Wednesday, July 30, 2008

QUIRES and places where they sing . . . .

The title is the beginning of a rubric from the 1559 prayer book of Elizabeth I. It required that in places with a sung service the lessons in morning and evening prayer as well as the epistle and gospel of the communion service should be sung. While this may seem very strange to many present day Anglicans, it represents a continuation of a practise which goes back to the days of our Lord when Holy Scripture was deemed to holy to simply be read and should be sung instead. This applied not merely to Scripture in services but also those occasions when an individual was reading scripture privately. He was required by tradition to "sing" it if for no other reason to remind him of its holiness.
In an age where we do little to remind ourselves or anyone else of the holiness of God or the reverence with which we should approach him, the ancient ideal of singing the lessons be it in the offices or at the Eucharist is one to which we should give much thought. I agree that to most Americans, even to most American Anglicans the idea is one that strikes us as strange. We are a culture where read means "read" and not "sing." We are used to singing hymns, the canticles, but have difficulty with the psalms, the creeds, the 'our father' and prayers. And, yet, a close reading of what Cranmer did with having Merbecke prepare "A Prayer Book Noted," the development of Anglican chant and what the rubric in Elizabeth's first prayer book required indicates that the ancient ideal of the full sung service was not rejected by the English Church at the time of its reformation.
And still we as Anglicans and Christians find singing difficult for us. Why?
When I first came upon an Anglican Church it was one that sang and sang passionately. The psalms in particular were sung to a wide number of Anglican chants at which the congregation never balked. Instead they managed them with an ease that astounded as they never had chant books and sang them with as much strength as others I knew sang common hymns. They also sang the Venite, the canticles, the vesicles, the creeds, the Our Father and the 'Amens' to the sung prayers. It was a revelation and one which has stuck with me especially as this was in a small town in Oklahoma in a church that was hardly as large as a side chapel in your average small cathedral.
Later when I was at university, the Canterbury Club was responsible for Sunday evensong. When we began it was merely read, but as we went along we gained access to the organ and began singing the versicle's, the canticles, the creed, the Our Father and the collects. A short time later, with the aid of the Sarum Psalter, we pointed the psalms and with a little practise, added those to what we sang. Finally we reached the point where two of us with much fear and trepidation sang the two lessons. As we went from a very simple read service to more and more singing the congregation climbed from a core of about twenty regulars to an every Sunday ninety to one hundred or more. And this was done without any publicity at all as we were much afraid that the rector or the vestry would shut us down. High church and all that sort of thing, you know. We occasionally had speakers, priests from the diocese and others, and they were always surprised both at our numbers and at our singing, I think the more so because their was no priest pushing us to do what we were doing.
After I was out of school, married and with children, we always attended a parish where the Eucharist was sung, including the epistle and gospel. Unfortunately in those parishes the offices were generally a dead letter and never read publicly, but sometimes on very great occasions, evensong was sung. Looking back that always seemed very strange because it was such an isolated addition to the worship of the parish. We were sometimes urged to read the offices on our own but a public common office was outside the normal worship of the parish. Of course, there were also those parishes where the Sunday worship was normally Morning Prayer with sermon and the solemn elevation of the offertory basins. But they didn't keep the daily offices either. A full prayer book Anglicanism seemed only available at cathedrals such as St John the Divine's in New York City or Grace in San Francisco. There may have been others but they never came to my notice.
So what actually am I saying? I believe it is that the worship which the framers of the prayer book intended and as pointed to by the rubrics of the books such as Elizabeth I's prayer book seems to have disappeared almost entirely among those who call themselves Anglicans. We have Anglo-papists who relish doing things more Romano which means something as close to a Tridentine high mass as they can manage on Sundays and major holy days but who almost never read much less sing the office publicly. And we also have the low-churchmen who also fail in replicating the prayer book pattern, but they do so by elevating the office of Sunday instead of Daily Morning Prayer to a place it was never intended to have while celebrating the Eucharist either very early on Sundays or on a once a month or quarterly basis as the main worship of the congregation. In neither tradition is the Book of Common Prayer presented as it was intended to me or the prayer book pattern given incarnational status. Real Anglicanism is simply absent from us. What we have, with the exception of some very rare parishes and missions, is two made up religions, neither of which begins to express the "doctrine, discipline and worship . . .of the Church" as intended by any of the classical prayer books from 1559 through 1929. We may occasionally be singing, it is not the Lord's song in way in which the prayer book intended. We have to do better than this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"the classical prayer books from 1559 through 1929"

I think you meant from 1549 . . . .
I still the first is the best, save for the brilliant decision to move the Gloria post-communion!