What’s different about our liturgy?

We are Roman Catholics; we are a community worshipping according to the “Anglican Use.” If you join us for Mass some Sunday or feast day, what will you see? How is it different from the liturgy with which most American Catholics are familiar, and why?

Well, to start from the beginning, the liturgy you will experience on your visit is rooted in English history. In 1549, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer published the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer, a rite in the vernacular to serve the Church of England following its rupture with Rome. The Prayer Book has been revised over the intervening centuries, both in England and in other countries, but Archbishop Cranmer’s work served in a unique way to mold the piety and spirituality of Anglican Christians, and for this reason the preservation of this liturgical tradition is an important part of the life of the Anglican Use.

One of the first things which might strike you on your first visit is that our worship is very deliberate. Part of this is an inheritance from the English tradition, and perhaps part is due to the fact that the Anglican worshipping tradition evolved generally in smaller congregations than Roman Catholics are accustomed to. The liturgy is celebrated with deliberation and reverence. The hymns at the Mass, for example, are each chosen carefully and are treated as acts of worship in themselves, sung through in their entirety. The congregation makes its responses carefully, and the use of ritual gestures, incense, vestments, and vessels worthy of the altar are all evident.

Once the liturgy begins, you will notice that the Priest celebrates the Mass “in the eastward position” with his back is to you. You might remember this as a regular feature of Catholic worship before the Second Vatican Council. Is this a throw-back to bygone days? Not at all. Many Catholics are under the impression that one of the major changes legislated by Vatican II was that the Priest would now celebrate Mass “facing the people”; some even saw this as an effort to make the Mass more intimate, as it was in the Early Church. Actually, nothing of the kind was ever legislated, and the actual reason for the traditional custom of the Priest standing in front of the altar might surprise you.

It is rooted in the early Church. The early Christians were deeply aware that they were only here for a time, that the Lord was coming again. They longed for His second coming again. When at prayer, they expressed this longing by facing East, for the East was the direction from which came the Rising Sun, the most powerful symbol they knew of the Second Coming of Christ. When they built a church, they “oriented” it—they made sure it was built so that when the Priest stood before the Altar offering the Mass, with his people behind him, they all were facing east: Priest and People looking to the Second Coming of the Lord (it is the traditional expression of their awaiting the Second Coming, and the Resurrection).

So, you see, when we gather as a congregation for the Eucharist, we don’t think of our Priest as offering the Mass “with his back to the people”. We think of ourselves, People and Priest, facing in the same direction, awaiting the Second Coming.

Another thing which will strike you immediately is the Elizabethan language. We hold on to the Elizabethan language rite in our congregation because we find it helpful to prayer. We are familiar with it, and as you use it you will become increasingly familiar with it as well. Archbishop Cranmer had a rare gift of felicity of composition: he wrote lovely prose, and it enriches our worship today. There is also a wonderful body of liturgical music that enriches our worship as you will note if you are present at Solemn Mass, and it is such a helpful vehicle of worship that we are determined to foster it.

There has been a great debate raging in the Catholic Church in our country regarding liturgical language. The “inclusive language” debate has been just one part of this argument: many people have been critical of the English language texts we have used in the Mass since 1974, finding that the language, which was written to be fresh and contemporary, quickly became dated.

The language of the Prayer Book is graceful and elegant, rich and evocative. Some people find “thee” and “thou” a distraction, but many others find it helpful: where the debate has raged among Catholics in our country about an understandable, accessible sacred language for worship, we find that the Prayer Book already provides it for us.

A word about music is also in order.

You will see that we take music very seriously. The hymns, as we said earlier, are very carefully chosen, and sung completely, for they are acts of worship, and we pray them as we sing. Roman Catholics might find Anglican hymns a bit odd at first: they are nothing like contemporary Catholic worship music, and yet very different from traditional Catholic hymns. But what Catholics recall as “traditional” Catholic hymns were devotionally oriented—hymns to the Sacred Heart, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, etc. The real “traditional” Catholic hymnody was found in the liturgy, in the Latin hymns of the Office, and here we see a body of hymns that do just what Anglican hymns try to do—they are deeply Scriptural, they are liturgical in that they change with the feasts, and as one sings them one is meditating on the text which explains the feast being celebrated. That is why you can find yourself on the Feast of the Purification singing two or three hymns written just for that feast! But, if you persevere in praying our Liturgy you come to see how all of its parts join together as a very helpful vehicle for worship.

You can watch us sing the Regina Cæli here.

We can point out a couple of aspects of our liturgy and explain them to you, but ultimately you’ll just have to join us and see how it all comes together! Come, join us for Mass! We suspect that before long you’ll be praying “to continue in [this] holy fellowship, and do all such other works as Thou hast prepared for us to walk in …”

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