Seminarians (and their instructors) like to experiment with worship. And I think that’s a good thing. Where else can you try out all of your wacky ideas to discover for yourself whether they work? By pushing the envelope (usually too far), people in seminary learn which new ways of worshipping can be moderated and then adapted for us in the parish.
When I was a seminarian, our principal was Christopher Cocksworth, now bishop of Coventry. He’s a liturgist by training, and, although he rarely intervened to put his specific touches on community worship at Ridley Hall, his attention to and love of good liturgy shaped all the worship that happened there. Like all seminary chapels, ours included elements that stretched from the oldest traditions of the BCP to the newest songs from contemporary musicians. We arranged the chairs in countless configurations. We used silence. We put candles on anything that would hold still. In short, we tried everything we could think of…except switch the gospel canticle for Morning Prayer.
For our principal, that was sacrosanct. Most of us who have said compline know that the Nunc Dimittis comes near the end. It’s the famous gospel canticle that goes with that service: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…” And many of us know that the Magnificat, or Mary’s song, is the gospel canticle originally observed in Evening Prayer: “My soul doth magnify the Lord…” But I’ll bet that not that many people know that, just as those two canticles were fixed and said/sung every single day in their respective services, so too was the Benidictus originally bound to Morning Prayer without aberration.
Imagine finishing Compline with something other than the Song of Simeon. What would Evensong be without the soaring choir’s voices, singing Mary’s famous text? Morning Prayer? Well, in most worshipping communities (seminaries included), the canticles are chosen from the table on BCP p. 144. They switch every day. Not at Ridley Hall. Not while Chris Cocksworth was there.
There were exceptions. Actually, there was only one exception. The only time you could choose a different canticle was when Zechariah’s song happened to be the gospel text in the Daily Office. In that case, the Te Deum was preferred, though I don’t remember it being mandated. Any liturgy leader who strayed from the prescribed pattern and dared to use a different canticle was certain to receive a swift, firm, but gentle one-on-one lecture about the importance of the gospel canticle for Morning Prayer from the principal. You didn’t make that mistake twice.
This Sunday, in place of our Psalm, we have that great gospel canticle. There was a time when I could say it (the Common Worship version) basically in my sleep. I marinated in that text every day during seminary. I still choose it virtually every time I say Morning Prayer. The good news is that it’s the kind of text that lends itself to a lifetime of daily recitation without ever running out of substance for reflection.
I don’t yet know what the Spirit will lead me to preach on this Sunday, but I have a feeling it will be hard for me to avoid the Benedictus. Like all of Luke’s canticles, it’s a bold statement of God’s promises being fulfilled. Like Mary’s song, it tells of the victory of God’s people. And it has some of my favorite lines: “This was the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” and “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High.” Honestly, it doesn’t get much better than this. If you’re looking for a lesson in the good news, don’t look any further than this. It’s worth our attention.