Joining the Angels’ Song: Eucharistic Prayers for Sundays and holy days, Years A, B and C
Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher
Canterbury Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
THE genesis of this refreshing collection of Eucharistic Prayers, reflecting the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, is a partnership established at Duke University Chapel, in the United States, when Sam Wells — now Rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, and a member of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission — was serving there. It was their experience, say the authors, one an Anglican priest and the other grounded in local church ministry, that the “low energy lull in the liturgy”, which is how they describe the Eucharistic Prayer, became a “focused, fresh and engaged moment” as these prayers were introduced.
Whether readers will agree that the Eucharistic Prayer engenders a “low energy lull” in the liturgy or not may have more to do, I suspect, with the way in which the prayer is presented. Is it sung? accompanied by instruments? dramatised or choreographed? or is the text just read out by a president who is wading through it? — these are some of the questions we might ask. But so often in our wordy, book-bound churches, it is the text that consumes attention and passion.
While the Church of England has retained a nervous process of authorisation for the whole prayer, the situation with the preface — that part of the prayer between the introductory dialogue and the Sanctus — has been more fluid, and variety and seasonal experimentation has been allowed, if not very actively encouraged. I have learned much from, and greatly valued, a very good collection of prefaces from the Ambrosian Rite, published by Alan Griffiths in 1999.
In the early years of the Church, before written liturgical texts were written down, let alone authorised, the ability of the bishop to improvise the Eucharistic Prayer was one of the hallmarks of his having learned his trade. Today, such improvisation is frowned upon, and, as someone who is on the receiving end of improvised prayer these days, I can see why. In spite of the massive investment in teaching ordinands coherent and orthodox theology, instructing them in the conduct of worship still has a low priority. Yet how you do this is arguably the single most important factor in that interface between people — especially non-regular worshippers — and the Church.
So, might these prayers have something to teach us, even if we cannot — yet — use them in toto lawfully? Could ordinands learn how to compose a theologically coherent Eucharistic Prayer from these models? Could they learn how to piece together reflection on the scriptures and a longing for the coming of the Kingdom in jargon- and cliché-free language?
Well, they might. As well as memorable phrases from scripture that ring bells for worshippers, there are phrases from well-known hymns, which is where previous generations learned much of their theology.
So, to take a random example, the prayer for Trinity Sunday begins after the Sanctus with: “Lord God, there is none beside you; You are perfect in power, in love and purity. You invite us . . .”, using this direct quotation from verse 3 of the hymn by Bishop Reginald Heber.
Or, for the Second Sunday before Advent, after the acclamations: “God of glory, you promise the day When the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. Bless those among your children yearning for that healing today. . .”
And the memorability of alliteration as in: “Turn your faltering followers into faithful friends.”
The prayers all have the same structure; so they would be relatively easy to follow aurally, and the writers have crafted an excellent 26-page introduction to the nature and structure of the Eucharistic Prayer. While not attempting to be exhaustive, it does explain why they craft the prayers as they do, and it provides a model of coaching which even those experienced in presiding could learn from.
And the collection as a whole? It is difficult to judge what the impact would be week after week when just reading the prayers aloud, or singing them, on your own. I admire much of the language, but I find the same structure constricting, and recall the days in 1988 when Kenneth Stevenson and I were working on early versions of what turned out to be Prayer G, with its “triplet” insertions (published in the draft of Patterns for Worship, 1989), which were after the same kind of imagery with biblical/social/hymnody resonance as is this mammoth undertaking. None the less, these bring a freshness of expression and a welcome challenge to our current system of synodical scrutiny and authorisation.
Which bishop will authorise an experiment with these Eucharistic Prayers? To say that they are richer in expression and more orthodox in theology than much that is offered in intercession, or sung in hymns and worship songs, would be the understatement of the century.
The Rt Revd Dr David Stancliffe chaired the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission from 1993 to 2005, and is a former Bishop of Salisbury. He now works largely as a musician.