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The Altar’s North Side

an english lecturn

I’ve always considered the communion rubric for standing on the North Side of the table to be incredibly odd. It’s always very much a challenge to envision a northside celebration, especially when there are close to nil churches doing it. We either have the priest facing the people during the recitation of the canon, or the priest faces eastward. But what is ‘northside’?

The 1662 BCP rubric for communion says, “And the Priest standing at the north side of the Table shall say the Lord’s Prayer, with the Collect following, the people kneeling”. This starts the antecommunion and the rest of the liturgy is finished in the same way. The 1637 BCP says the same, but the 1928 somewhat simplifies things by omitting the rubric altogether.

While probably a dead letter, the motive behind ‘northside’ originally involved a desire to include the people in the prayers and blessings of the church. The Reformation of the Mass was, firstly, concerned about the liturgy being 1) audible, and, 2) visible to the people. If a priest stood ‘eastward’, then manual acts were naturally blocked from view. Moreover, unless the bread was elevated above the shoulders, its visibility was also obstructed. Celebration against the east wall, especially in cathedrals with long choir stalls, would likewise hinder audibility. Another commenter observed the priest on the north side with deacon on the south would have made washings difficult, and this was also probably an intent.

However, the Puritan movement during Edward VI and Elizabeth I solved this problem by replacing fixed altars with movable tables, relocating the latter in the front of the chancel (between the choir) or, more often, the middle of the nave. The priest then celebrated the eucharist from the northside of a table which was often oblong in shape, meaning the table was orientated parallel to nave’s length.  Thus, the priest stood in the nave, faced northside, and had the length of the table before him. If this is very confusing, see this link: the Pre-tractarian Church.

Sacrament of the Altar not ‘the Desk’: When Laud restored the tables to their original Henrician position, plus forbidding their removal from the chancels, the northside position of the Puritans became untenable as the “north end” of a table was now fixed along the length of the ‘eastern’ wall. Especially in chapel sanctuaries, standing on the ‘north end’ would be awkward at best if not impossible.  Practicality reasoned ‘north side’ simply meant the gospel side of the altar, and it appears this would conform to ancient practice. But the intent of the 1662’s rubric was to keep the recitation of the liturgy near the altar rather than below in reading desk or pulpit as low churchmen might have it.  Bishop Cosin says regarding where the liturgy is pronounced:

“The Jews prayed standing, but only in the time of mourning; for then they prayed prostrate, or upon their knees. Formerly the Priest stood in the middle of the altar. Si ad aram Dei steteris. And the Writings of the Ancients abound with testimonies of the same thing. Again this Writer says with respect to standing at the Table: — which was the custom of the ancients, that all things which pertained to the celebration of the Lord’s-Supper should be said at the Altar. Now in this Celebration, there is hardly any difference between us and the Protestants in Germany, but that among us the Prayers are said by the Bishop or Minister at the Altar, but among them in the Desk: In which they do not agree with the ancients.” (Notes to Nicholls’ Book of Common Prayer, p. 38)

And the Rev. J.J. Blunt, (late Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.) observes: —

“Here the Rubric is express against a practice, not uncommon that of reading this Service, when there is no Communion, from the Desk. This, I say, is a clear infraction of the Rubric, which directs that “the Priest is to stand at the north side of the Table, and say, etc.. ( Duties of the Parish Priest, p. 325)

The Parson’s Handbook: The question still remains what would north-side celebration by the 1662 bcp look like? It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around. Evidently, there wasn’t a dominant or single interpretation of this rubric, so this complicates matters. However, the Anglican principle of hearing and seeing in worship should be kept in mind, calling the people to use their five wits with the clergy in liturgy. A good Anglican methodology when questions remain is to look back to prior practice. In his Parson’s Handbook, the Rev. Percy Dearmer rather successfully reconciles the earlier practice of eastward/altar facing as found in the 1549 BCP/Sarum with the 1662 ‘north side’ rubric. He says:

“In the editions of this Handbook preceding that of 1907 I deliberately left open the vexed question as to whether the priest should stand at the north, south, or middle of the altar. I have, however, now come to the conclusion that he should stand before the north part of the altar, mainly because more recent knowledge has resolved the doubt raised by the Lincoln Judgement, which, in a very thorough statement of the case, declared the eastward position a very thorough statement of the case, declared the eastward position throughout the service to be legal, but left the part of the altar undecided. Archbishop Benson took the following view:– The position of the Holy Table had, in 1662, been lawfully changed, but yet the revisers left the old rubric ‘standing at the north side’, although the Tables now stood altarwise, and had no north side in the sense of the rubric; therefore the words ‘at the north side’ are now ‘impossible of fulfillment in the sense originally intended’ (Lincoln Judgement, p. 44), and for the priest to stand at the northern part of the front ‘can be regarded only as an accommodation of the letter of the Rubric to the present position of the Table’ (ibid, p. 41).

Now it is not the case that the revisers of 1662 deprived the rubric of its meaning by leaving it unaltered to apply to the changed position of the altar. They seem rather indeed to have known what they were about, and to have left the words ‘standing at the north side’ (although the altars had been brought back to their proper position) because they knew that the words could still apply. The words ‘north side’ were, in fact, used to describe the ‘northern part of the front’ in pre-Reformation times; and there was therefore no reason to change them in 1662, when the altar stood as in those times. Here are some examples:– ‘Then I that was kneeling on the north side of the altar, at the right side of the crucifix’ (Revelation of the Monk of Evesham, 1482, cap. 12). In the Alphabetum Sacerdotum, the direction before the Gospel is ‘different missale ad aliud latus’. ‘How the priest after that with great reverenc doth begin the mass between deacon and subdeacon at the one side of the altar’ (Interpretacyon of the Masse, 1532, art. 5, qu. in Dat Becxhen, pp. xi, 142)

This position does in any case keep close to the letter of the rubric; and it was adopted by a good many after the Savoy Conference, when the Bishops declared in favor of the eastward position. The north end has never been authorized since, but the north part of the front was used at St. Paul’s in 1681, and in other ways is shown to have high sanction from 1674 to 1831. Nor was it an innovation to commence on the north side of the sanctuary: it was done at Westminster Abbey and by the Cluniacs before the Reformation, and is still the custom of the Carthusians.

Some have urged that the priest should stand at the south and not the north horn, on the ground that he began the service thus before the Reformation. This, however, is inexact. It is true that the Sarum Missal has ‘in dextro cornu‘” but at low Mass the priest vested at the north side of the altar, the chalic and paten lying in the middle and the book on the south side. He thus began Mass at the north side, and in this position he said amongst other things those very prayers which now begin our service, viz. the Paternoster and the Deus cui omne cor. Furthermore, to begin at the south is not even an accommodation of our rubric, and it has never been adopted under authority since the altars have been set back in their old position. Some have recommended the priest to stand ‘afore the midst of the altar’, because this was his position under the First Prayer Book; but this at least gives teh impression of disobeying our present rubric; and we have perhaps no right to imagine that the revisers of the 1662 meant the priest to revert to the custom of 1549 since they did not say so. They kept the words ‘north side’; and, as we have seen, ‘north side’ is good English for ‘sinistrum cornu‘.

The problem remains for Dearmer how the elements are made visible. Dearmer feels, though the priest stands on the north or gospel side, during the words of consecration, with the priest still facing eastwards, the bread ought be raised to “the level of the mouth” and the fraction thus made visible to the people behind. Meanwhile, the cup should remain on the table and the priest bow during that portion of the institution. This seems a bit odd to me, treating species differently, but Dearmer’s point is such satisfies the canon’s principle of visibility. I have to ask does this  suggest a kind of concomitance– what is done to one kind is done to the other?

The 1892 BCP revision seems to imply precedent for Dearmer’s recommenda-tion. The third rubric at the beginning of the Holy Communion rite instructs, “And the minister, standing at the right side of the Table, or where Morning and Evening Prayer are appointed to be said, shall say the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect following, the People kneeling” (p. 243)

Liturgics of Minor Orders: Dearmer offers the best answer to the north side question. If anyone has ever found a youtube video showing north side, please share!  My own preference would be to see Priests recognize the north side rubric despite its obsolesce since 1928. The 1928 BCP was an attempt to retrieve the 1549, and, ironically, the 1549 version has the priest turning to the choir to declare “the peace”, upon which the choir responds, “and with thy spirit”. This hearkens to the old Sarum where the Priest would actually begin the Pax with a kiss to the deacon or clerk, likewise turning north to do so. Calls and responses to choirsides might occur elsewhere in the liturgy, but traditionally the choir did have a more prominent role in the liturgy than today, singing introits and graduals. Liturgics today are very different from the Sarum. Minor orders are virtually dissolved into the “people”, and Anglican liturgy is conducted almost like a perpetual low mass. However, the 1549 and perhaps Dearmer’s northside retain the best of both eras.

The north side (gospel side) seems a distinctly Anglican ceremonial position. One advantage relevant for today might be the further de-emphasis that modern liturgics (both Vatican II Roman and neo-Anglican) tend to put upon laity in the attempt to democratize services and flatten ecclesiology.  A sense of prelatial space might thus be engendered by giving choirs, clerks, and swornmen heightened roles as was done in olden days when the church was conceived as ordered society with ranks and hierarchies rather than as an undifferentiated mass of ‘equal’ priests?

Charles Bartlett lives and works in Northern California. He is a member-at-large in the UECNA, worshiping in the REC by bishopric dispensation. His blog, Anglican Rose, explores the nature of adiaphora in England’s Church beginning with late-Henrician standards.

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To some ears “Protestant Saints” might sound oxymoronic[1]. However, Anglicans and “high-church” Protestants during the 16th and 17th centuries often continued the medieval cults but in a ‘reformed’ manner. It should be remembered during the first generation of reform categories like “protestant” and “roman catholic” weren’t so neat and tidy. The term ‘protestant’ didn’t even exist until nine years following Luther’s 95 Theses. Until then, Swiss and English divines might interchangeably be called “Lutherans”. Many reformers, like Martin Bucer, and certainly Luther himself, initially received their religious education either as Augustinian monks or discovered the New Learning while serving as prebends, deans, professors, or in other Roman Catholic minor orders akin to academic chapters. In the early years of reform, 1520-1545, the anticipation a free general council [2] between Northern Protestant churches and Rome bred a kind of theological hesitancy if not purposed conservatism, especially in England and in Germany, where the hope of reconciliation drove policies of accommodation and continuity to certain medieval practices. Despite the Roman abuse of the medieval saint-cult, the mentioning saints in church prayers has primitive origin, dating to the second century.

Modest Reform: English divinity continued this older religious practice on the condition it was not contrary to scripture. The earlier Roman Catholic cult was distinguished by a vast and messy array of superstitions, not to mention devotional practices promoted by the Papacy that reinforced Rome’s merit theology. An alternative to abolishing the entire cultus was pruning away exagerations. English Reformers accomplished this several ways [3]. In 1538 reverencing of images by decking or prayer were banned in both public and private worship [4]. The 1536 Ten Articles rebuked those vain superstitions, “as to think that any saint is more merciful, or will hear us sooner than another or that any saint doth serve for one thing more than another, or is patron of the same” (Formularies, p. 30). In 1548 Anglicans started reform of the Salisbury mass, finishing an overhaul of the missal and its related Christian calendar which eliminated many legendary saints. In 1544 the “litany of saints” was also revised, where the heavenly saints were reduced to a single stanza while living members of the church gained the greater focus of the litany. Until 1549 this single stanza continued from the Cranmer’s 1544 litany where an invocation of heavenly saints remained[5]:

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Cranmer’s Beard

Henry VIII

Henry VIII’s biography is perhaps the most abused and defamed of 16th century reigns. Protestant scholars often treat Henry as a re-converted Roman Catholic. Meanwhile, for Roman Catholics, Henry’s several divorces preoccupy his church policy. But little is known about Henry’s genuine conviction as a churchman, much less head of the church militant in England. Like Elizabeth and James who succeeded him, Henry was an accomplished and well-read theologian in his own right, convinced of England’s catholicism. His churchmanship might be identified with those earlier Erasmian catholics– humanists who retrieved antiquity through original manuscripts, study of the fathers, and ancient texts. How Henry understood the old faith is more definitively known by his 1543 Catechism and 1536 Ten Articles, where the six articles delineate conservative (supposedly adiaphoric) boundaries on ceremony and discipline.

In a very interesting study on Henry VIII and Lutheranism (Neelak Serawlook Tjernagle, 1965), Neelak describes Henry upon his death neither professing Roman Catholicism nor Lutheranism. Henry died an Anglican:

“Henry breathed his last at Whitehall early on the morning of Jan. 1547. To prophesy the king’s death was treason in England, and therefore not until the attending physicians saw that his death was very near was it suggested that the might desire spiritual ministrations at his approaching death. Those near him might have wondered whether, in his last moments, he would call for the Catholic bishop, Stephen Gardiner, who had been the leading member of the Privy Council for the last years. They might have wondered whether he would request the formal last rites of the Roman Catholic Church and the ministrations of the foremost English son of the faith of his childhood. But there was no question in Henry’s mind. He asked that Thomas Cranmer be summoned.. When the archbishop arrived at the palace, the end was near. Cranmer asked the king to give some acknowledgement of his faith and trust in Christ. The king could only claps Cranmer’s hand. It was his last gesture. “And from that day to his own last agony the Archbishop left his beard to grow in witness of his grief”. To him alone the king had given a warm and enduring affection. ” (p. 247)

The Henrician period is formative for Anglicans. It not only severed the CofE from the Papacy, but the formulas approved by convocation and crown established a framework and substance for religion which Edward VI and Elizabeth would only slightly expand upon, namely, reforming the mass. No matter popular opinion, the standards stand above individual peculiarities– e.g., Cambridge’s calvinist faculty during the 1580’s, or, for example, Bp. Stokesley’s advocacy to realign toward Eastern churches in the 1530’s. This foundation and memory of King Henry might likewise be called “Cranmer’s Beard”. To better understand Henrician learning, I suggest this study on the Henry’s Media Via as well as the following book where the primary texts with royal seal can be read for themselves:

Various. Formularies of Faith put Forth by Authority During the Reigns of Henry VIII. Oxford, 1825.

For those interested in the Henrician Settlement’s relation to wider vera-Protestantism, see my belabored article: The Christmas Day Articles.

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The frontispiece of Hooker's Laws

via The Living Church:

Richard Hooker is oftentimes described as the founding figure of the Anglican tradition. This is, however well intentioned, a half-truth. It is certainly true that Hooker’s great, unfinished theological work, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (hereafter, Laws), was a key text in Anglican arguments against Puritanism. Indeed, the Laws remains the most thoughtful and detailed refutation of Puritanism ever written. It is also true that although Thomas Cranmer gave us The Book of Common Prayer, Richard Hooker is the one who most shaped our understanding of it. But it is unfair to see Hooker as the founder of Anglicanism. He was, instead, one of several key figures in the early history of our church, neither more nor less important than Cranmer, Lancelot Andrewes, and William Laud — not to mention Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, and King Charles the Martyr. Without Hooker, Anglicanism would not be what it is today, but this point also holds for each of these other foundational saints.

This essay introduces the theological vision of Richard Hooker by focusing on his highly influential Laws. The impetus behind this multi-volume treatise was twofold. First was Hooker’s opposition to the claim, made by Puritans, that they were free to disobey both civil and ecclesiastical law when these infringed upon the convictions of conscience. Second was Hooker’s rejection of the ardent Puritan belief that the Church of England’s retention of liturgical ceremonies made it a handmaiden of anti-Christ. Against the first argument Hooker offered a robust theology of law that was rooted in the work of Thomas Aquinas; against the second argument Hooker lovingly and painstakingly detailed the meaning and purpose of liturgy. As we will see, Hooker was a theologian of law and liturgy who first and foremost discerned the majesty of divine wisdom as the guiding principle of all theological orthodoxy.

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Olde Anglican Quote

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.

It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall, I have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into the room you will find that the long wait has done some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.

In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. This is one of the rules common to the whole house.

C.S. Lewis

—Mere Christianity

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Olde Anglican Quote

“We are divided at the present day, not because we love schism, but because our forefathers were half barbarous. From the first great separation between East and West to the subdivision of the West at the Reformation, the story is the same. Men acted with the petulance of children, with the unreasoning hate of savages. They made the worst of everything; they hugged their prejudices, glorified their ignorances, made no attempt to understand their opponents, and turned small differences into vital dogmas. There were doubtless saints in plenty at all times; but the saints were seldom public men; and it must be confessed that even the saints were not always untainted by the belligerent atmosphere of society. Christendom as a whole went cheerfully on in an unchristian manner; for Christendom was but partially christianized–less Christian than it is now, and less civilized. The child and the savage quarrel at the least provocation, and quarrel bitterly. Society showed this characteristic because it had not reached maturity and was very far short of the measure of the stature of that manhood which is in Christ.”

An image of Percy Dearmer

Percy Dearmer

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Olde Anglican Quote

“We shall with ease convert even the Turks (Mohammedans) to the obedience of our Gospel, if we can agree among ourselves.”

Thomas Cranmer

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