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Angela Tilby: Clergy, leave those texts alone  

03 May 2024

I CAN understand (though I don’t approve of) clergy who do all that they can to dispense with a set liturgy. What I find odder is the habit of making one or two small personal changes to texts, which are repeated every time: a kind of liturgical signature.

At the invitation to communion, Robert Runcie used to add the words “and that he lives for you” after “Eat and drink in remembrance that he died for you. . .”. John Pritchard, when Bishop of Oxford, used to insert words from non-Anglican liturgy at the same point. And many clergy make a dog’s breakfast of the “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. . .” by replacing it with “In the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, often with a pious “May I speak. . .” at the front, lest they be deemed presumptuous.

I wonder whether all this comes from some kind of insecurity: a desperate need to stamp one’s own personality on to the liturgical text, as though not to do so were to commit the sin of vain and unthinking repetition. Or is it an attempt to keep the congregation awake by introducing a slight variation from what they might be expecting?

Of course, when you hear the variation over and over again, it is all too expected. Knowing the habits of individuals, I sit waiting for the intrusive words, sometimes grinding my teeth. (Why, dearly beloved colleague of mine, do you have to add an unscripted “and” before “This is the Gospel of the Lord”? What exactly is gained by this unscripted interpolation?)

Of course, it can all be canonically justified by Canon B6, which enables slight variations where there is no doctrinal significance. I am not sure that the habit of some Anglo-Catholic clergy in replacing “Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” with “Behold the Lamb of God. . .”, while holding up the eucharistic host, really counts as being of no doctrinal significance; but at least it has liturgical precedent.

The problem comes when a pious change or addition communicates the opposite of what the original text, rubric, or familiar gesture intends. I attended a licensing service recently and was looking forward to the powerful moment when the Bishop hands over the licence to the new incumbent with the words “Receive the cure of souls which is both yours and mine.” On this occasion, however, the moment was ruined by the Bishop’s adding, with a flourish, “And, above all, His. . .’ — an addition that seemed to me to undermine the whole significance of the exchange. If the cure of souls is, above all, “His”, perhaps we don’t need licensed ministers at all, let alone liturgy.

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