Holy Communion for Babies, or what it means to be Human

Canon 25 of the Scottish Episcopal Church begins ‘The sacrament of baptism is the full rite of initiation into the Church, and no further sacramental rite shall be required of any person seeking admission to holy communion’. The ‘further sacramental rite’ not required is confirmation, which has traditionally been required for admission to holy communion in Anglican Churches. This canon, first added in 1965 and last revised in 2005, is the end of an ecumenical process to admit members of Protestant Churches lacking episcopal confirmation to communion in Episcopal Churches. It also had the effect, perhaps an unintended effect, of allowing baptised young children and babies to receive holy communion. It is this that I will discuss here.

Lucas Cranach, ‘Let the little children come to me’

First, some personal experience. Our daughter was baptised on 18 October 2020 at the age of ten months and has received holy communion regularly since then on the grounds of canon 25 and the early Christian tradition preserved in the Eastern Churches. During lockdown I continued celebrating the eucharist with my immediate family and that has given space to reflect on this practice and discuss it. Last year, in between the lockdowns when we had a couple of infant baptisms, I told the congregation that infant communion was allowed in our Church and this caused a certain amount of disquiet. In my previous benefice the parishes agreed a similar policy, which had the support of the local Bishop even though it rather stretched the law of the Church of England, and infant communion again caused some similar murmuring. Every such controversy is a teaching opportunity and one can ask: is this policy right, what does it mean and is it practical?

In practical terms it works, our daughter receives the sacrament reverently. Now she can walk she comes up to the communion rail at the right time, says ‘amen’, and receives the Body of Christ. This works because she feels at home in Church and at the sacred liturgy, sees her parents receiving holy communion, and is familiar with the things of the faith – she recognises Jesus, whom she calls ‘Jeeez’, on crucifixes and she makes the sign of the cross, or rather taps her chest when she hears ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. We make sure she has no snacks just before communion and if she spat out the sacrament, we would pause reception for a while. In as far as one can see into a baby or toddler’s mind, this is a special eating connected with ‘Jeeez’, given by ‘Da’ in special clothes in a special place, and is different from eating something from a tub of chopped cucumber. My wife and I weren’t sure how this would work but it does and there is certainly nothing special about our daughter apart from the fact she has become familiar with church and liturgy.    

It is thus practical, but is it right and what does it mean? Firstly it is traditional, the Orthodox Churches of the East have always communicated baptised infants, often giving just the consecrated wine to babies who are not ready for solids, and the evidence suggests that this was universal in the Church of the first Christian millennium. It is however a departure from the usual practice of the Churches of the West. For Anglicans the first reception of holy communion generally followed confirmation in one’s early teens, thus keeping the traditional order of the ‘sacraments of initiation’: baptism, confirmation/chrismation and holy communion. Although it would appear that the Churches of the West gave communion to newly baptised infants until the twelfth century, the custom grew up of giving first holy communion at some time between the ages of 10 and 14. In 1910, however, appealing to the earlier tradition, the decree ‘Quam singulari’ of Pope St Pius X taught that children may receive holy communion when they reach the age of reason (generally about 7 years old) and can distinguish between the sacrament and ordinary bread. This has remained the Roman Catholic custom, in the words of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (canon 913.1), “The administration of the most holy eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.”

The two requirements of understanding the mystery of Christ according to one’s capacity and being able to receive the body of Christ reverently make sense. Receiving holy communion is a human act and the experience of our family and others is that a baby or toddler can make a reverent communion in their own way. The idea that the reception of holy communion should follow the possession of ‘sufficient knowledge’ or the attainment of reason is, however, problematic. The practice of the Eastern Churches and Early Church should cause us to question this, but the insights of contemporary ‘disability theology’ also shed new light on this question.

What is a human person? We instinctively think of a fit, rational and intellectually active adult with all their senses and faculties intact. A baby, an old person with dementia, a person with physical or mental disabilities is instinctively seen as less than this, deserving compassion but a departure from the normal, or at least a person with unactuated potential; they are each a person with something lacking. What happens, though, if we question this? Each case is different, but what if we take the person with learning difficulties, perhaps with Down Syndrome, as a normative example of a human person? Are they deficient or are they just an individual example of the great diversity of ways to be human? The latter is the only option if we do not wish to say that people with learning difficulties are less than human, which has terrible consequences for the way they may be treated.

The Adoration of the Christ Child by a follower of Jan Joest, c.1510 – possibly the first depiction of people with Down Syndrome

For the Christian, although Jesus Christ is not strictly a human person, he is truly and fully human (he is the second person of the Holy Trinity and so the ‘who’ of Jesus is the Son of God – there is not a human Jesus and a divine Christ). Was he less human in the womb of Mary, in the manger, or ‘disabled’ by the nails of the cross, than when he was walking around the Judaean countryside and talking with friends and enemies? I can think of no grounds for saying this and the great works of salvation, incarnation and redemption, were done in precisely those times when his humanity might appear to be deficient. This should challenge our ideas of what it means to be human. Perhaps the baby or the disabled person should be taken as ‘normal’ for humanity, certainly no less normative than anyone else?

This has implications for admission to holy communion in Western Churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican or Protestant – whether they set the gateway at an ‘age of reason’ or the ability to make a ‘personal commitment to Jesus’. To refuse to baptise children until they can choose for themselves is a part of this problem. The policy of refusing sacraments to people unless they have a certain intellectual ability would seem to affirm a view of humanity which puts too much emphasis on reason and to place a human restriction on God’s free grace. A red herring here is the definition by Boethius (died 524) of a person as ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’, which was refined by Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and is at the root of much Western thought on human personhood. It is not relevant as it attributes reason to what is common, the nature, not to the individual. An individual human, or for that matter an angel, would still be ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’ even if the rational aspect of their nature was not actuated.

There is another problem, some people object to infant baptism because the person baptised might grow up to be an unbeliever and resent this imposition on them before they had the freedom and autonomy to choose it. There is a real problem here as, for example in the Church of England, many babies are put forward for baptism although there is no active Christian faith in their family. In this situation I found the desire for baptism was usually a sign of a residual Christian identity and an opportunity for catechesis and developing a connection to the Christian community, but it does highlight the fact that to baptise and give Communion to infants only makes sense if they are to grow up in a Christian family or community. When households were baptised in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 16:15 & 16:31-33), there is no evidence that it was only the grown-ups who received the sacrament and what evidence we do have from the Early Church suggests it is reasonable to hold that children were included. One might even say that only a modern post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment individualist would think that that they were not. We receive our identity from our parents and the family and community in which we grow up. What we receive marks us for life, whatever we choose later, for example Richard Dawkins’ atheism is marked by his Anglican upbringing. If a child grows up in a Christian family, one would not avoid teaching moral behaviour until the child can choose for itself, and so it is wrong to avoid giving that child a formation in the faith held by the family. Religious and moral formation, moreover, comes less from teaching than from a way of life, it is primarily ‘caught not taught’, and so if a Child grows up in a Christian family it is right that they should be baptised and receive holy communion. This is just being honest about the situation. Not to do so would be to deny them the freedom to choose what is right, although respect for freedom of choice means that they may later reject the faith.

One might say that the logic of this argument means that the sacraments of holy orders and matrimony should also be open to infants. If we apply here the same principles of honesty and truth, we will see that both these sacraments are ordered to a way of life which demands a certain maturity to live it with integrity. I have seen Coptic deacons of primary school age functioning in the liturgy and some Christian jurisdictions allowed marriage for women from the age of 12, but just as the sacrament of Reconciliation presupposes the ability to sin and confess, so these two sacraments presuppose the ability to exercise them. The sacraments of initiation, however, baptism, confirmation/chrismation, and holy communion, simply require the recipient to be human and to have faith, whether that faith is explicitly assented to or is part of the family and community bringing up the child.

It is probably worth noting here that the Scottish Episcopal Church is confused about confirmation. There is a 2006 rite of ‘Affirmation of Holy Baptism for Confirmation and Renewal’ which looks like confirmation but is said to be a ‘pastoral’ service and, although it allows an anointing with Chrism, not a ‘completion of baptism nor a gateway to the full participation in the eucharist’. There is also a post-baptismal anointing with the oil of chrism in the 2006 rite of baptism which looks very much like the chrismation which is the Eastern version of confirmation. The history and theology of confirmation is itself not clear but in the West it seems to be a part of the baptismal rite detached and postponed to keep a connection with the bishop. Thus it is probably best to see the current practice of the SEC as a restoration of chrismation to the baptism rite while recognising the baptisms of those who omit the anointing.         

It may be thought that giving holy communion to infants devalues the sacrament as they don’t understand it. My experience suggests that they do in a way appropriate to their age and moreover Christ in the eucharist is a mystery none of us can fully understand. The eucharist is also more like medicine than a reward, and so not to give it to baptised children being brought up in a Christian family or community either makes it a reward for knowledge or cooperates with an inadequate vision of the human person.

In addition to all its other aspects, receiving holy communion is an act of truth. The priest says, ‘the body of Christ’ and the ‘amen’ is a recognition that the recipient is a member of the body of Christ, the Church, in which we are incorporated by baptism (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Galatians 3:27-28). Augustine made the same point when he said of holy communion, ‘it is your own mystery that you are receiving, you are saying ‘amen’ to what you are’ (Sermon 272). Giving holy communion to babies and infants is a witness to God’s love, to the primacy of grace and to the fact that we are saved as a community not as individuals. It may not be appropriate in all cases and it requires the active support of the parents and the parish priest, but, if it is part of the life of a community, it is a precious sign of these Christian values and also a witness to an authentic vision of what it means to be human. These profound meanings expressed by infant communion suggest that it should be encouraged.

The Scottish Liturgy shows us that Episcopalians have often learned from the Orthodox East and Canon 25 has allowed the recovery of an important part of our common tradition. At a time when the unique value of the human person is under threat in different ways, this recovery of tradition also connects with the new understanding of Christian anthropology revealed through ‘disability theology’. Jesus was not speaking of the eucharist when he said the following words, but they may justly be used here: ‘let the little children to come to me and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’ (Mt 19:14)

The Priest’s Praying Body : Manual Acts 4 – when is Jesus present?

The previous post in this commentary on the priest’s actions during the Eucharistic Prayer ended with the words, ‘Finally, after the people have given their assent to the prayer by the final “Amen”, the priest genuflects before the presence of Christ in the bread and wine on the altar’. This raises the question posed in the second post of this series: what is really going on when we pray the Eucharistic Prayer and how do the gestures help us experience this. Are the external actions in accord with the inner reality of the rite?

There is also a problem – when does the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ? If you answer ‘they don’t’, you are taking part in a different conversation.

Tintoretto, Last Supper (1593), San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

What happens in this prayer is what Jesus wanted to happen when he said ‘do this in memory of me’. To help us understand this, he said the bread is his body and the wine his blood, and these clear statements are related to his death on the cross, not only by the location of these words at a meal just before the crucifixion but because the body is ‘broken’ (1 Corinthians 11:24) and the blood is ‘poured out’ (Matthew 26:28). Paul confirms this by his teaching that ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). One can debate the meaning of the different versions of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper in the New Testament, but we cannot get behind the canonical text and it needs to be read in the context of the tradition that formed, received and transmitted it. We can only work with what we have received, and in this case we believe it has been inspired by the Holy Spirit.   

The Eucharistic Prayer is thus about Jesus’s presence and sacrifice and, as its words confirm, about their relationship to us. Whatever individual Episcopalians may believe, the Scottish Episcopal Church firmly believes, with the mainstream Christian witness throughout the ages, that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. We pray to God the Father in the epiclesis that ‘they may BE the body and blood of your Son’ (emphasis added). Episcopalian writers have traditionally been sceptical of attempts to explain the change by theories such as transubstantiation, but they have resolutely affirmed this change. Bishop William Forbes of Edinburgh wrote of the presence of Christ in the sacrament, ‘the word we hear; the effect we feel; the manner we know not; the presence we believe… as to the manner of the presence, we define nothing rashly, we do not anxiously enquire’ (Considerationes Modestae et Pacifice [1658], p.379).

Bishop William Forbes, painting at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.

The tradition of the Western Latin Church is clear that what makes this change in the bread and wine are the Lord’s words, ‘this is my body’, ‘this is my blood’. This is expressed by the gestures of elevation and genuflection that follow these words. By calling the institution narrative ‘the consecration’, even when these gestures were removed, the Anglican tradition maintained this same emphasis on the spiritual power of the Lord’s words – one could almost say that classical Anglican liturgy, although much influenced by sixteenth-century Protestant theology, is a fossilisation of late medieval Latin piety.

The Scottish Episcopalian tradition, however, developed a different emphasis and this challenges the traditional gestures. It prays in the epiclesis that the bread and wine may ‘be’ (1982) or ‘become’ (1764, 1970) the body and blood of Christ AFTER the institution narrative. This seems to imply that the institution narrative is not consecratory. An epiclesis had been added to the Canon in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer but there, and in the 1637 Scottish Book of Common Prayer, it was placed BEFORE the institution narrative. It could thus be understood simply as a preparation for ‘the consecration’, as is the function of the epiclesis which has been inserted in the modern Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayers. In the 1764 Scottish Liturgy, however, and in subsequent Scottish Liturgies, the epiclesis was moved and placed after the institution narrative, in imitation of Eastern Anaphoras and following a tradition already found in the 1718 Communion Office of the Non Jurors (Anglican clergy who remained loyal to the House of Stuart). This prayer for the action of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist is also found, for very different reasons, after the institution narrative in the liturgical directions of the 1644 Westminster Directory adopted by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

To traditional Western theology, the place and wording of the Scottish epiclesis after 1764 is like praying that a lottery ticket might win after it has already won the prize. If we take the words of the epiclesis seriously, it seems premature to offer honour by our gestures to what is still just bread and wine. The 1982 use of ‘be’ rather than ‘become’ does however open the door to a reconciliation of the two traditions, as does the modern ecumenical theology in which the whole Eucharistic Prayer is consecratory. The problem is that for the last millennium Eastern Orthodox Christians have said that the action of the Holy Spirit in the epiclesis transforms the bread and wine whereas Western Latin Catholic Christians say that it is the Lord’s words in the institution narrative. This problem is compounded by the existence, noted in the previous post, of ancient Anaphoras that lack a real epiclesis (the Roman Canon) or an institution narrative (the East Syrian Anaphora of Addai and Mari), which suggests that the two alternatives for the localisation of presence are neither entirely sufficient. As a sign of this problem, the Roman Catholic Church in 2001 recognised the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari without the institution narrative – if the principal upholders of the Latin tradition can do this, we should be able to understand the Scottish Liturgy in a way that does justice to both its Eastern and Western heritage.

Syro-Malabar Priests celebrate the Anaphora of Addai and Mari

The Church of the first Christian centuries held firmly to the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but was not bothered about a ‘moment of consecration’, and I would suggest that this gives us a way of understanding the Scottish Liturgy. Looking to the first millennium, twentieth-century ecumenical liturgical theology came to see the whole Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory and, without subscribing to an artificial ‘second naiveté’ or moving the ‘moment of consecration’ to the final ‘Amen’, I would suggest that we see the whole Prayer as consecratory with significant moments revealing the work of the Word and Spirit in the transformation of the elements at the institution narrative and the epiclesis. When we pray in the 1982 epiclesis that the elements may ‘be’ the body and blood of Christ we are not denying the role of the Lord’s powerful words in this transformation. Perhaps we should also note that even worrying about when we should venerate the elements reveals a medieval scholastic mentality, in the Byzantine Liturgy the bread and wine set apart for the sacrament are given remarkable veneration even before the Eucharistic Prayer, for example at the Great Entrance. With all this in mind, beyond holding firmly the fact of the transformation we can maintain the reverential reserve advocated above by William Forbes. This would bring together the emphases of East and West and make sense of the various bodily gestures recommended above culminating in the elevation at the doxology and the genuflection or profound bow after the ‘Amen’, when a short time of silent adoration would be in order. 

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), Jan van Eyck

Having said all this, I still find it hard to imagine that the elements can be anything other than either just bread and wine or the Body and Blood of Christ. If this is so then there must be a moment of transformation. The most likely location of this moment is the Lord’s words. The learned liturgical experiments of eighteenth-century Greek-loving Divines, who were concerned to distance themselves from Popery, should not get in the way of the recognition that the Episcopalian and Anglican tradition primarily shares the liturgical inheritance of the Latin West. In the last analysis, however, the Eucharist does not exist for itself but for the transformation of ourselves and the whole creation according to God’s plan. Celebrating the Liturgy with this in mind is much more important than worrying about the exact occurrence in time of a change we know by faith but cannot see.     

As noted at the start of the previous post in this series, this commentary on the bodily actions of the priest in the Eucharistic Prayer is not meant to be prescriptive but rather to allow the priest to understand the tradition and deploy it, avoiding personal eccentricities and celebrating the Eucharist in a reverential way which helps the whole congregation to enter into the Mystery of Christ. This prayer of preparation for the Holy Liturgy by St John of Damascus, filled with the example of the holy women of the New Covenant, is a good conclusion to this series of posts as it well-expresses the importance of our bodies and of humility in celebrating the Holy Sacrament:   

‘I stand before the doors of your Temple, yet refrain not from evil thoughts. But, O Christ our God, who justified the tax-collector, showed mercy to the Canaanite woman, and opened the door of Paradise to the good thief, do unto me according to your loving-kindness and accept me, who have come to touch you, just as you accepted the women who was a sinner and the woman who had an issue of blood. The one touched the hem of your garment and was made completely whole; the other clasped your feet and received forgiveness from all her sins. Let me not be consumed, sinner though I be, through partaking of your body and blood; but receive me, as you received them, and enlighten my senses, consuming only my sins and offences. Through the prayers of her who bore you, and of the heavenly powers: for you are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.’

The Priest’s Praying Body: Manual Acts 3 – Anamnesis to Amen.

This is the penultimate post in the commentary on the gestures of the priest in the Eucharistic Prayer, following on from posts on 12 December and 11 January. We are now at the section of the Prayer known by a technical Greek name which has its origin in the Last Supper, ‘Anamnesis’. In the Scottish Liturgy the ‘Narrative of the Institution’ or ‘Prayer of Consecration’ is followed by the ‘Anamnesis and Oblation’, as in all Eucharistic Prayers, and then, in a position where the Scottish Liturgy follows Eastern and not Western Christian custom, the Epiclesis. The final post will look at how the bodily actions of the priest express our theology of what happens in the prayer, despite the theological problem of when the bread and wine are transformed.

‘The Last Supper’ (1625), Valentin de Boulogne

Anamnesis and Oblation.

Anamnesis means ‘remembrance’, or more correctly a recalling of past saving deeds which makes them present, as Jesus said of this sacrament “do this in memory of me (‘for my  anamnēsis’)” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). The concept of anamnesis has been used in twentieth-century ecumenical theology to understand why the Eucharist is a sacrifice. There can be no serious doubt that the Eucharist is a sacrifice because this is a common teaching from the first years of the Church. It is also an important aspect of Scottish Episcopalian theology, as seen in the extract from Bishop Jolly’s The Christian Sacrifice in the Eucharist published in this blog on 27th June 2020. An oblation is an offering, an essential part of a sacrifice, and this is also a special emphasis of the Scottish Episcopal Church which added to this prayer in 1764, in capitals, the words “WHICH WE NOW OFFER UNTO THEE”. These words were not in the 1637 Scottish Liturgy or its source the Communion Office of the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer, although similar words of offering are present in the ancient Roman Canon on which Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer is based. The prayer of anamnesis and oblation is thus important for Episcopalians. It is an ancient one and has not attracted manual gestures in the same way as the Narrative of Institution and the Epiclesis. It is generally said in the orans position but in various medieval rites here the priest extended his arms in the form of a cross, as Christ’s sacrifice is recalled and offered here, and some maintain this custom today. It is not, however, just the crucifixion which is the subject of the anamnesis, the prayer mentions ‘his blessed passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension and… the coming of his Kingdom’. As we lift up our hearts in the Eucharist, we are lifted up outside time and space and encounter the whole mystery of Christ.

An offering is usually accompanied by a gesture of lifting up and presenting the gift to the recipient. This is not done today in this prayer but the offering is expressed by the gesture of lifting the elements at the consecration and at the end of the Canon, or even, some would say, at the two elevations in the institution narrative. Studying Christian liturgical practice one often gets the impression that it follows its own logic, which is a warning against creating gestures that seem to you to make sense but have no place in the tradition. F.C. Eeles in his 1910 book Traditional Ceremonial and Customs Associated with the Scottish Liturgy notes that some Episcopalians in the eighteenth century elevated the elements to breast height at the words “which we now offer unto thee” and Bishop Dowden in his commentary of the 1764 Scottish Liturgy notes that in a copy of the Liturgy belonging to Bishop John Alexander of Dunkeld (1743-76) the word ‘eleva’ (‘lift up’) is written in the margin by these words. This action is possible, but it would detract from the significance of the elevation at the end of the Canon.

The Eucharist at St Salvador’s, Edinburgh (with thanks to Fr Andrew Bain & Ross Jesmont)

The anamnesis and oblation in the 1982 Scottish Liturgy Eucharistic Prayers, together with the Prayer of Petition which follows the Epiclesis, are often said by the whole congregation together with the priest, but they are still ‘presidential’ prayers and so should be said in the orans position or the broader gesture mentioned above. The custom of the congregation joining the priest’s prayer has grown up without official approbation and, although ‘synchronised speaking’ may sometimes sound awkward, it does emphasise that the Canon is the prayer of the whole congregation in the same way as do the acclamations of the people, for example ‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again’ in the English and Roman rites.

Gian Lorenza Bernini, ‘Descent of the Holy Spirit’ (1666), window in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.


The Epiclesis, from the Greek verb epikaleo meaning to call down, is a calling down of the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine and the congregation. The words of the epiclesis are accompanied by a distinctive four-part action.  At the epiclesis the sign of the cross is commonly made on one’s body as the Holy Spirit is called down on the congregation and it is a distinctive Scottish Episcopalian practice for people in the congregation to do the same. Then the priest’s hands are held horizontally, joined at the thumbs, over the gifts as the Holy Spirit is invoked upon them, and when it is prayed “that they may be the body and blood of your Son” the sign of the cross is made over the elements with the right hand. Finally the hands return to the horizontal position over the elements until the next prayer of petition when the orans position is resumed.

A child doing the epiclesis gesture at ‘play church’

This four-part action is the same as that found in the simplified ceremonial of the modern Roman Rite but its roots are in ancient Scottish and Western practice. In the Byzantine Liturgy the sign of the cross is made three times, over the bread, the wine and both together, at the epiclesis. The ancient Roman Liturgy in its different forms, including the Sarum rite used in Scotland, had no explicit epiclesis in the canon but between the eighth and fourteenth centuries ritual actions were added to the two prayers just before the consecration so that the priest first stretched his hands over the elements and then made the sign of the cross three times over the bread and wine together and then once over each element separately. From this background eighteenth century copies of the Scottish Liturgy often have crosses added to indicate that separate crosses are made over the bread and the cup at the words ‘body’ and ‘blood’ and some prescribe up to four more crosses made over the elements at the moment of the epiclesis: “ble+ss and sanc+tify with thy wo+rd and Holy Spi+rit”. This corresponds to the traditional Latin liturgy used in medieval Scotland but one or two signs of the cross are probably sufficient as even two can seem rather hurried.

Prayers of Petition  

The 1982 Scottish Liturgy follows the epiclesis with a short prayer of petition and communion with Mary and the Saints. It is an ancient tradition which has long been preserved among Anglicans that a simple bow of the head is made when the Holy Name of Jesus is spoken and it is good to extend this to the name of Mary and the Saint of the day. The 1970 Scottish Liturgy also has petition here but in three prayers to accept our sacrifice and grant forgiveness and blessings which come, via the 1764 and 1637 Scottish Liturgies, from the reworking of the ancient Roman Canon in the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer. These beautiful prayers are, like the one in the 1982 Scottish Liturgy, said with hands raised in the orans position but three gestures are sometimes added to them from the medieval tradition. The second of the three prayers begins by humbly offering our souls and bodies to the Lord and this first part of the prayer is sometimes said with a profound bow giving bodily form to this humility. The sign of the cross is then made in the second half of this prayer where we pray that all communicants may “be filled + with every grace and heavenly benediction”, a sign first used here in the twelfth century which signifies the blessing received from Christ. The third gesture is a striking of the breast as a sign of repentance at the beginning of the third prayer, ‘And though we be unworthy through our manifold sins…’.

The Bishop of London praying in the orans posture during the Eucharistic Prayer

Doxology and Amen

After these prayers of petition we come to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, the doxology  and the congregation’s ‘Amen’ which signifies their participation in and assent to the whole prayer. The basic gesture here is the ‘little elevation’ or lifting up of the consecrated bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. Usually the consecrated host is held up vertically over the chalice as the Bishop of London is doing in the picture below but it is possibly to simply lift up the chalice and paten. Although commonly called the ‘little elevation’ because it does not go up as high as the elevations at the consecration, it is actually much older and theologically more significant. It is first found in Rome in the seventh century where the Bishop elevated the bread and the deacon the chalice, something that should still be done when a deacon assists at the Eucharist. In the second Christian millennium this simple lifting up came to be surrounded by many signs of the cross, at first three made with the hand before the elevation, then between two and five made with the consecrated host (bread) over the chalice which meant that the actual elevation moved to the end of the doxology. In the simplified Roman Rite all these crosses have been removed but some Anglicans retain them, at least at the three mentions of Christ at the start of the doxology: ‘through Jesus + Christ our Lord, with + whom, and in + whom’. The congregational ‘Amen’ at the end is a very significant moment in the Prayer, so significant that Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote in the third century that the great privileges of the Christian people include hearing the Eucharistic Prayer, joining in the final Amen, and stretching out their hands for the holy food (Eusebius, History of the Church, 7.9).

The Bishop of London at the doxology in the Eucharistic Prayer

Finally, after the people have given their assent to the prayer by the final ‘Amen’, the priest genuflects before the presence of Christ in the bread and wine on the altar. This may be a time for the congregation to pause for a short while in silence before the mystery in which they are participating. One theological puzzle that the Scottish Liturgy raises about this mystery of presence will be the subject of the last post in this series.

The Priest’s Praying Body, continued.

Manual Acts 2: Benedictus to Institution Narrative

This post picks up from that published here on 12 December. Responses to the previous post confirmed that a simple guide to what the priest might do with their body during the Eucharistic Prayer is needed and that it is helpful to know the reasons for the different actions. They also show that this is not just a thing for Anglo-Catholics, new priests from all backgrounds want to celebrate the sacrament with reverence in a way that supports the devotion of their congregations. One student at the Scottish Episcopal Institute compared this art of celebration to Balinese dancing.

It is worth noting that in the Scottish Episcopal Church, as in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion, there are no legally required things for the priest to do during the Eucharistic Prayer, with the single exception of the manual acts required in the two eucharistic liturgies of the Scottish Book of Common Prayer. Apart from decisions to the contrary by the liturgical authority of the College of Bishops and General Synod in the Province, the Bishop in their diocese and the incumbent in their charge, a priest might say the prayer while standing on their head or while pirouetting around in a circle. This freedom puts the responsibility on each priest to act as a faithful and creative liturgical practitioner. To do this one needs to know the tradition, in order to understand why one chooses an option from it, departs from it or adapts it to different circumstances. By ‘the tradition’ I mean the great stream of Christian practice at the Eucharist which starts at the Last Supper and is handed on to us in a particular place – for example at my Church in Edinburgh we live in the Scottish Episcopalian tradition, which shares much with the English Anglican tradition, has significant influences from the Christian East, has been influenced by the twentieth-century liturgical movement and is rooted in the medieval Latin tradition which has its own roots in the early liturgy of Rome and Gaul. At my Church, as with others, there are also significant local traditions which influence the way we celebrate the Eucharist. This commentary aims to be an introduction to this broad tradition.       

The ‘orans posture’ during the Eucharistic Prayer

To continue the commentary: after the Benedictus comes a prayer to the Father in thanksgiving for the work of the Son which the 1982 Liturgy calls the ‘Christological Prayer’. Here the priest resumes praying on behalf of the community and so resumes the raised hands of the ‘orans posture’ described in the previous post.

The posture changes at the ‘Narrative of the Institution’ (1982 Liturgy) or ‘the Consecration’ (Book of Common Prayer) which is a liturgical presentation of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-25; Matthew 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:17–20). This is where the ‘manual acts’ are found in the Book of Common Prayer. Here attention shifts to the elements, bread and wine mixed with water, and to what Jesus did with them.

Marcos Zapata, The Last Supper (1750), Cuzco Cathedral, Peru

Like Jesus at the Last Supper, the priest takes the bread and takes the cup at the moment each is mentioned, holding them slightly above the altar. This is the most ancient action at this point in the prayer. The actions and words at this time emphasise that it is Christ who is active here in the person of the priest. The priest is not acting here by their own power and this is the meaning of the doctrine that the priest acts ‘in persona Christi’ (‘in the person of Christ’). This is not an argument for the maleness of the priesthood, nor does it suggest that priests should have beards or be circumcised. It is the human priest who is being drawn in to share the priestly action of Christ by virtue of his words to the Apostles, ‘do this’. It is an invitation to great humility on the part of the priest.

In the Churches of the West this is the most sacred part of the Canon and for the last thousand years attention has been focussed on this action of the Word as the moment that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Eastern Churches generally place the focus on the action of the Spirit in the Epiclesis, and this Eastern emphasis has also influenced the Scottish Episcopal Church. Today, however, many hold that it is the action of the Word and Spirit in the whole Anaphora, rather than at a particular moment, which is consecratory. As evidence for this we find within the tradition that there are Eucharistic Prayers that lack one or other of these sections – the Roman Canon has no real Epiclesis and the East Syrian Anaphora of Addai and Mari has no Institution Narrative. In our western tradition the basic action and words of taking and blessing, handed on from Jesus and the Apostles, have been enriched by a number of actions to express what is being done: breaking, blessing, touching, showing and kneeling.

Taking the Bread

The Book of Common Prayer says that the bread should be broken when the priest says that Jesus broke the bread, but in modern liturgies this is generally not done because the ‘breaking of the bread’ or ‘fraction’ (from the Latin word for breaking, fractio) is done after the Canon. It is for this reason that the bread should not be broken at this point unless one is celebrating Holy Communion using a rite in the Book of Common Prayer where it is demanded.  

Another custom related to Jesus’ actions, this time taken from the Roman Missal, is that some priests make the sign of the cross over the bread and the cup with the right hand when they pick them up with the left. We see this in the Peruvian painting of the Last Supper above. This gives expression to Jesus ‘giving thanks’ over the bread and cup, which in the Roman Rite is expressed by the word benedixit, ‘he blessed’. In the middle ages this word suggested the contemporary idea of blessing with the sign of the cross – though Jesus himself would have used a Jewish prayer of blessing which is the origin of the Eucharistic Prayer. There is no requirement to use this gesture here but it may help to focus the mind, although for some it would be a distraction.

Archbishop Justin Welby consecrating a lot of bread and wine

Another gesture is ordered by the ‘manual acts’ in the Prayer Book which require that all vessels containing the elements should be touched at this time. This indicates that they are to be consecrated during the ‘Prayer of Consecration’, but it is not necessary to do this in other rites where a simple intention to consecrate all that needs to be consecrated will suffice. It is good to make this intention, preferably before ordination, as it saves potential confusion later. Some intend to consecrate all that is on the corporal – the square white cloth placed on the altar for the Eucharist – but that may be too restrictive as sometimes there is too much bread and wine to fit on the corporal.

Archbishop Rowan Williams elevating the host

A common custom is to elevate each element to show it to the congregation after reciting Jesus’ words, followed by an act of reverence: a profound bow or a genuflection. A profound bow is a bending at the waist, as opposed to a nodding of the head alone, and a genuflection is going down on the right knee and rising again. The traditional custom was to genuflect before and after each elevation but the Roman Church in the 1960s simplified this to one genuflection after each elevation and this is followed by many Anglican priests. This gesture has its origin not in the example of Christ but in the passionate desire of his disciples. The elevation was demanded by the devotional sense of the medieval laity who wished to see the Sacrament which they so rarely received. It came in for the host (the consecrated bread) alone during the late twelfth century and spread rapidly, with a second elevation of the chalice slowly joining it but not becoming universal until the sixteenth century. The prime purpose of these second-millennium elevations is to show the Sacrament but they also took on the symbolic meaning of Jesus being lifted up onto the cross. It has also taken on some of the meaning of a much older elevation of the bread which has already been mentioned, that done by the priest when he lifted it before the Lord’s words were said. This was understood as a gesture of offering the bread to God to be transformed into the Body of Christ but it also picked up the idea of offering Christ’s sacrifice. Images of the priest elevating the host before a theophany, a manifestation of God and the heavenly court, fit with the idea that the priest is pleading the one sacrifice of Christ before the Father at this point but strictly this offering is done in the following prayer. 

Juan Carreño de Miranda (1666), Elevation at Mass before a Theophany

In the Scottish Liturgy the ‘Narrative of the Institution’ or ‘Prayer of Consecration’ is followed by the ‘Anamnesis and Oblation’, as in all Anaphoras. After this, in a position where the Scottish Liturgy follows Eastern and not Western custom, comes the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the elements and the congregation: the Epiclesis. To learn more about the gestures used in these prayers, look out for the final post where we will continue to explore the theological implications of the various actions – what is really going on when we do the Eucharistic Prayer.

It would be possible in a short study like this just to give simple directions on what to do during the Eucharistic Prayer but, as noted in the first post, such directions are not usually given in Anglican Liturgies today so priests need to make a choice. Simple directions would be what social scientists call a ‘thin description’ but I hope this gives more of a ‘thick description’ by including the context, history, meaning and intention of the various actions so we can make an informed choice. A full ‘thick description’ would also include the context of the denomination and congregation where the liturgy is celebrated but I hope this series of posts gives the raw materials for good practice here to be discerned.

Lest Music Perish Utterly: Church Music and the Pandemic

Margaret Attwood invited Richard Holloway to present ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4 this morning. Starting with the image of children dancing to school in Morningside, he presented a powerful plea for the arts in this current crisis: ‘this horrid year which is grinding to a close has put our creativity, our art and those who make it our under threat – it should be the first, not the last thing to be restored’. The pandemic attacks the soul and the mind as well as the body.

Richard Holloway

This struck a chord with me. One of the things most missed by my congregation has been church music and so this Advent, instead of carol services, I organised a couple of ‘Meditations’ with poetry, readings and music by professional singers and accompanists. This was done within the rigour of our church coronavirus plan. One service was for Advent, with Advent hymns and arias sung by a young opera singer, and the other for Christmas, with carols and folk songs sung by the BBC Radio Scotland young traditional musician of the year. Barbara Cole Walton and Hannah Rarity sung to rapt and full, albeit socially distanced, congregations. These services went down very well and raised good sums for Scottish charities helping people at home and abroad, the Pilton Youth and Children’s Project and Mary’s Meals. The singers had been arranged through the excellent organisation Live Music Now Scotland which supports young professional musicians to work with a very diverse range of people that rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to experience live music.

Advent Meditation at Holy Cross, Edinburgh, 2020

These two services were emotional occasions. Both performers had not sung before a live audience since March – nine months unable to do that to which they have dedicated their lives. Hannah had been in the middle of a tour in Germany when the restrictions came in and she had to come home. It is only because Church and State in Scotland have allowed a single singer at religious services that they were able to sing this time. We have had a few other single singers from church choirs helping us worship at Holy Cross and the general impression is that, like professional musicians, church choirs are feeling the pain of the restrictions on music.

In happier times : the choir of Old St Paul’s, Edinburgh

This got me thinking of the last time the government silenced the choirs of Scotland. It is a partisan myth that the Protestant Reformation brought popular education to Scotland. The researches of John Durkan and others have shown that there was a highly developed network of elementary and grammar schools before 1559. There were also many song schools attached to the larger churches which taught a developed musical curriculum and whose boys sung at the liturgy. The compositions of Robert Carver show that the quality of church music in Scotland was as high as anywhere else in Europe. These choirs and this music were silenced with the abolition of Catholic worship. The Earl of Moray wished to retain part-singing in the Reformed Church and commissioned Thomas Wode, a former monk of Lindores, to put together settings for the vernacular psalter used in Church. He did this and a few of the manuscript part books survive. In one of them, Wode wrote in the margin, ‘notwithstanding all this work I have undertaken, I fear that music shall perish in this land utterly’ (‘Notwithstanding of this travel I have taken, I can understand not but Musike sall pereishe in this land alutterlye’). Richard Holloway’s words reminded me of this sad note by Thomas Wode.

From the Wode Part Books

Simple metrical psalms did become popular, so music did not utterly depart the Kingdom, but attempts to restore the song schools such as that by James VI in 1579 and those by the Crown and Bishops in the early seventeenth century ultimately failed. It was not until the late nineteenth century that Scotland began to develop a rich culture of Church music like that fostered by the cathedrals and colleges of the Church of England. This has remained fragile.

Not Friends : John Knox and Choristers from a Song School

This is not to say that the Scottish Government and the leaders of the Scottish Churches have inherited the dark fanaticism of John Knox or the Covenanters. We are in a pandemic which the news today shows is getting worse. Like most clergy I am happy to follow laws and guidance designed to keep us safe. I do, however, wonder whether the absolute ban on more than one voice in Church is more scientifically based than the situation in England where some limited choral singing has been allowed – does the shadow of past religious conflict subconsciously inform policy here?  

In happier times : the choir of St John’s, Edinburgh singing at the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae

What I am really concerned about is the pain and lasting damage caused by this necessary restriction of singing. Musicians and choirs need our support now and, when things improve, there needs to be concerted effort by Church leaders to help musicians restore song to our worship. The greatest act of worship on earth is the Eucharist where we stand in the Spirit before God, offering the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and join ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven singing the hymn of your unending glory’. Echoing Richard Holloway I would argue that choirs and church music, together with the livelihood of all professional musicians, ‘should be the first, not the last thing to be restored’.


Manual Acts 1: Eucharistic Prayer to the Sanctus

The ‘Order for Holy Communion’ in the various forms of the Book of Common Prayer, which defined Anglican and Episcopalian worship for four centuries, specified certain ‘manual acts’ that the priest should do with the bread and wine when celebrating Holy Communion. In a Church like the Church of England, with a variety of theologies, this ensured a minimum of conformity without creating ‘windows into the soul’ of the one who was celebrating.

The Manual Acts in the 1912 Scottish Book of Common Prayer

Today these ceremonial directions are absent. The ‘manual acts’ were omitted from the 1970 Scottish Liturgy and the 1982 Scottish Liturgy makes a virtue of this, saying in a brief note that ‘the Liturgy is printed with a minimum of instructions out of a conviction that worship in a contemporary idiom must be adapted to suit particular times and places’. This presumes that clergy are sufficiently well formed to know what is appropriate. The danger is that the space this creates leaves room for distracting and eccentric gestures from those clergy whose formation in Christian tradition has not been strong. At best it gives freedom, but the freedom of the clergy can be the distraction of the laity. The problem is that much is presumed but not supplied. As the art of celebrating the eucharist is not taught in theological education institutions and some candidates for ministry have limited experience of Anglican worship, this post aims to fill the gap by describing and explaining what the priest does with his or her hands and body while celebrating the Eucharist.

You could, of course, just make it up, but that would not be appropriate when performing a ritual which, whether at High Mass or on a coffee table, is in its essence an act of tradition, ‘for I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you…’ (1 Cor 11:23). You could also just leave out all the ritual gestures, but that would be false to the sacrament which, however simply it is celebrated, has an outward form as well as its inward power. I remember a young Aberdonian priest being scandalised at the Anglican Abbey of West Malling and exclaiming of the chaplain, ‘he doesn’t do the manual acts!’ One can’t avoid offending some people, but a priest should at least know and be able to explain why they act what they do in obeying Christ’s command to ‘do this in memory of me’. Celebrating the sacraments ‘decently and in order’, whatever may be the context, is a simple act of fidelity to Jesus and an important means of Christian formation.

This post will concern itself with the Eucharistic Prayer, also known as the Anaphora or Canon, and will refer to the two forms most commonly used in the Scottish Episcopal Church, the 1970 and 1982 Scottish Liturgies. What is said, however, may be applied to most Western Anaphoras with the possible exception of the distinctively Scottish emphasis on the Epiclesis.

Christians in the orans position from the reconstructed 4th century wall painting at Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent

The basic posture of the priest during the Canon is the ‘orans’ position (‘orans’ is Latin for ‘praying’) – standing with forearms and hands raised at the side of the body and the palms of the hands broadly facing forward. This posture, a natural bodily expression of prayer, goes back to the beginnings of the Church, is also found in other religions, and has been rediscovered in charismatic Christianity. It was originally used by all Christians in prayer but in the second Christian millennium it came to be restricted to the clergy when praying in the liturgy. Early images of Christians in this position are common and in Britain we see it in the fourth century frescos in the Christian chapel at Lullingston Roman Villa in Kent. It is also found on two enigmatic early Christian carved stones, variously dated between the seventh and eleventh centuries, found at Over Kirkhope in the Scottish Borders and Llanhamlach in Wales. The early form of the posture, as described above, is found in these images but in the later middle ages, possibly to avid theatrical gestures, the hands of the priest at Mass were brought in facing each other at the level of the chest. The more expansive form, however, returned in the second half of the twentieth century. This traditional and universal gesture is the basic posture to hold during the Eucharistic Prayer unless you are doing something with your hands. By adopting it you become an icon of prayer and are one with the faithful throughout the ages.

Early Christian Orans figure from Over Kirkhope in the Scottish Borders

The Eucharistic Prayer begins with a dialogue which shows that it is a prayer of the whole congregation gathered as the priestly Body of Christ: ‘the Lord be with you… lift up your hearts… let us give thanks…’. The orans position is used during this with a number of possible variations. In the traditional Western liturgy, with the priest facing East, he began this dialogue with his hands on the altar and raised them saying ‘lift up your hearts’, joining his palms before the breast at ‘let us give thanks’, and then returning to the orans position for the Preface which follows. The reform of the Roman liturgy in the 1960s changed this to the priest holding the orans position throughout the dialogue, just lifting them a little at ‘lift up your hearts’. Although we share a common heritage, Anglicans are not obliged to follow Roman practice, but it seems right to open the arms when greeting the congregation, to lift them when inviting the congregation to lift up their hearts to God, and then to join them again while changing your dialogue partner from the people to God and turning to the posture of prayer. 

Early Christian Orans figures on the Llanhamlach stone. They may represent the Apostle John (with book) and the Virgin Mary (with weeping nipples) at the Cross (John 19:26)

The Preface is a prayer addressed to God the Father and is thus said or sung with hands raised. Western Liturgy traditionally varies the Preface according to the season or feast but the 1982 Liturgy adopted an Eastern practice of having a fixed Preface (called the ‘Opening Prayer’). This emphasises the unity of the Eucharistic Prayer, but the natural desire to celebrate the seasons has resulted in a multiplication of versions of the 1982 Anaphora – perhaps it would have been best to stick to our tradition and have a variable Preface. Having started the prayer by uniting priest and people in one act of thanksgiving, at the end we see the implications of lifting up our hearts when we join with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven in that cosmic act of praise which the prophet Isaiah saw in the Jerusalem Temple where the seraphim were shouting ‘holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts’ (Isaiah 6:3). In the Liturgy we are with Isaiah and all the angels and saints in the true and original Temple in the heavenly Jerusalem. At this point the priest’s hands are joined as she is no longer leading the prayers. The Sanctus is one place where Anglicans have preserved an older tradition. In the modern Roman rite the priest stands with hands joined for the Sanctus and Benedictus but Anglicans often bow for the first part of the Sanctus and, standing upright, sign themselves with the cross at the Benedictus. These ancient gestures reflect the awe experienced by the prophet before the majesty of God in Isaiah 6 and the recognition that the one ‘who comes in the name of the Lord’ is Jesus. One may prefer the simplicity of just standing with joined hands, but the two gestures of bowing and crossing act as a bodily reminder of what the liturgy teaches should be in your mind at this point. We are embodied beings and learn from actions as well as words.

This article will be concluded in a second post. Thanks to Alan Barton for permission to use the first image above.

Vestments – the Basics

In my last Church I ran a session with the children of our ‘Friday Fun Club’ called ‘Why Father Stephen wears unusual clothes’. We went to the Vestry in the Church and they tried on various vestments while I explained their meaning and answered questions. The various sacred things in traditional Churches are a great way of teaching the faith without too many words. I had been interested in the meaning of vestments since, as a teenager, I discovered a book called ‘The Ritual Reason Why’ and my doctoral thesis has a few sections on the interpretation of vestments in medieval and renaissance Europe. Coffee with a priest-friend from an evangelical background who, for the first time in her life, has to wear eucharistic vestments made me think it might be worth writing a short post on the basics of what the priest and deacon wear at the Eucharist. I will also say something about where they come from and what they mean.

Priest, Deacon and Subdeacon at High Mass

These vestments are quite simple. For the priest an alb, stole, and chasuble (with a few optional extras). A white robe, the ALB, is worn over the cassock or ordinary clothes (the black cassock is a version of ordinary street wear and is not a eucharistic vestment). The alb is sometimes held in at the waist with a rope GIRDLE or cloth CINCTURE. The alb is sometimes worn over an AMICE covering the neck opening and clerical collar but many modern clergy use a ‘cassock-alb’ which is a combination of the cassock and the alb and does not need an amice and others wear albs with hoods attached. A STOLE, a strip of cloth in the colour of the day, is worn round the neck hanging down at the front and sometimes tucked through the girdle. Sometimes the MANIPLE, a strip of cloth in the colour of the day, is worn around the left wrist falling down about 20cm each side. The CHASUBLE, a large poncho-like garment with a hole in the centre for the head, covers it all and hangs down the front and back. A deacon at the Eucharist wears the alb with a stole hanging diagonally from his or her left shoulder, joined at waist level on the right side, perhaps a maniple on the left wrist, and over it all the DALMATIC, a tabard-like garment, joined at the side and with short wide sleeves, in the colour of the day. If there is a subdeacon, they wear a similar garment called a TUNICLE.

An old guide to eucharistic vestments

These vestments can be described very simply, but Christian tradition in both East and West has developed for them a rich series of symbolic meanings. These were used as a kind of mnemonic to recall the minds of clergy and congregations to the central truths of the faith and to the virtues needed to live a good life. This method of interpreting the liturgy and its vestments is a playful one. There is no fixed single meaning for a thing or action, but a whole series of meanings is built up by comparison with Scripture and reflection on the shape of the vestment or ritual action. It is a living, organic tradition. This method uses the way Christians have traditionally interpreted Scripture. There is a literal understanding, for example the origin of the chasuble in late Roman dress, and a symbolic understanding which relates them to the moral life, the life of Christ and to the life of the world to come. This tradition influenced the traditional prayers said when putting on the vestments and it is sufficiently flexible that one can take from it what one finds useful or even develop it with new comparisons.

Modern vestments at St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee

Jesus said of a just a few of the Christians of Sardis, ‘they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes’ (Revelation 3:4-5). White robes in Revelation are worn by the saved in heaven (Revelation 6:7, 7:9-14). The ALB is a close fitting white robe which covers the whole body. Its name comes from the Latin for while ‘albus’ and it sometimes has attached to it panels of cloth in the colour of the day called apparels. Its white colour recalls the dazzling white clothes of the transfigured Christ (Matthew 17:2) and the white robe of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:9. The alb is also related to baptism as the newly baptised wear white as a sign of their purity when they emerge from the font, ‘you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self’ (Colossians 3:9-10, cf Ephesians 4:24). The alb is thus a sign of the heavenly life begun on earth and it is especially appropriate for use in the liturgy where we lift up our hearts to heaven and join the angels in praise. The vesting prayer for the alb picks up these themes of purity and heaven, ‘Purify me, O Lord, from all stain and cleanse my heart, that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal delights’.

Putting on the Amice

Two other vestments sometimes go with the alb. The AMICE is a rectangular piece of white cloth worn around the neck, under the alb, with two strings attached that tie around the chest. It is traditionally put on around the head like a hood and then dropped down. It takes its name from the Latin word ‘amicire’ which means to cover and it was introduced in the eighth century. It symbolises control of speech as it goes round the throat, control of thoughts as it covers the head, and chastity as its two cords go around the heart. In the light of the passion of Christ it is the veil put over his head when he was mocked and the soldiers demanded ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’ (Matthew 26:68). As it goes on the head it recalls the ‘helmet of salvation’ (Ephesians 6:17), hence the vesting prayer, ‘Place, O Lord, on my head the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil’.

Alb with Girdle

The alb is often held in by a belt or GIRDLE which has the practical purpose of stopping the priest tripping over the alb but also, because it restrains the alb, symbolises temperance and self-control. Girding the loins it also recalls preparation and readiness, just like the Jews at Passover (Exodus 12:11) or the teaching of Jesus ‘Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning’ (Luke 12:35). It also calls us to live authentically, ‘Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth’ (Ephesians 6:14). The girdle can remind one of the golden belt worn by Christ (Revelation 1:13) but the vesting prayer emphasises its ascetic function, ‘Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity, and quench in me the fire of disordered desire that the grace of temperance and chastity may abide in me’.

Priest wearing Alb and Stole

Jesus said, ‘take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:29). The STOLE symbolises the yoke of Christ, specifically the mission which we take on when we are ordained. Such symbolism is not rigidly fixed, as this same image is also applied to the chasuble. ‘Stole’ comes from the Greek word ‘stolē’ which means an item of clothing and the prayer said when putting it on refers to the fall of Adam and Eve and restoration in Christ, ‘Restore to me, O Lord, the garment of immortality which was lost to me by my first parents, and, although unworthy to approach your sacred mysteries, grant me, nevertheless, eternal joy.’ It also symbolises the rope that tied Christ to the pillar of scourging and is a symbol of his obedience even unto death (Philippians 2:6-8). Stoles are the same liturgical colour as the chasuble. Traditionally priests at the Eucharist wear the stole crossed over their breast, deacons over the left shoulder and bishops wear it hanging down straight on each side, but many Anglican priests now follow modern Roman Catholic custom and wear their stoles hanging down like bishops.

Priest and Deacon wearing Alb and Stole

The origin of the stole is a mystery but it is also called in Latin ‘orarium’ which means a napkin and it may have developed from a handkerchief-like cloth of the same name carried in Roman times. It is also possible that it came from a badge of office used by Roman officials or, less likely, from the Jewish prayer shawl. It is, as in the Roman example, a sign of identity and should always be worn when celebrating the sacraments. One unusual example of the use of the stole is among the Carthusian nuns who, since the middle ages, have worn the stole and maniple (on the right wrist) on the day of their profession of vows despite not being ordained priests.

The MANIPLE also derived from a liturgical napkin, Ivo of Chartres noted in the eleventh century that this was its purpose, but it developed into a strip of cloth like the stole but hanging from the left wrist. It is worn by priests, deacons and subdeacons at Mass but because the Roman Catholic Church in 1967 made its use optional its use is not common today. As a cloth to wipe away sweat, in Latin ‘sudarium’, it symbolises hard work and penance, and it also recalls the cords used to bind Christ when he was captured. ‘Manipulus’ in Latin can mean a bundle, as in Psalm 126:6, ‘Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves (manipulos)’, and so the maniple is seen as a symbol of heavenly reward as well as of earthly struggle. Both these are reflected in the prayer said when putting it on, ‘Grant, O Lord, that I may so bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow, that I may receive the reward for my labours with rejoicing’.

Priest wearing Chasuble and Maniple

‘Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Colossians 3:14). The CHASUBLE, that poncho-like garment that goes over everything else, symbolises love. The old commentators also related it to the text ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8) which suggests that the priest underneath is a sinner who is called to the work of love. When it goes over the head it falls down in two parts, one before and one behind, and this shape reminded them of Jesus’ double commandment of love: love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40), while its fullness reminds us of the wideness of love which extends even to enemies (Matthew 5:44). Other ancient writers also relate the chasuble to Jesus himself: to putting on Christ in Baptism (Galatians 3:27) and to the purple robe with which the soldiers clothed Jesus during his passion (John 19:2). The prayer said by priests when they put it on takes a theme used of the stole, which also goes over the shoulders, ‘O Lord, you said, my yoke is sweet and my burden light, grant that I may carry it so as to obtain your grace’.

The chasuble developed from the standard outer garment of the Roman Empire, an oval poncho reaching to the feet called in Latin the ‘casula’ (meaning ‘little house’). It is probable that a good quality casula was reserved for the priest at the Eucharist and this was retained when fashions in secular dress changed. It is also called in Latin ‘planeta’, from the Greek word for wanderer which is behind the name ‘planet’, because its long edges wander about. Originally a long garment that needed to be folded up over the hands, from the middle ages the sides were gradually cut away until the chasuble became more like a sandwich-board. This form of chasuble is usually called ‘Roman’ or, because of the shape of the front panel, ‘fiddleback’, and the fuller form is often called ‘gothic’, as in the pictures above.

The DALMATIC of the deacon (above) is named after Dalmatia, whence it was believed to have come. The breadth of its sleeves was also held to symbolise the open arms of love and it is in the shape of a cross to remind us that at the Eucharist we ‘proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). The deacon’s vesting prayer suggests the joy of celebration, ‘Lord, clothe me with the garment of salvation, the vestment of joy, and always encompass me with the dalmatic of justice’. Here, as with all the vestments, material things bring us back to the heart of the faith because we all, like the children at the start of this post, learn through our senses.       

With thanks to Jeremy Auld, Alan Barton, Alex Lane, John Penman, Corinne Smith, and Susan Stoddart Ward for sending photographs for this post.

The Assumption for Anglicans

There is some confusion among Episcopalians about the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrated on 15th August and often transferred to the nearest Sunday. On social media recently I saw clergy colleagues comment on the Feast, “she died; get over it; God still loves you” and “the Assumption/Dormition is simply a feast day to get theologians out of a hole”, a hole which involved wombs being dirty and Mary not having original sin so not being able to die. Certainly the distinctively British theological principle, ‘potuit, decuit, ergo fecit’ ([God] could do it, it was fitting so God therefore did it), used by Eadmer of Canterbury and John Duns Scotus to defend Mary’s immaculate conception, does suggest the possibility of extreme theological inventiveness, but it is worth looking at what the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary actually means.

Firstly we might ask why a Roman Catholic doctrine, defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950 “as a dogma revealed by God”, is being celebrated by Anglicans who have rejected papal authority since the sixteenth century. The Book of Common Prayer in its various early versions removed the Feast of the Assumption on the 15th August, leaving 8th September as the main Marian Feast. August 15th returned in the twentieth century with the Scottish Prayer Book of 1929 leading the way and calling it the ‘Falling Asleep of the B.V.M.’, a title also used by the 1954 South African Prayer Book. The 1979 American Prayer Book called the Feast ‘St Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ’, the 1989 New Zealand Book ‘St Mary, the Mother of Jesus’ and the 1995 Australian Book ‘Mary, Mother of Our Lord’. The 1991 Revised Scottish Calendar simply has ‘Mary the Virgin’ and the Church of England finally caught up with all this in Common Worship (2000) when it moved its main Marian Feast to the 15th August and called it ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary’, although in a typically Anglican fashion it noted that one could replace it with 8 September and that “controversial doctrinal implications should not be inferred” from the change to the 15th August (A Companion to Common Worship (2001) edited by Paul Bradshaw, vol 1 p.43). Meanwhile many Anglican churches around the world have ignored the timidity of modern liturgists and cheerfully joined most other Christians in celebrating ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’, as we find in The Day Office of the Church (1871) used by the Episcopalian nuns of the Society of Reparation in Aberdeen.

Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
An Anglican image, Our Lady of Walsingham

This move to transfer the main Anglican Feast of Mary to the 15th August was done to fit with ‘wider ecumenical practice’ as noted in Bradshaw’s Companion to Common Worship. This means that as Roman Catholics and Orthodox, and thus most Christians, have their main Marian Feast on 15th August, it is odd for Anglicans not to do the same. The problem is that the Anglicans have a strange prudishness about the title and meaning of the Feast, even if we put to one side the crypto-Nestorianism of some of the modern names for the day which hint at doubts about Mary being truly the Mother of God as defined by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. The Anglican retrieval of the 15th August started well with Scots and South Africans using the Orthodox title of the Dormition, ‘falling asleep’, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which fits well with the Scottish Episcopalian respect for Eastern Christianity, but the general move to make this a non-specific Feast of Mary is regrettable and unecumenical, akin to making Easter just a day when we think about Jesus without mentioning the resurrection.

Ancient Homily on Mary's Dormition & Assumption - John Damascene -
Icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God

What is commemorated on the 15th August is the end of Mary’s life when she was taken body and soul into heaven. The Eastern Churches hold that she died first, with the Church of Ethiopia having two Feast of her death on 16th January and bodily assumption on 15th August. The Roman Church, however, leaves it open whether she died or was taken up like Elijah, simply saying it happened “when the course of her earthly life was finished” (from the 1950 Papal Bull, Munificentissimus Deus). Any suggestion that the doctrine of the Assumption necessarily involves believing that Mary did not die is not true; that she did die a bodily death is the patristic tradition and is common among Roman Catholic theologians. The suggestion that the doctrine of the Assumption comes from a squeamishness about the body and sex is absurd because the doctrine is about the body of a real woman and mother entering the realm of the Godhead, far above the angelic choirs. It is also not true that belief in the Immaculate Conception (Mary was freed by the anticipated merits of Christ from original sin from the moment of her conception) necessarily leads to a belief she didn’t die, it only means that bodily death for her was not a consequence of the punishment of sin. Why then the Anglican bashfulness, is it just the product of these sorts of misunderstandings?

Part of the problem is that the belief that Mary was taken up into heaven body and soul is not explicitly mentioned before the fourth century, or perhaps the third if we include some apocryphal texts. Epiphanius of Salamis wrote in 375 that the nature of Mary’s end is not known but he also implied that there were traditions that she died and others that she did not (Panarion 78). Belief in her bodily assumption, however, became current soon after throughout the Christian world to the extent that by the time of John of Damascus, who died in 749, it was taken for granted as part of the Christian faith in East and West. This should not cause any problems for Anglicans as the doctrine has sound grounding in the patristic period and is at least as well established as the modern canon of Scripture. The fact that the doctrine was accepted by the whole Church suggests that it should be taken seriously, as Augustine said against the Donatists, “securus iudicat orbis terrarum” (“the verdict of the [Christian] world is conclusive” – Contra epistolam Parmeniani, 3.24).  

File:Bartolome Murillo - Assumption of the Virgin.jpg - Wikimedia ...
The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Bartolome Esteban Murillo

The real problem is that the doctrine has been associated with papal authority, not only since 1950 because the doctrine was firmly taught by the papal magisterium before then. I would suggest that this is the real reason for the Anglican hesitancy about the Feast and then about the name of the Feast. What I have said above suggests that this is a spurious motive: the Feast is ancient and does not depend on a particular view of the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Some might attempt to argue that it is not in accordance with the Scriptures and the oldest traditions of the Church, but the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission examined this in their ecumenical discussions and issued an ‘Agreed Statement’, Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ (2004), which taught that, “the teaching about Mary in the two definitions of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, understood within the biblical pattern of the economy of hope and grace, can be said to be consonant with the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient common traditions”. If we are serious about being a ‘branch’ of the Catholic Church” (Canon 1 of the Scottish Episcopal Church) or ‘part’ of the Catholic Church (Church of England ‘Declaration of Assent’) and if we are serious about our ecumenical responsibilities, we should accept the content as well as the date of our main Marian Feast. It is the ‘Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ or the ‘Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos’. As the heritage of our Churches is that of Western Christianity, it seems better that the Feast should appear in our calendars as the Assumption. I wonder if the preference for the Dormition actually comes from ignorance – either thinking the Assumption means she did not die or that the Dormition doesn’t involve her bodily resurrection.

‘Assumption’ (1522-30), in the dome of the Cathedral of Parma, by Antonio da Correggio

This leaves us with the problem of historical veracity – did it really happen? There can be no doubt that Mary was a real person, hence the historical basis of the celebrations of her conception (8th December), birth (8th December), conception of Jesus (25th March), giving birth to Jesus (Feast of 25th December), and death or at least passing from this earthly life (Feast of 15th August). Revelation and the mind of faith garland all these events with supernatural meaning, just as they do with the intertwined life of her divine Son from which her life, and the life of any disciple of Christ, takes its meaning. The real problem of historicity is with the life of Christ, did he really raise the dead, feed five thousand with five loaves and two fish, walk on water, turn water into wine, and himself rise from the dead and ascend to heaven? Liberal theologians have tried to explain all these supernatural events in natural terms but these are all ultimately unconvincing – walking on a sandbank in a storm is as strange as walking on water and persuading the five thousand to share their packed lunches is nice but not really worth remembering.

The real question is not historicity but meaning. The mind of faith believes that the resurrection and miracles of Jesus actually happened but we cannot prove they did, and it is a rather poor view of the world that confines truth to history. Dante is a better guide to Christianity than Rudolf Bultmann. Problems with the bodily resurrection of Jesus are of a similar order as problems with the bodily assumption of Mary. What is really important is what they tell us about God and creation, and as such the great dogmas of the Christian faith are more like the truth of poetry which exceeds the veracity of a string of dates. Another priest friend on social media this week defended the Assumption of Mary by saying, “Of course, if you want reason as well as tradition, where would a good Jewish boy put his mother except on a great golden throne in heaven?” This is pushing ‘potuit, decuit, ergo fecit’ to the limits, but the Feast of the Assumption and Dormition means that Mary, the poor Jewish girl from Nazareth, is actually in heaven with God in the fullness of her being. She is a sign of hope for us all, poetic proof that the promises of Jesus are real and for us.

Who would not want to celebrate and name that hope?  

Assumpta est Maria in caelum: gaudent Angeli laudantes benedicunt Dominum. Gaudete et exultate omnes recti corde quia hodie Maria Virgo cum Christo regnat in aeternum!

Mary has been taken up into heaven, the angels rejoice, singing songs of praise they bless the Lord. Rejoice and exult, all you of good heart, because today the Virgin Mary reigns together with Christ for ever!

Worshipping together again : our Church is a Holy Cave

The text below was written for the weekly e-news sent out to my congregation at the Church of the Holy Cross, Davidson’s Mains, Edinburgh. There are some things in it which might be of interest to others.

Holy Cross, Davidson’s Mains

“I was recently reading the ‘Commentary on the Divine Liturgy’ of St Germanos of Constantinople (I have unusual tastes!) It is a meditation on worship in the Greek Orthodox Church and one passage, printed below, made me think of our Church of the Holy Cross, especially as a group of us have recently been cleaning its stone walls in preparation for the day we can worship there together again. In commentaries like this, parts of the Church and the Liturgy recall parts of the life of Christ or aspects of the Christian life. If we listen to this teaching even the stones of our Church will teach us about Jesus.


The apse is the East end of the Church and, like the rest of our Church of the Holy Cross, it is made of rough stone like a cave. Our beautiful East window by Christopher Webb is of the nativity of Jesus so it gives perfect expression to the teaching of St Germanos. We look East, see the stone and the window, and our hearts are drawn to Christmas and the story of Jesus’ birth. We see the animals, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds and Magi and the angels above. We are in Bethlehem.

We are free to play with these associations, one part of the Church or Liturgy can mean many different aspects of our faith. St Germanos thus moves from the first great Mystery of our faith to the second: the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, the Paschal Mystery. The Incarnation and the Cross together contain the whole of Christianity. From one cave we move to another. This cave is at the other end of human life, it is a place of tears but it is the site of the rebirth of hope. At Holy Cross we have no great Crucifixion on a Rood Screen like other Churches to remind us of the Passion, but in the middle of the bare stone wall, below the window, is a small metal door with a cross in the centre.

This is the aumbry where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, the consecrated bread and wine which is Christ’s Body and Blood. It is the prime site of Christ’s presence in our Church. St Paul said of this sacrament, ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). The aumbry is the cave of Golgotha where Christ was buried, but he is not dead, he is risen.

As we prepare to return to Holy Cross to celebrate the Holy Eucharist together, it is worth remembering that during the time of our exile, when I have been offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice alone, Jesus has remained in our Church in its symbols and in his power and real presence. He has remained in this cross-shaped building at the heart of Davidson’s Mains, waiting to welcome us home. Many have said that the Church is the people not the building, but that is a rather drab half-truth. The Church includes us, as well as the angels and saints, but our Holy Building by its very stones expresses who we are.”