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Origins of the term ‘Gradual’

08 December 2017

Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or to add to the answers given below


Your answers

I have been asked by a parishioner to explain the term “Gradual” hymn. Can anyone explain the origin or meaning of the word “Gradual” in the context of the hymn immediately before the Gospel in the eucharist?


The term “Gradual” comes from the Latin for “step” (gradus; hence the word “gradually” means “step by step”.) Traditionally, this was a psalm sung by a solo cantor on the steps of the ambo (an elevated platform, pulpit-like in structure, from which the Gospel was read or sung by the deacon). The congrega­tion would have responded with “Alleluia” or a verse from the psalm itself. (St Augustine once spoke of “The psalm which we have just heard sung and to which we have responded in song.”)

In more recent usage, a hymn has been sung instead of a psalm, but it would still be referred to as the “Gradual”. In the context of the hymn immediately before the Gospel, the purpose of the term is, in short, to signify the proclamation of the gospel to the people of God. It serves both a doxological and pre­­paratory purpose, building to the reading of the Gospel, which is, of course, the climax of the Ministry of the Word.

Christopher West, Armagh, NI


Just as Psalms 120 to 134 are called gradual psalms because it is thought that they were sung by pilgrims on the way up to Jerusalem, so the psalm or hymn before the Gospel reading is a Gradual, because it covers the movement of the Gospel procession.

The English Hymnal includes a section with Graduals and other eucharistic propers (mainly psalm­ody) translated from the medieval Sarum (Salisbury) mass. Simple chants for them can be found in Francis Burgess’s The English Gradual* (RSCM).

As with the Alternative Service Book 1980, the Common Worship Lectionary provides appropriate psalms. Where there are two read­ings before the Gospel, the Gradual can be said or sung between them and the Alleluia verse (or its Lenten substitute) after the second.

(The Revd) Ian Falconer, Staveley, Chesterfield


[*”Gradual” is also the term for a book containing music for the introits, graduals, alleluias, offer­tories, and communions, etc., for which the Wantage Sisters’ Plain­chant Gradual, now out of print, adapts elaborate chants used in the Latin rite to the English translations. This book can be studied online at media.musicasacra.com. The texts are a closer fit to the Prayer Book lection­ary, which is nearer to the medieval lectionary, than to its successors. Editor]


. . . The ecclesiastical use of the word “Gradual” is found as far back as the ninth century.

(Canon) Andrew Warner, Andover, Hampshire


I am on a church committee that regularly approves sums of money to be donated to charities. . . [Answers, 24 November]


I am the mission-committee chair­man of our PCC. We no longer donate ten per cent of our income to missions, but have a separate mission-partnership scheme enabling donations from the con­gregation to go directly to a chosen mission link known to them.

Paul Colman (Reader, Minster Church of St Andrew), Plymouth


Your questions


Many Christians go to church and believe deeply in God. As we are imperfect, all these people will sin at some time or other, even if it’s just something like getting drunk. What if a lifelong believer and churchgoer commits one of these misdemeanours and doesn’t have chance to ask for forgiveness before he or she dies? Does this mean that his or her God-fearing ways would have been for nothing, and that he or she would end up in the same boat as the most evil? Also, what happens to the millions who practise other religions, ones not dealing with the Bible? Does God send them to hell for not following him? Is it possible they have their own God, heaven, and possibly hell?

D. A. E.


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