Two questions about traditional High Church ceremonial
during 1662 Prayer Book evensong:
1. Making the sign of the Cross over one's lips with the
right thumb at the opening versicle "O Lord, open thou our lips"
makes devotional sense as a ceremonial preparation of the lips as
they begin to utter praise. But what is the point of then
immediately making a "normal" sign of the Cross at the next
versicle "O God, make speed to save us?"
2. People often make a "normal" sign of the cross at the
opening words of the Magnificat (and of the Benedictus at matins).
Some people also cross themselves at the start of the Nunc
Dimittis. What is the point of saluting the Gospel canticles in
The medieval offices began with either "O Lord, open thou our
lips" or "O God, make speed to save us". When Cranmer conflated the
seven offices into the two of his Prayer Book, he combined the two
possibilities, so that both would be used at each office.
Nineteenth-century liturgists observed that each versicle had a
particular ritual gesture, and opted for using both in order to "be
correct", without worrying about the apparent repetition. The
repetition can, in any case, be justified by pointing out that the
two gestures, though similar, are symbolically different in
meaning: one is a sort of self-blessing of the lips for the praise
about to be uttered, and the other a ritual statement that when God
saves us it is through the power of the Cross.
The point of "saluting" the Gospel canticles is to acknowledge
the fundamental significance of the Gospel to our faith. In the
medieval period, the offices had few if any Gospel lessons, and the
canticles were almost the only Gospel quotations; such an
acknowledgement of their significance was appropriate. Again,
19th-century liturgists insisted on "correctness" without
concerning themselves with current propriety. Contemporary
justification would be that it is still a sort of "daily
That some make the sign only at the Magnificat derives from the
issue of Cranmer's conflation. The Magnificat is the proper
canticle for vespers; the Nunc Dimittus is proper to compline. The
division originated between those who considered Evening Prayer to
be vespers only, and those who considered it legitimately both
vespers and compline. Modern practice is largely a question of what
one has grown up with.
Benedict Yates (Virger)
Most liturgiolists agree that blessing oneself at the beginning
of the Gospel canticles in the daily Office originated as a pious
misapprehension. People made the sign of the cross at the beginning
of the Benedictus because it really does sound like the beginning
of the blessing of the people at the end of worship; an analogy
with making the sign of the cross at the beginning of a Gospel
reading may also have played a part.
Blessing oneself at the beginning of the Magnificat began by
analogy, because it also was the sole Gospel canticle at Evening
Prayer. When using BCP evensong, people usually make the sign at
the beginning of the Magnificat, but not at the beginning of the
Nunc Dimittis; see, for example, the Alcuin Club Directory of
Crossing oneself before the Nunc Dimittis seems to be creeping
into common practice, by analogy and/or misapprehension, because
the Nunc Dimittis is the Gospel canticle of Night Prayer.
(The Revd) David van Krieken
Canterbury Christ Church University
[Nineteenth-century liturgists were not of one mind. The
anonymous Ritualist compiler of the fifth edition of Mowbray's
popular "plain" guide for the laity The Congregation in
Church (1900), who declared himself indebted to Church
Times answers to correspondents, enjoined worshippers to make
the sign of the cross several times at matins and evensong, but
not, perhaps surprisingly, at these points. Editor]
Who was it who said that 70 per cent of church growth
since its inception took place in the 20th century; 70 cent of this
was since the Second World War; and 70 per cent of this was in the
last five years of the century?
Address: Out of the Question, Church Times, 3rd floor,
Invicta House, 108-114 Golden Lane, London EC1Y 0TG.