Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Following the Rules

this post is also in this week's newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

I received some strange looks on Sunday when, as soon as the Post-Communion Prayer was finished, the final hymn began. As one parishioner put it after the service, "I was ready to cross myself during the Blessing and wondered if I had fallen asleep and missed it." Like most Episcopal Churches, we typically pronounce the Blessing as soon as that prayer is finished and then, while singing a hymn, process to the door of the church where the Dismissal is offered. Actually, that nearly universal practice is against the rules. In the church, we call those rules "rubrics," which are the directions in the prayer book that tell us how worship is supposed to be conducted. More than customs or traditions, these are expectations, and clergy who violate them subject themselves to ecclesiastical discipline.

In this case, there are several reasons why the rubrics require that particular order of events. The theological link between Blessing and Dismissal is a strong one. We are blessed to go out into the world not to remain in our pews. To separate the two with a hymn not only diminishes that going-forth mentality but also incorrectly attaches the Blessing to what has happened at the altar during Communion. Receiving Communion itself is a blessing, and it needs no other pronouncement. You may have noticed that, for this reason, at the Rite II celebration of the Eucharist the Blessing itself is optional. Also, there are only a few particular places where hymns are allowed to be sung, and the rubrics spell those out. After the Blessing is not one of them. (For more about this, see BCP pp. 406-09.) 

I am, by nature, a rule follower. A strong ESTJ on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I tend to trust that rules (and rubrics) should be followed first and questioned later. As the list below reveals, however, I am willing to make exceptions. Last Sunday, we returned the Blessing to its rightful place, and, despite my nature, we did so not simply because rules are rules but because there are good reasons to leave it where the prayer book says it should be. Old habits die hard, and it may take us a while to get used to it, but I trust that in time we will appreciate this change. And, if not, we can always move it back (as long as no one tells the bishop).

Here is my own personal list of the top ten other rubrics that clergy and churches ignore. There are others, but these come to mind today. They are not in order of importance or frequency but are generally in the order of the service itself. What others rubrics stick out to you? Why is observing them (or not) important? How do they help us draw us closer to God and closer to one another in unified prayer and worship?

10.       Lectors to be Appointed by the Celebrant (BCP p. 354)
Who knew that this was the case? In preparation for this article, I flipped through the prayer book, and, when I saw this instruction, I scratched my head. Really? That seems awfully impractical. Normally, the rector chooses who will serve as a lector, and I am quite happy to delegate the authority of preparing the lector schedule to our Lector Coordinator. Does the prayer book really envision that whoever is presiding at the liturgy will choose who will read at that service? Fear not: neither Seth nor I intend to tap you on the shoulder and ask you to read as I do not see a change in our practice coming soon. 

9.         Rules Governing the Calendar and the Nicene Creed (BCP pp. 15-18, 358)
I admit that it is inconvenient to schedule a worship service for Epiphany (January 6) when it falls on a Friday. Wouldn't it be easier to transfer that Principal Feast of the church to a Sunday morning, when more people are present? Can't we at least move it back to Wednesday, when we already have a weekday Eucharist scheduled? The answer, in short, is no. Some observances are transferrable, but others are not, and, alas, many clergy (especially bishops) think that they can do as they please, which undermines the common prayer and worship of our church. The rules for what can be transferred are complicated, but the rule governing the Nicene Creed is not: "On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing...The Nicene Creed." The link between reciting this historic statement of our faith and the most important festivals of the church seems pretty clear to me, but a fair number of churches and clergy ignore this rule when it suits them.       

8.         Prayers of the People...Not the Clergy (BCP pp. 359, 383)
Although there is no explicit proscription of clergy reading the Prayers of the People, the clear expectation is that someone from among the "People" will lead them. More than that, the rubrics beg us to compose our own form for those prayers, using the guidelines offered. The six forms that are provided "may be used," but the first and preferred option is for someone from the congregation to compose them on behalf of the people. Although I have heard of colleagues who use this approach, we have not even begun to consider it. Part of me wonders, however, whether the prayers would have more meaning to us if they were written by one of us and not merely recited from the book.

7.         Standing at the Presentation and One Chalice on the Altar (BCP pp. 361, 407)
This is actually two different issues rolled into one for the sake of keeping this a "top ten" list. First, the people are asked to stand as "the people's offerings of bread and wine, and money or other gifts" are brought forward by representatives of the congregation. That is how we do it, but we are in the vast minority of congregations. Most churches bring the bread and wine forward before the offering plates are passed so that the clergyperson setting the table can get a head start. It may be convenient, but this takes away from our ability to see that the bread and wine are also part of what we offer to God. The second issue is the one-chalice rule, which may not seem like much, but visually reminds us that we all share one cup...even if the wine will eventually be poured from a flagon into multiple chalices.

6.         Keeping Silence after the Breaking of Bread (BCP p. 364)
Throughout the prayer book, we are invited to keep moments of silence, but very few of those moments are required. The moment when the bread is broken is among them. Many choirs and organists and clergy rush into the Fraction Anthem without pausing long enough for us to sit in silence, contemplating our Lord's sacrifice. I am thankful that our custom is to observe a long five or ten seconds of silence before continuing with the rest of the liturgy.

5.         Using LEMs Only in Absence of Clergy (BCP p. 408)
Among the rubrics that I appreciate but sometimes violate is the prohibition from lay people serving as chalice bearers when there are enough clergy to do it. Historically, the consecrated bread and wine have been distributed only by those ordained to do so, and, only relatively recently, has that role been shared with the laity. Maybe we need to press that even further. Typically, we schedule the right number of LEMs, but occasionally I will mess up and ask our LEM Coordinator to schedule two even though we have an assisting seminarian or extra clergyperson on hand. Rather than ask a willing volunteer to sit out, I prefer to sit and watch the congregation come forward to the altar rail. Technically, I am wrong to do so, but I am not completely convinced that the other option is right.

4.         Coming Forward while Clergy Receive Communion (BCP p. 407)
I did not know of this rubric until a colleague pointed it out to me when it was ignored in the Chapel of the Apostles in Sewanee. The congregation is supposed to come forward for Communion as soon as the clergy and other lay ministers at the altar begin to receive. Actually, the rubric says it even more emphatically: "While the people are coming forward to receive Communion, the celebrant receives the Sacrament in both kinds..." At the 10:30 service on Sundays, the choir helps initiate that, but at other times our congregation often sits and waits until the clergy and LEMs have received. This is also the custom at most churches. By coming forward right away, we preserve the sense in which all of us are communing together at the Holy Table instead of separating the clergy's Communion from that of the congregation.

3.         Standing or Kneeling but Not Sitting during Prayers (BCP p. 362)
We stand or kneel to pray, but we do not sit. Usually, the clergy lead this posture by example, but the exception is the Post-Communion Prayer, when the clergy remain standing at the altar. At that moment, the congregation is expected either to kneel or stand, whichever has been their posture throughout the Eucharistic Prayer. Is it easier to sit? Of course it is. But we bring more of ourselves to God when we engage worship with our bodies as well as our lips and ears and minds. Years ago, no one would dream of sitting during any of the prayers, but we are losing touch with that intentionality.

2.         Consuming the Bread and Wine...Or Not (BCP p. 409)
Many clergypeople feel the need to consume all of the consecrated bread and wine while tidying up the altar after Communion. This is not the case. The prayer book clearly states that "the celebrant or deacon, and other communicants, reverently eat and drink it, either after the Communion of the people or after the Dismissal." Long ago, the extra bread was given to the clergyman to take home for Sunday lunch. Nowadays, we consume it reverently. Sometimes we eat or drink it during the service, but often we wait until afterwards. The rule I have established for this parish is that anything more than one sip of wine will be poured down the piscina (special sink for disposing of consecrated wine) and not consumed in church. Otherwise, we set a poor example of responsible alcohol consumption. Also, we do not scatter consecrated bread in the garden for the birds and squirrels and mice and rats. If it is consecrated, it will be consumed.
1.         "Alleluia, Alleluia" Belongs Only in Easter (BCP p. 366)
In many churches, the person offering the Dismissal (presumed by the rubrics to be either the Deacon or Celebrant) will add the words "Alleluia, alleluia" all year round except for during Lent. Actually, those words are only authorized during the fifty days of the Easter season. Why? Although every Sunday of the year is a celebration of the Resurrection, the fifty days of Easter are distinct. Our joy during that time is particular. There are other specific Easter observances that are required in the rubrics, but this is one that is often ignored. We keep those words for Easter not because we want to limit our joy during the rest of the year but because we want to remember the centrality of Easter in the Christian faith.

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