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.”   

Bishop Jolly on the Eucharistic Sacrifice

Today is the feast of Bishop Alexander Jolly (1756–1838), Bishop of Moray, Saint, Scholar and Ascetic (though famed for his fine rum punch), and a key representative of the Scottish Episcopalian theological tradition. He lived alone and each day in his small house in Fraserburgh he spent hours in prayer reading long passages of Scripture and the Fathers in the original languages. He presents his teaching on the Eucharistic Sacrifice in his great work, first published in 1831, The Christian Sacrifice in the Eucharist; Considered as It Is the Doctrine of Holy Scripture, Embraced by the Universal Church of the First and Purest Times, by the Church of England, and by the Episcopal Church in Scotland. This teaching is intimately bound up with the Scottish Liturgy and has its own genius, distinct from Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologies while having affinities with them all.

Rather than trying to explain it, I offer below Jolly’s own words from pages 96 to 105 of the first edition of this work. This extract was first made for the ordinands of the Scottish Episcopal Institute but has also been used in a study group at St John’s Church, Princes Street, Edinburgh. Non-specialists found Jolly’s teaching helpful in understanding their own experience of the Eucharist. It gave them a way of understanding that Christ is truly present and the Eucharist is a real sacrifice, without involving the philosophical gymnastics of transubstantiation. The ecumenical agreements of the last few decades and the scholarship behind them have brought many new insights, but Alexander Jolly’s teaching retains its value.

Bishop Jolly

The Christian Sacrifice in the Eucharist

All the liturgies, and all the good Fathers of the primitive church harmoniously concur in asserting, that the materials of the Christian sacrifice are bread and wine, which latter was universally in those times mixed with water. The Holy Liturgy, then, calling upon the people to lift up their hearts, and fervently fix their minds in thanksgiving to God for all his mercies, proceeded, in an act of solemn devotion, to separate these elements, that they might be the authoritative symbols, figures and representatives, of the broken body and shed blood of our divine Redeemer. And this was done by rehearsing over them the words of His institution, which authorised his Apostles, and their successors thus to celebrate and shew forth his death….

The rehearsal of these words, declaring the original institution, makes the first part of the consecration. The bread and wine are thereby separated and set apart from all common use, and raised to value beyond all the bread and wine in the universe; being, by Christ’s institution and authority made the figures and symbols of his body and blood, who, of his wondrous love and desire for our salvation, offered himself a sacrifice for our redemption, under such tokens or substitutes; and commanded that we should, by the Apostolic priesthood, plead the merits of His death, under these representations, to the end of the world.

Then come the words of offering, by which the Eucharistic sacrifice is actually offered, and presented to the Father, as the memorial of the infinitely meritorious passion and death of his Son, in whom he is ever well-pleased, and for his sake looks propitiously upon us. This, then, is the second step or degree of the consecration, by which the Elements are still farther sanctified, as being presented and given to God… the liturgy, accordingly, proceeds to beg his acceptance of them, and divine blessing upon them, thereby imparting to them the highest degree of consecration, in the words of an ancient liturgy, “send down thy Holy Spirit, the witness of the sufferings of the Lord Jesus, on this sacrifice, that He may make this bread the body of thy Christ, and this cup the blood of thy Christ”

A prayer to this purpose, and in this place, we find in all the ancient liturgies; and we instantly see the piety and propriety of it. For surely in order that bread and wine, which have no natural virtue to that purpose, may be the means of conveying such inestimable blessings, they must have a supernatural virtue communicated to them by the Holy Spirit the Sanctifier, the Author of all benediction and grace. To this end, our Lord originally blessed, or (according to a Greek word less intelligible in our language) ‘eucharistised’ them, prayed and gave thanks over them; and commanded His Apostles and their successors, the Bishops and Priests of his church, to do as He had done; that is, not only to offer the bread and cup as the commemorative sacrifice of his death, but also to bless them by prayer or invocation of the Spirit of God; it being, as his word is, the Spirit that quickens or gives life, or imparts the life-giving virtue and efficacy of his body and blood to them…. And thus, the offering up, that is, the sacrificial oblation of’ the Gentiles, that pure offering foretold by Malachi, is acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit….

While we avoid the astonishing error of transubstantiation, that is, change of substance, we must not, as too many have done, run into the opposite extreme, and imagine that the Eucharistic bread and cup differ in nothing from common bread and wine, but by barely signifying, or being symbols and tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

Our divine Master, whose words could not be taken by his Apostles in the literal sense, while their eyes were blessed by seeing the substantial body of their adorable Lord whole and unbroken before them, with his all-precious blood unshed in its veins, yet expressly, and without any qualifying terms, declared, “This”, that is, this broken bread, “is my body”. “This”, that is, this mingled wine, “is my blood.” And that much more than bare empty figure or symbol was implied, his inspired Apostle holds out, as what was beyond all controversy or doubt among Christians: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16) That is, by the authoritative blessing pronounced over these elements, in the name and by the commission of Christ, the author and end of the institution, they are the sure and effectual conveyance or communication of all the benefits purchased for mankind by the body and blood of Christ, broken and shed for us; by which He imparts His Spirit to us, and by the communion of the Holy Ghost, dwells in us, and we in Him.

The word of God, then, even God the Word himself, clearly affirming the bread and cup, so blessed and sanctified, to be the body and blood of Christ, our faith must firmly embrace this truth, and receive them as such with clean hands and pure hearts-by faith, which is the evidence of things not seen, discerning the Lord’s body… With the pure and clear eye of faith, therefore, we ought reverently to look beyond the veil, which is, indeed, substantially bread and wine, to the inward and spiritual significance and efficacy, even the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given and shed for us; the life-giving virtue and power of which we receive by worthily eating and drinking the consecrated bread and wine. These are as much the body and blood as one thing can be another while it retains its own substance. They are so, as being the sure means and conveyance of our salvation; so that by them we receive the same divine influence and spiritual benefits that we could receive, were we to eat and drink the natural substance, which it is impossible for us to do; for that is in heaven only, and must there remain until the times of the restitution of all things.

We, without pretending to explain the manner of the operation, firmly adhere to and acquiesce in our Saviour’s words, which he first uttered in promise at Capernaum: “The bread that I will give is my body”. He verified this when he took bread and blessed and brake, and said, “This (bread) is my body which is given for you.” Bread and wine then, in substance, the elements, are the body and blood of Christ, in spirit and power.

Undoing the Reformation: communion in one kind

On 6 March 2020 the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) issued advice in response to the coronavirus pandemic which included this clause: “The sharing of the Chalice is suspended until further notice, and communion should be offered in one kind i.e. taking the bread only, placed into the hand”. This does not apply to the presiding priest, so wine was still consecrated and consumed as this is essential to the sacrament, but it was still a radical step. The English Bishops followed on 10 March and this advice, which had previously been issued during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, will remain in place for a while when we return to celebrate the Eucharist together.

My title, ‘undoing the Reformation’, emphasises that this simple directive, done for the best of public health reasons and generally obeyed, tells us something about the identity of the SEC and about how we think theologically. It is not really about ‘undoing the Reformation’ but I have used this title because it involves doing something that was anathema to most sixteenth-century Protestants and still raises Protestant hackles today. Episcopalians have been repudiating Calvinism for centuries and rejected the ‘Protestant’ label in 1838, so the religious fights of the sixteenth century are of merely historical interest to the SEC. I also show in Sacred Signs (Oxford, 2015) that it is inaccurate to use the term ‘The Scottish Reformation’ to mean the Protestant revolution in 1559-60 – those events were only one of a number of ‘reformations’ in sixteenth-century Scotland both Catholic and Protestant. This post is really about how the SEC understands its identity because we reveal who we are by our instinctive reactions.

Jesus’ words about the Eucharistic cup, “Drink from it, all of you” (Matthew 26:27) are quite clear, but the consecrated wine was gradually withdrawn from the laity in the Latin West from the twelfth century. This was probably inspired by a reverence for the sacrament similar to that which had earlier inspired the Churches of the East to administer Holy Communion with a spoon. In the West communion under one kind was generally accepted but began to be condemned by the Hussites in the fifteenth century, a position taken up by magisterial sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers like Luther (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church 2) and Calvin (Institutes 4.17.47-50). It was also condemned in the 39 Articles of the Church of England: ‘The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike’ (Article 30).

Bishop White of Pennsylvania administers Holy Communion under both kinds

The SEC, while long known for its High Church theology of the Eucharist, maintained a firm attachment to communion in both kinds. F.C. Eeles 1910 study Traditional Ceremonial and Customs Connected with the Scottish Liturgy notes that communion of the sick was ‘always in both kinds’ (p.85), requiring vessels such as the ‘Argyll Pyx’ in glass and silver to transport the sacrament. Philip A Lempriere’s 1903 Compendium of the Canon Law of the SEC notes that the Eucharist must be administered under both kinds (p.139). Even when the influence of the Oxford Movement in Scotland led to the adoption of medieval and contemporary Catholic devotions, Episcopalians retained this attachment. The Day Office of the Church (1871) was a translation of the Roman Breviary by the Revd Thomas Ball of Cove and an English priest, H.A. Walker, which was used by the Episcopalian nuns of the Society of Reparation in Aberdeen. It included such novelties as the feast of the Sacred Heart but the order for the communion of the sick from the Roman Ritual was modified to allow for communion under both kinds, even by intinction. Likewise, Bishop Forbes of Brechin held, in his 1862 An Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles (2.597ff), that “while the sacrament under one kind conveys all the graces necessary for salvation, the chalice has a grace of its own, the grace of gladdening” and that as a banquet requires drink so the Eucharist is only complete if it involves drinking.

An Argyll Pyx

The reason for this attachment to communion in both kinds among Scottish Episcopalians is not hard to find. Jesus tell us both to ‘eat’ and ‘drink’, Paul presumes that the followers of Jesus will do both (1 Cor. 11:26), and this was the custom throughout the Church for its first 1300 years and has remained so in the Churches of the East. As a Church rooted in Scripture which has the greatest respect both for the early Church and the Churches of the East, it would be surprising if the SEC did not value communion in both kinds even if it were not also influenced by the sixteenth century reformations.

South of the Border it would appear at first that Article 30 mandated a similar exclusivity, but English liturgy and law allow for exceptional circumstances. The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England has a rubric in its provision for the Communion of the Sick which says that if, for practical reasons, a person cannot receive the sacrament on their sickbed but has faith in Christ’s Passion, “he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth”. This is the doctrine that we can receive ‘spiritual communion’, we can receive the benefits of the sacrament when we are impeded from receiving the sacramental signs. From this one can deduce that receiving communion under one kind (bread or wine) may not impede the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ with all their benefits. This is consonant with evidence from the history of the Church where, from the early centuries, there have been instances of communion under one kind in special circumstances, for example for the sick, babies, and communion at home (see James J. Megivern, Concomitance and Communion: A Study in Eucharistic Doctrine and Practice, Fribourg, 1963). In this spirit, Section 8 of the English ‘Sacrament Act’ of 1547 likewise provides that communion must be given to the laity in both kinds ‘except necessity otherwise require’.

There are thus good grounds in the Church of England for withdrawing the cup from the laity as a prudent and practical response to the coronavirus pandemic, but what of Scotland? In Scotland the ‘Sacrament Act’ is not in force but the rubric on ‘spiritual communion’ is still in the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book and so there are practical and spiritual grounds. The Scottish Bishops’ updated ‘Coronavirus guidance’ of 15 March 2020, reserving the chalice to the presiding priest alone, also suggest that there are more profound theological reasons beyond ‘spiritual communion’ when it says that “Receiving communion in one kind only has always been recognised as full communion”. The Bishops of the Church of England had earlier written similar words in response to the swine flu pandemic, on 22 July 2009: “While communion in both kinds is the norm in the Church of England in faithfulness to Christ’s institution, when it is received only in one kind the fullness of the Sacrament is received none the less”. To understand this teaching we need to look at the reasons why the chalice was withdrawn from the laity in the medieval Latin West and why, despite the Lord’s command to the contrary, this became the norm by the thirteenth century. Behind the teaching is the doctrine of concomitance, that the whole Christ is received under bread or wine, which is explicitly taught by the American Episcopal Church.

The chalice was withdrawn in the medieval West for practical and theological reasons. Pastoral manuals from the period are often concerned with the danger of sacrilege in spilling the wine, and there was also in some lands the difficulty and expense of administering the chalice to large numbers and concerns about the desirability of sharing a common cup. From about the eighth century we find attempts to get round these problems by using a spoon or straw, the former becoming the norm in the Christian East. From the seventh century we find a desire to dip the bread in the wine (‘intinction’) but this was regularly condemned in the West, partly because it resembled the action of Judas at the Last Supper. What is interesting is the connection between the practice of only the celebrant receiving from the chalice and its theological justification.  

Why Do We Use Communion Spoons? / OrthoChristian.Com
Holy Communion with a spoon

While earlier theologians generally affirmed the importance of communion under both kinds, in the twelfth century we find scholastic teachers such as William of Champeaux (1070-1121) teaching that the whole Christ is present under either form: the doctrine of concomitance. Achard of St Victor (1100-1171) is a representative of this tradition: “under either species both the Body and the Blood are received. There is no Body without Blood, nor Blood separated from the Body. But perhaps some grace is conferred under the sign of bread which is not conferred under the sign of wine, and indeed, perhaps under both signs some things are given more strongly under one than the other” (quoted in Megivern, Concomitance and Communion, 46). We can see here the grounds for Bishop Forbes’s teaching on the ‘grace of the chalice’, but also perhaps the theological grounds for the Scottish Bishops’ March statement that “receiving communion in one kind only has always been recognised as full communion”. This teaching on concomitance, elaborated by Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 3a 76) and affirmed by the General Councils of Constance (1415), Florence (1439) and Trent (1562), gave a theological underpinning to the general withdrawal of the chalice from the laity – they still receive the whole Christ or ‘full communion’.

Communion under one kind depicted in a medieval tapestry

The Decree for the Armenians (1439) of the Council of Florence gave a succinct definition of concomitance and said that it had “always been the belief of the Church of God”, words echoed in the teaching of the Scottish Bishops in 2020. This decree, however, speaks of Christ’s presence in the sacrament in two logical stages: 1) his body is present under the form of bread and his blood under the form of wine by the consecratory power of his words; 2) his body, blood, soul and divinity are present under both forms because the risen Christ is not divided in any way. While communion under one kind has been practiced from the earliest times for practical reasons, this theology of comcomitance is a later development which became popular partly because it enabled people to understand the equally practical withdrawal of the chalice from the laity. If you believe, as Christians have always believed, that the bread becomes the body and the wine the blood of the undivided Christ, then concomitance is a valid example of seeking to understand our faith and to make sense of the immemorial eucharistic practice of occasional communion under one kind. If you don’t hold to something like concomitance, you end up with people only receiving half a sacrament.

The interesting thing is that while Anglican Bishops responded to the public health crisis by withdrawing the chalice, this was not the only possible response and for some it is not even a desirable response. Some Protestant Churches use individual cups or shot glasses for communion, a practice that originated in 1890s America in response to a fear of infectious diseases. Individual cups were reluctantly allowed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1909 depite strong opposition on theological grounds led by Professor James Cooper. Those who saw the excellent Channel 4 series about a family of priests in the Church of Denmark, ‘Ride upon the Storm’, may have noticed that the wine at Mass was consecrated in a chalice and then poured into individual cups brought up by the communicants. Some Anglicans have opposed the withdrawal of the chalice on traditional Protestant grounds, for example the former Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey Nicholas Sagovsky, while others have opposed the doctrine of concomitance. On the other hand a common position among the Eastern Orthodox is that because holy communion is the life-giving flesh and blood of Christ it can not transmit infection and so there is no necessity to change their traditional practice of giving communion under both kinds together with a spoon.

That the Scottish Bishops moved quickly to withdraw the chalice, as did their Roman Catholic counterparts, and did not engage with any of the positions in the previous paragraph suggests that the SEC operates within the breadth of Catholic tradition, specifically that of the Latin West. While the motivation could simply have been a concern to protect our congregations, the phrase “communion in one kind only has always been recognised as full communion” indicates that the decision was made in the Catholic theological context described above. The Scottish Liturgy teaches unambiguously that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ (though Episcopalians have generally rejected the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation) and so if we lack nothing essential in communion under one kind a doctrine of concomitance is implied. A reliance solely on the ‘spiritual communion’ taught in the Prayer Book would suggest that the physical matter of the sacrament is dispensible. The Church of England may have to engage with sixteenth-century Reformed formularies but the SEC operates inclusively within Catholic tradition. This is not surprising as it defines itself as “a branch of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ” (Canon 1). This should not now be understood as adherance to the Oxford Movement’s ‘branch theory’ but rather in the context of the modern ecumenical movement by which Churches are challenged to look beyond the bounds of their own denominational traditions. Reformed traditions exist within this inclusive reformed Catholicism but the SEC has no confessional fetishes, as the Church of England has the 39 Articles and the Church of Scotland the Westminister Confession.

The SEC has a deep tradition of valuing the sign of communion under both kinds, as commanded by Christ. Whatever theologians might say, I am sure communicants feel a lack when they can’t receive the precious blood. Bishop Forbes’ ‘grace of the chalice’ is an experienced reality and contemporary Roman Catholic teaching reflects this when it says that communion in both kinds is necessary for the fullness of the sign of the sacrament (Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), 100). It is, however, significant that, if contemporary circumstances require, the SEC is willing to suspend this for a higher good – Christ’s command to love one’s neighbour. The swift move to communion under one kind this year reveals that the SEC instinctively acts in a Catholic way, with an eye on the whole of Christian tradition, but it also reveals an instinctive attention to the operation of the Holy Spirit in the contemporary world, the ‘signs of the times’ (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes 4, cf Matthew 16:3). By eschewing the American individualism of shot glasses, the ‘sacrament of Judas’ of self-intinction, and the crypto-monophysitism of denying the sacrament can carry a virus, we can see Scripture, Tradition and Reason being deployed in harmony. This triad is usually said to be distinctively Anglican, but its integration of faith and reason is actually characteristic of the Western Catholic tradition in which the SEC exists.

St Columba and the Scottish Liturgy in Latin

Taking time off in lockdown is a strange experience. Instead of a fortnight in Moidart, we had a week at home. During that week I translated the 1970 Scottish Liturgy into Latin with the aid of the English Communion Office from the Liber Precum Communium Ecclesiae Anglicanae (the Latin version of the Book of Common Prayer), and the Liturgia Scotica Anglice et Latine, tradita, collecta et promulgata a ‘Fra Ascensione’ (a translation of the Scottish Liturgy in the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book, published in Edinburgh in 1962 by Kenneth MacNaghten Mylne). This is an odd thing to do, even for someone like me who has published a book and a number of articles on the Latin Liturgy in Scotland. Even stranger, I celebrated this translation of the 1970 Liturgy for the feast of St Columba and am sharing it today on Youtube (see below – much of the introduction is found in this post, the Liturgy starts 9 minutes in). Why did I do this?

My first reasons are personal. For eighteen years I was a Benedictine monk and celebrated the liturgy each day in Latin, I was ordained in Latin and for almost five years celebrated the Eucharist each day in Latin. The Latin liturgy thus formed me as a Christian and entered into my soul, I still naturally use Latin in my personal prayers and it is my first language for the psalms. Praying in Latin for me is the same as praying in French for one who speaks French as a second language. Although I left the monastery and returned to the Scottish Episcopal Church, I will remain eternally grateful for the deep formation in Christian tradition I received there.

The other personal reason is that, although I have written on a number of subjects, my main academic interest is the Latin liturgy. I am interested both in how it was understood, the basic theme of my book Sacred Signs in Reformation Scotland (Oxford, 2015), and in the material culture it produced, catalogued in Lost Interiors (Edinburgh, 2013) and the ‘Catalogue of liturgical books and fragments in Scotland before 1560’, The Innes Review 62:2 (2011), 127-213. This work has shown me how limited is our entry into the Mystery of Christ if we confine ourselves to contemporary Christianity because Christians of previous generations and their habits of prayer have much to teach us. The challenge is to share this with our contemporaries.

While in the monastery I edited for liturgical use the unique chants for the feast of St Columba found in a precious liturgical fragment from the Abbey of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth. Later, with a group of young Christians and with the Scottish Plainsong Choir, I was able to sing some of these Latin chants at Inchcolm Abbey. The use of these Latin chants in worship today demonstrates their enduring value and is behind my decision to celebrate the Liturgia Scotica for the Feast of St Columba. Columba, and all the ‘Celtic’ saints, worshipped in Latin and used this same language in their private prayers, as is shown by their efforts to copy and memorise the Latin psalter and gospels. A Latin Eucharist, with understanding of the language, is a much more authentic ‘Celtic liturgy’ that anything that comes under that heading today.

Some may say that appealing to the Celtic Church is a smokescreen for bringing Roman Catholic elements into the Scottish Episcopal Church. Latin liturgy is actually rare in the Roman Church in Scotland today and any knowledge of contemporary Episcopalian liturgy and theology demonstrates that both our Churches live a common faith, even if we are still divided on a few individual points of doctrine and morals. The importance of Latin liturgy for Episcopalians actually come from different sources.

During the lockdown, among the various online liturgies a weekly celebration of Mattins in Latin from the Book of Common Prayer attracted over 600 views. The celebrant, Dr Francis Young, found his Twitter following rise to over ten thousand and published an important post on Anglican Latin liturgy on his blog. This concerns the Church of England but we find a similar use of Latin in the Scottish Reformed Church because, while the Reformers were concerned with worship in language people understood, Latin was one of those languages. It remained for centuries the common language of scholarship and not a Roman Catholic monopoly. The Scottish Lutheran, Alexander Alesius (1500-65), made the first Latin translation of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer in 1551, the Ordinatio ecclesiae, both to promote dialogue among Evangelicals and to encourage reconciliation between them and reform-minded Catholics. Latin psalters and prayer books remained in use among Reformed Scots, a book of Latin Epistles and Gospels was annotated in sixteenth-century Dundee to conform to the Book of Common Prayer and a twelfth-century psalter from Blantyre had the Prayer Book psalm numbering added in the same period.

When I was asked to put together a course of Scottish Episcopalian history and identity for the Scottish Episcopal Institute, the question was where to begin. We could start with the definitive separation of the Church from the Presbyterians in 1689 or from the Roman Catholics in 1560, but I thought it more true to our Church’s self-identity as a Scottish ‘branch of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ’ (canon 1) to start with the very beginning of Christianity in what is now Scotland in the Roman or sub-Roman era. A presence witnessed to by a few Latin inscriptions and texts. The living tradition of Anglican Latin liturgy may give the reason for a translation of the Scottish Liturgy into Latin, but praying this liturgy both puts us in closer contact with Christians from the the first millennium of the faith in our land and enables us to understand better how we worship in our own languages today (remembering that the Scottish Liturgy is now celebrated in Gaelic as well as English and that there are people in our congregations with other first languages).

Mass at Old St Paul’s using the 1970 Scottish Liturgy

Since first coming to Scotland as a teenager, I have been used to both the 1970 and 1982 versions of the Scottish Liturgy. In celebrating the 1970 Liturgia Scotica for St Columba, I was conscious that, while it was a one-off event, it was a normal act of worship and so I celebrated it in the way I would have celebrated it in English, with the same altar and vestments, and I spoke the Latin in the way I normally speak it. There was no attempt to stage a reconstruction. The 1970 Liturgy is an authorised liturgy of the Church, although the Latin translation is an experimental one. What I found interesting, as one who is more familiar with the Roman liturgy in Latin, is how translation and celebration brought out the distinctive characteristics of our Scottish Liturgy.

Firstly how strongly it proclaims the Eucharist as a Sacrifice, the sacramental offering of the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. This is not surprising if you know the Scottish Episcopalian tradition of Eucharistic theology, as found in Bishop Jolly’s The Christian Sacrifice in the Eucharist considered, as it is, the Doctrine of Holy Scripture (1831), and the adddition of the words ‘WHICH WE OFFER UNTO THEE’ in bold, referring to the bread and wine, to the Scottish Liturgy in the eighteenth century ‘Wee Bookies’. Secondly how it teaches the real and objective presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated bread and wine in a much stronger way than the Roman or English liturgies. These say that they ‘become for us’ the body and blood of Christ, whereas the Scottish Liturgy simply prays that they may ‘become’, ‘fiant‘ in Latin, the body and blood of Christ. All really teach the same thing but the Roman and English formula may be taken in a ‘receptionist’ way – that the elements do not become the body and blood of Christ except when we receive them.

These two points may be seen in the English text, but to one familiar with the Latin Roman liturgy they stand out more strongly in the Latin translation. Another thing that becomes clear is that the Scottish Liturgy is above all a Western liturgy. Much is made of the influence of Eastern Orthodox liturgies on the Scottish rite via the eighteenth-century Scottish liturgists, especially the presence of an Epiclesis found after the Institution Narrative. The Epiclesis in the 1549 English Rite and in the Scottish Liturgy from 1637 may in fact owe more to continental Reformed theology than the Christian East (it is also in John Knox’s Book of Common Order). It was, however, certainly taken as an Eastern feature by Episcopalian liturgists from the Eighteenth Century and the extended Gloria in excelsis in the Scottish Liturgy is another Greek feature, this time from the Codex Alexandrinus. These are, however, relatively minor details compared to the whole shape of the liturgy which, with the exceptions of the Epiclesis, speaks the language of the Latin tradition and more specifically this tradition in its late medieval form. This again is not surprising as most of it is a rearrangement of the Communion Service in the English Book of Common Prayer, which was itself a chopped-down rearrangement of the Lain Mass in the Sarum Missal. As the Sarum Missal was used in Scotland as well as England, this gives us a precious link with the devotional life of medieval Scotland.

An image of Mass from fifteenth-century Scotland, the Mass of St Gregory in the Arbuthnott Missal

This translation of the 1970 Scottish Liturgy into Latin, which I will share in a subsequent post, and the video of it being celebrated on the Feast of St Columba are offered to those who find that the Latin language helps their prayer, to those who are interested in Anglican Latin liturgy, to those who wish to get closer to the sources of the Christian tradition in Scotland, to those who wish to understand better the Scottish Liturgy, and to all scholars who understand Latin and are interested in Christian liturgy. It is not offered as a translation authorised by the Scottish Episcopal Church (although the 1970 Liturgy is authorised). Any constructive comments on the translation would be welcome.

A Hymn for Lockdown

The coronavirus crisis raises many questions for Christians and quite a few of these concern worship. With churches closed we are in a novel situation, neither persecuted nor able to worship together. How can a congregation pray together if they can’t meet? What is the value of our church buildings? Can you consecrate bread and wine via Zoom? Should a priest celebrate the Eucharist on his or her own?

Like many priests I have been thinking of these, but I want to re-start this blog with something else. At Holy Cross, Edinburgh we are keeping in touch by email via a weekly e-news. Our congregation loves to sing and one member suggested we look at a hymn each week. This week’s hymn, an old favourite, seemed particularly relevant to a locked down church. I have sung it hundreds of times but meditating on it revealed how much I had missed and what treasures lurk in traditional hymns. They are so familiar you don’t really notice them.

This hymn was written in 1866 for the section on the Eucharist in a new Anglican hymn book, ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’. While most Victorian hymns were written by clergymen and devout laywomen, its author, William Chatterton Dix, was the manager of a marine insurance company in Glasgow. It is usually sung to the fine Welsh tune, Hyfrydol, composed by a nineteen-year-old textile worker, Rowland H. Prichard. It is thus a product of lay devotion.

Alleluia, sing to Jesus, His the sceptre, his the throne;
Alleluia, his the triumph, His the victory alone:
Hark, the songs of peaceful Sion thunder like a mighty flood;
Jesus out of every nation, hath redeemed us by his blood.

Alleluia, not as orphans Are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia, he is near us, Faith believes, nor questions how;
Though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er,
Shall our hearts forget his promise, ‘I am with you evermore’?

Alleluia, Bread of Angels, Thou on earth our food, our stay;
Alleluia, here the sinful Flee to thee from day to day;
Intercessor, Friend of sinners, Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me,
Where the songs of all the sinless Sweep across the crystal sea.

Alleluia, King eternal, Thee the Lord of Lords we own;
Alleluia, born of Mary, Earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne:
Thou within the veil hast entered, Robed in flesh, our great High Priest;
Thou on earth both Priest and Victim In the Eucharistic Feast.

Giotto, The Ascension of Christ, 1304-1306

We find this hymn in the ‘Holy Communion’ section of the New English Hymnal (NEH 271), but it is also an Ascension hymn – “though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er” (Acts 1:9). Ascension is perhaps the nearest Anglicans get to a ‘holy day of obligation’, at school we had a half day off if we went to Communion in the morning. The hymn presupposes an Ascension Eucharist but it can be sung at any time and some hymn books mute the eucharistic theme by leaving out verse 4. Like all great hymns it is truly Catholic. It transcends denomination, being steeped in Biblical imagery and teaching the central truths of the faith. It could almost be taken as the text for a course in Christianity.

In the Ascension, when ‘the cloud from sight received him’, the body of the risen Jesus leaves this world. Immediately afterwards, in Acts 1:10-11, we see the disciples looking at the place where Jesus had been and faced by two Angels. This recalls the Ark of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple where there was a space, a void, between the two Cherubim on the mercy seat.

The Ark of the Covenant, Heidelberg Psalter, 11th century

The Ascension reminds us that at the heart of Christianity is a real absence, a void. Into this void flows a mixture of our desire and the occasional visitation of the Spirit. Now, when we are exiled from our Churches and the sacraments many of us feel the ache of this void. Verse two mitigates this void by reminding us of Jesus’ promise “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, when the Ascension is not mentioned but implied (Matthew 28:20).

Jesus has ascended to the Father but we are not left as orphans (John 14:18). We can’t see Jesus with our bodily eyes, but we can see him in faith. Verse three tells us that his abiding presence is found here on earth in the Holy Eucharist. This recalls Thomas Aquinas’s great Eucharistic Hymn ‘Pange lingua‘ with its line “faith, our outward sense befriending, makes our inward vision clear” (NEH 268). Dix’s hymn likewise gives profound theological teaching but it also reminds us that the Eucharist is not primarily here to be thought about, it is for us a strength and consolation because there we meet Jesus the “friend of sinners”. It is our daily bread and Christ’s abiding presence among us – though when Jesus is said to be “our… stay”, ‘stay’ doesn’t mean ‘remaining’ but it means ‘support’, a ‘stay’ is a rope or wire that supports a ship’s mast and ‘stays’ is a kind of corset.

At the Eucharist we say, “lift up your hearts, we lift them to the Lord”. In the Eucharist Christ and the Spirit descend to earth and we are lifted up to heaven. This hymn is saturated with the language about heaven found in the Book of Revelation and the Letter to the Hebrews, for example the “crystal sea” (Revelation 4:6) and the “songs of Zion” (Revelation 7:9-12). It shows us that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice in which Christ is both Priest and Victim, the Sacrifice of the Cross. What we celebrate around the Altar on earth is a participation in the one Sacrifice of Christ and a sharing in the heavenly Liturgy. In verse four the divine and human Jesus, born of Mary, is “our great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14-16), who has entered the heavenly sanctuary of which our earthly Temple and Churches are a shadow and a copy (Hebrews 9:23-10:24). The human minister or priest has no authority of his or her own but offers the sacrifice of the Eucharist solely by participation in the one priesthood of Christ, and the whole congregation joins in offering this sacrifice because we are a priestly people as we are the Body of Christ.

This hymn gives a powerful vision of what we participate in when we gather round the altar to do what Jesus commanded us to do with bread and wine. It is thus a song of encouragement for us as we wait to return to our Churches. It also reminds us that our earthly sacraments are only temporary, for the time of our earthly exile. The real liturgy is in heaven, but the good news is that in our Churches we can participate in it “with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven”. The pain of exile is part of our earthly condition, we feel it deeply at the moment, but we are not abandoned. Even in our exile we can feel the presence of the Spirit raising our hearts to heaven, and, when we return fully to our common worship, the veil will be drawn aside and we can participate together in the worship of heaven described in the biblical phrases in this hymn.  

Raphael, La disputa del sacramento, 1509-10

A New Boy at the Scottish General Synod 2015

This year was my first General Synod and on Thursday 11th June I joined about 130 other Scottish Episcopalians at St Paul’s and St George’s Church on York Place, Edinburgh. General Synod is the ‘Parliament’ of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) and is organised in ‘houses’ of bishops, clergy and laity. We sat as one body at round tables but from time to time voted with colour coded cards (the clergy were pink); some radicals spoke of electronic voting. Synod began with a ‘freshers’ meeting’ where new members were told how it would all work. At Synod I met lots of old friends from all over Scotland and made some new ones. It was good to meet Alison Simpson whom I had last seen in 1984 when she was training for the Church of Scotland ministry at St Andrews University and I was a real fresher or bejant (first year student); she is now Dean of Moray, Ross and Caithness.

The business of Synod was done in eleven sessions over three days. Much of the business was of a routine administrative type – reports, accounts and the tidying up canons (church law) – but there was a fine presentation on the situation in Palestine by the Revd Kate Reynolds of our diocese who is off to work with the Church of Scotland in Israel later this year. There were also some interesting changes to the way people are prepared for ministry. In a recent inspection the old Theological Institute (TISEC) was found to be unfit for purpose and the Church has been trying to draw up a new programme for ministry which gives a deeper theological, spiritual and practical formation. I was pleased to see it includes an option for full time training as I know a number of good Scottish candidates who have gone to English dioceses to enable them to study at a proper theological college. The Synod also approved a new liturgy for a Service of the Word (a non-Eucharistic Sunday service for when a priest is not available).

What made this Synod unique, however, was the series of votes and debates on marriage. With the opening of marriage to same-sex couples in Scotland and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality as normal in our society, the Church has been discussing what this means for the doctrine of Christian marriage in a series of ‘Cascade Conversations’. My experience of three of these had been good and the same was true of the Synod debate; there was passionate and personal argument on all sides but also a concern not to drive out those who hold different opinions. Cascade had revealed that this was not a simple division, pro- or anti- ‘gay marriage’, but there was a whole spectrum of views and many people were gradually changing their opinions. As at Cascade, I was struck by the lack of a coherent case being presented for the traditional view. I know it can be made and it is a position I once held but, with a few exceptions, the argument against change was of the simplistic ‘the Bible says’ type. There was also a simplistic acceptance that this was the Evangelical view, whereas there is a diversity of views on marriage among Scottish Evangelicals. On the other side some of the liberal arguments sounded distinctly secular and there was an annoyingly sloppy tendency to say that there was no Christian doctrine of marriage. In general, though, there was a strong sense that we need to recognise the presence of God in same-sex relationships and that this probably involves a development of our theology of marriage. It was good to hear some of the bishops, including our own Bishop John, speaking their mind. The most moving intervention was by Bishop Mark of Moray who told us that while he was married to a woman he had previously been in love with a man. Some said this was ‘personal’ but it was much more than that: it reminded us of reality. In our Christian mission we are dealing with real people and their complicated lives and loves and we have to decide if God is found in the complexity of creation or in some abstract ideal to which real people have to conform themselves or suffer condemnation. There is something incoherent about a Church which allows contraception and remarriage after divorce for heterosexual couples but refuses to bless gay and lesbian couples to help them live virtuous Christian lives.

Our discussions in Synod were aided by a fine paper from the doctrine committee (available on the SEC website) setting out the theology of marriage from the perspective of those who want no change, those who want equal marriage and those who want a blessing of same-sex relationships but not equal marriage. The decisions were made by a series of votes in which we decided that we wished to develop our doctrine of marriage, that no one would be forced to act against their conscience and that we desired to delete the definition of marriage from Canon 31. This may sound a bit odd but the definition was only added in 1980 during the debates about divorce and it was argued that our canons are not doctrinal (I am not convinced by this argument – there is doctrine in the canons e.g. on baptism, holy orders and the church). With a final vote of 110 to 9 we have now started a two-year process of changing the canons so that same-sex couples may be able to be married in our churches from 2017. It would seem that we would then be the first Province in the Anglican Communion to canonically allow this, in advance of our North American friends. This is an important development of doctrine, not a ‘re-definition of marriage’. It is also a great thing for our Christian mission to Scotland; it removes an obstacle to hearing the gospel because, as Archbishop Justin Welby has noted, younger people in Britain view the exclusion of gay people as akin to racism. It is significant because we have decided to move forward in a collegial way which leaves a valued place in the Scottish Church for those who cannot accept this development.

I was pleased to be part of this process and proud to be a priest in a Church where we can discuss these controversial things openly in a respectful, prayerful manner and come to a clear decision on what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today. As Bishop John of Edinburgh said, we can say with the first Christians, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us‘ (Acts 15:28). As a church historian I know that this is all quite normal, even the somewhat messy nature of the debate, because this is exactly what Church Councils have been doing since the Council of Jerusalem in 50AD (Acts 15).

To blog, or not

I like reading blogs, my blog reader is consulted daily and I find that some of the best contemporary Christian thought is found on blogs such as those of my friends and fellow priests of the diocese of Edinburgh, Kate Reynolds and John McLuckie. The current controversy over the SEC College of Bishops’ guidelines on same-sex marriage has shown that blogs are a most versatile form of media and, when combined with facebook and twitter, can run rings round established power structures and the conventional media in a way similar to English billmen around a Scottish knight at Flodden. The same is true of the Arab Spring, the Yes campaign in the 2014 Scottish Referendum and the Democracy Movement in Hong Kong; the mainstream media was following the fluidity of a social media that was directing events. But in all these three cases the hope produced by online proficiency has proved illusory – so far.

So why blog? I’m not sure I really want to, there is already too much work to fit into the time available what with a busy, flourishing church and various writing commitments. I may not, but I am considering a New Year resolution to at least start. The title ‘Amalarius’ was chosen as the great Carolingian liturgist and theologian Amalarius of Metz was a character in my doctoral thesis, it is a nice name and he taught an allegorical way of understanding the sacred liturgy which I believe is relevant today in a church where worship is often banal, flat and reflecting a restless seeking after novelty rather than an initiation into the living waters of tradition where one may contemplate the mystery of the Triune God. So I was thinking about posting some reflections on liturgy (I once considered a commentary on the modern liturgy in the style of the great medieval commentaries), church history and Christian mission in today’s world. If that great Mystagogue Paul of Tarsus were around today I’m sure he would have had a blog so perhaps it is an essential tool for mission for the common modern priest. And, if the company is as good as Mother Kate, Fr John and that splendid doyen of the Scottish Episcopalian blogosphere and the UK pink list Kelvin Holdsworth, why not join the party?