THE PRIEST’S PRAYING BODY

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.

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