in one single printed form makes for ease of use and engagement.

Many will also point out that the full provision of the lections - assigned readings from the Bible - in such forms assists their reading and understanding by the people. It is also probably a reasonable hedge against the temptation to leave something out, which I have commented on elsewhere!

Yet some readers might well raise the objection that these photocopied excerpts are a poor substitute for the use of a Bible.

I tend to agree, if perhaps not for the same reasons as some of my more protestant readers. I do not, for instance, think it is particularly necessary or even helpful to bury one's head in either a Bible or a pewsheet when Scripture is read at the Eucharist. The Bible is designed to be heard as well as read, and the liturgy assumes a community willing to open ears, as well as eyes, to what the Word might reveal to us.

In fact for most of the history of Christianity, most Christians have not been literate, let alone owned Bibles; and hence, while we may be glad this is not the case for the average follower of Percy's thoughts today, it suggests that any view of liturgy or of Christianity that makes "Bible reading" an essential discipline is questionable, historically and theologically as well. Christians have heard the Word first and foremost, and the liturgy reflects this.

Yet the Book itself has a liturgical place which should not be lost. In classical protestant worship as well as in liturgy of self-consciously catholic traditions, the Bible has been not merely a source of the day's readings but a visual symbol, a key object in the work Christians do when coming together to remember, listen, pray and praise the God of the Bible. That Book ('B' for emphasis) is not the various books (i.e, Bibles) individuals might bring to Church, even if their contents are the same; for the Christian does not - should not - engage with the Bible as a personal tool of revelation via private judgement, but as the corporate gift of challenge, encouragement and more.

For this reason the actual use of literal physical books in liturgy is significant. The Book or Books from which Scripture is read liturgically should reflect that corporate and public function - meaning that above all, such Books should actually be used, and visibly.

How exactly the Book is used depends a great deal on the space and the specifics of the liturgy. A large Bible visible on an ambo or lectern makes a clear statement (and shouldn't be visibly pushed aside for a preacher's folder, pewsheet, or iPad). Visibly reading from photocopied sheets leaning against that Bible is also not a good look. Pewsheets are not intended as a hedge against biblical illiteracy, and if necessary readers should expect to be trained not only in how to read aloud, but in where in the Book to find what they are supposed to read.

In some contexts different Books are used, most obviously when a Gospel book or Lectionary is carried in procession. This makes a point about the (generally overlooked) centrality of the Gospels in the Christian canon for interpreting Scripture as a whole, and the proclamation of the Gospel to the world. There are quite a few places where the idea of this procession appeals just because it involves some pomp and circumstance, but where the point gets lost. Such a failure is ritualized, for example, where a plastic binder or the mere pewsheet gets hoisted by a deacon or other offender, to general bemusement. The liturgical proclamation "This is the Gospel of the Lord" is not meant to be so implausible.

Of course there are times when a set of readings has to be prepared for a set of readers, in ways that make the idea of endless bookmarks or post-it notes in one Book on the lectern impractical. In that case, there are various possibilities. The assembly of set readings in Lectionaries - not originally lists of readings only, but the actual texts - has a venerable history. Yet these books have traditionally been treated with the same respect and prominence as Bibles and Gospel Books, and there is no reason they can't be made or decorated to make their dignity match their amenity.

The basic principles about using books are thus those of the liturgy as a whole. The Gospel itself, Christ himself, are the centre. Our actions should make this as clear as possible, and we should minimize or avoid things which distract from what is important. The Bible is important. Words can make this clear, or undermine it; so too can objects and actions.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Bible

This page links to posts concerning the liturgical use of Scripture, Lectionaries, and related matters.

In Read It! Percy laments the tendency to omit set lections at eucharistic celebrations.

In By the Book the use of the Bible in liturgy as an actual book, as opposed to pewsheets, plastic folders etc., is discussed.