For First Time Visitors
Frequently asked questions concerning Anglo-Catholic worship
(originally from the website of St Stephen's, Providence, R. I.)
1. Why all the ritual and ceremonial?
It is a common misconception that rituals are by definition empty and meaningless, that they involve "just going through the motions." Anthropologists and sociologists have discovered that ritual is intrinsic to being human. We rely on countless rituals to bring meaning and order into every aspect of our lives. The classic example of an everyday ritual is a handshake, which not only signifies but also actualizes the friendship that it symbolizes. (If you doubt this, then consider the impact of refusing to shake someone's hand!) Anglo-Catholic worship engages us in the fullness of who we are as human beings; and that means that it engages us by means of ritual: processions, bows, signs of the cross, and so forth. Yes, rituals can become empty when we perform them absent-mindedly without paying attention to their meaning. The solution, however, is not to jettison the rituals but rather to revivify them by performing them thoughtfully and prayerfully.
2. Why all those fancy robes?
In the Anglican tradition, they are called not "robes" but "vestments." At one level, their purpose is similar to that of ceremonial dress uniforms in the armed forces: they signify a rank and a function. When the Sacred Ministers and servers put on the sacred vestments, they are stepping into a defined liturgical role. So far as possible, the vestments serve to obscure the idiosyncratic features of individual personalities that call attention to themselves and distract the congregation from prayer and worship. For example, the chasuble worn by the priest helps the congregation to see not Father So-and-So with all his quirks and foibles but rather the celebrant of the Mass. At another level, the wearing of sacred vestments serves as a reminder that the ministers of the Mass are engaged in no ordinary mundane activity but are treading on holy ground and handling holy things.
3. Why do you pray out of a book?
It is sometimes alleged that prayers read from a book are less sincere than spontaneous prayers "from the heart." But this criticism misses the point. As the title of The Book of Common Prayer implies, these prayers are "common" prayer - that is, the corporate prayer of the congregation and of the entire universal Church. The Anglican spiritual tradition certainly encourages us to pray in our own words, as we are led by the Holy Spirit, in our private devotions. But the prayers of the Prayer Book are not private prayers, but rather corporate liturgical prayers. They distil centuries of spiritual wisdom, embodying the thoughts, sentiments, and aspirations of the generations of faithful Christians who have gone before us. Reading these prayers and making them our own can only enrich our personal prayer lives.
4. Why do you use such old-fashioned language?
While worship in the everyday vernacular is perfectly valid, many liturgical traditions set apart a special language for worship - from the Latin of the Roman Mass to the Church Slavonic of Russian Orthodoxy. Here at Grace and St. Peter’s, our liturgical language is Tudor English, dating back to the 16th century. For the most part it is intelligible, if a bit strange sounding, to the ears of modern English speakers. But even with its archaisms and occasionally difficult constructions, it is oddly haunting and beautiful. In worship, we approach God with holy things set apart for holy purposes - such as sacred vestments and sacred vessels. Likewise, in corporate liturgical prayer, we employ a special language set apart for holy purposes.
5. Why does the priest pray with his back to the people?
The priest is not so much turning his back on the people as turning to face in the same direction as the people, in solidarity with them. Traditionally, Christian churches are built facing east, towards the rising sun, which symbolizes Christ rising from the dead and returning at the end of time to judge the world. So, when the priest prays on behalf of the congregation, he faces east to emphasize that his prayers are addressed to Christ himself. By contrast, the currently pervasive practice of the priest facing the congregation from behind a freestanding altar tends to close the liturgical assembly in on itself. It creates a closed circle. When the priest prays to God facing the congregation, he engenders the false impression that the congregation itself is divine by facing and looking at them when addressing prayers to God. The eastward-facing position rightly emphasizes God's transcendence and otherness. By adhering to the eastward position, we hope to contribute to its recovery in the wider Church - a process that shows some signs of already being under way in the movement known as "the Reform of the Reform."
6. Why do you use incense?
In the ancient world, incense was the equivalent of modern air freshener. When an important guest was coming to visit, one would burn incense in one's home to purify the air and eliminate foul odors. Since we believe that Jesus Christ comes into our midst during the celebration of the Eucharist, we cense the altar, the ministers, and congregation as a symbolic purification in anticipation of his arrival. Also, the rising smoke of the incense is sometimes said to symbolize prayer rising to heaven. Anglo-Catholic worship engages us through all our senses, so that we come to associate the joy of worship and the comfort of prayer with the pleasant aroma of an incense-filled church.
7. Why does only the choir sing parts of the service that the entire congregation sings in many other Episcopal parishes?
An important part of the mission of our parish is to preserve and strengthen the Church's tradition of choral Mass settings. From the late Middle Ages through the modern period, composers have set the texts of the Ordinary of the Mass - the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei - to music sung by a choir. Instead of singing along, the congregation is invited to meditate on the texts as the choir sings them. This venerable tradition of choral Mass settings immeasurably enriches our liturgy. Moreover, this music was written for worship; when sung in a concert hall it loses much of the vitality and power it derives from being sung in its proper context in fulfillment of its proper purpose in the worship of God.
8. Why does the choir sing so much in Latin?
At Grace and St. Peter’s we use Mass settings composed specifically for the English Prayer Book service of Holy Communion and choral Mass settings written for the Latin Mass in the Roman Catholic Church (the texts are the same). These texts are best sung in the language for which the music was originally composed. Moreover, hearing these texts sung in Latin gives us a sense of our continuity and fellowship with the ancient and universal Church. For those who attend regularly, the Latin texts of the Ordinary of the Mass quickly become familiar and completely intelligible even to those who've never studied Latin.
9. Why does the service take so long?
Our 10:00 am Sunday High Mass typically lasts less than an hour and a half. Services in some other churches - such as Eastern Orthodox or Pentecostal Churches - often go on for much longer. Still, our liturgy is slightly longer than in many other churches, whose services do not exceed one hour. Suffice it to say that any worthwhile activity is worth the time it takes. Many people have no problem sitting in a movie theatre for two hours, or in a sports stadium for three hours to watch a game of baseball or football. Many worshippers report that during the liturgy they lose all track of time, so caught up are they in the praises of God. That's the ideal we're aiming for.