Ordering Hospitality: Christian celebrations “on the same page”

In the recent annals of Pray Tell Blog, you can find a brief report from the August 2023 Maynooth gathering of Societas Liturgica by Rita Ferrone. It was, as she says, a joyful gathering after a long in-person absence, and an extremely fulsome and busy congress. Societas Liturgica is always ecumenical, and that was highlighted this time by the thematic focus on liturgy and ecumenism. Although we were sadly missing many of our Eastern Christian siblings, there was an ecumenical breadth of Western Christianity reflected in the attendees and in the daily prayers. Any time Christians pray together across ecclesial communal lines (and increasingly, within particular communities) we need a road map so that participation can be facilitated – participation in the elements of the corporate prayer being observed and participation in a sense of the movement of the prayer and how it calls each individual to move together as the body of Christ in glorifying God and engaging in our corporate sanctification. Continue reading “Ordering Hospitality: Christian celebrations “on the same page””

Counting post-pandemic time in ordinary time

How are we doing as worshipping communities emerging from a global pandemic? The answer is probably, ‘it depends’ – where are we in the world and who are we talking about? I can only ask the question from a particular corner of the world, and from the limited perspective of a few Roman Catholic and a few Anglican/Episcopal parishes.


For me the first reflection is theological – what have we learned about liturgical rites and sacramental liturgies? Many of us (on these pages of PrayTellBlog and elsewhere) have noted that we were ill-equipped to immediately cope with the restrictions which COVID brought us, particularly with regard to sacramental rites. Those who have exercised ministry with the sick and dying did, against all odds, find ways to “pray over” not just “pray for” those in need of the church’s gifts of ministration to the bodies most in need, exercising extraordinary measures to be frontline sacramental ministers. The broader community was confronted with baptisms and confirmations and weddings, mostly delayed (or held outdoors or adjusted in interesting ways – including some unfortunate attempts at virtual baptisms), as well as drive-by confessions.


The central conversation for many with regard to the pandemic and sacramental life was often about the eucharist, or specifically, the reception of communion. My experience was not only frustration at the necessary restrictions, but the realization of the poor job of catechesis many of us had done at the parish level. There was a mighty confusion within the body of Christ celebrating the eucharist together and the reception of communion. As the daily or weekly celebration of the eucharist continued first with presiders at their dining room table with smart phones, then to a handful of people in the church building with a bit more sophisticated livestreaming, we still had oddities, such as “no one receives communion until everyone receives communion” and other approaches that made no sense except in the misconception of “getting communion” as an object of quantity. There were creative alternatives for communion (drive-up, dropped off on front porches, socially distanced outdoor celebrations), and my favourite, outside roofless churches built of ice walls where one might presume the cold kept away the spread of disease. But there were also both official and unofficial  prayers for spiritual communion which became helpful not only in the prayer life of people watching online but also as those prayers began to break a logjam for many worshipping communities who assumed eucharist and reception of communion were inseparable. To “attend” or “watch” a eucharistic celebration and consciously not receive communion opened the way to celebrating the eucharist without immediate tangible consumption and allowed catechesis to enter which helped some communities understand that the eucharistic celebration was not only for their reception of communion but for the good of the whole world. My sense is we have not yet reaped the results of the addition of spiritual communion prayers in many communities.


What have we learned as we have returned to ‘in-person’ liturgy? First, the phrase “in-person” is not unimportant. The physicality of one’s whole being in a space with other bodies has renewed conversations about ritual engagement, procession, and the materiality of ritual and liturgical practices. My experience in the neighbourhood is first about the social dimension. People who have returned are almost gleeful. The importance of coffee hour (and the virtual revolt in those communities where that was not happening) has confirmed for me the costs of isolation and loneliness. It has taken a while for people to learn how to talk with each other again, rather than all of us talking at once. The joy of singing together, making sandwiches for the hungry together, all the little things we took for granted, have spilled back into the liturgy. We have missed being community, being the body of Christ together in one place at one time – and that has, in prompting, elicited reflections on the “we” of Christianity. There are also those who have not returned. For some, the health risks mean they cannot return, for others there is a fear out of proportion to reality, for others still there is a loss of habit in “going to church.” Without the social support, they may not return. And – there are the ‘new people’. In every parish I have helped out in over the past year, there are new people showing up. Something in their lives post-pandemic has led to a need to walk in the door, to see what this is all about or to restore something missing in their lives for a very long time.


Theological questions, social questions, and suspended between the two of them, technological questions. Or perhaps better put, how do we do and how are we doing in hybrid liturgy? As the balance has tipped toward people returning to church (including, in one parish, people returning when the livestreaming stopped as an option), where are we? Is the primary ‘congregation’ the one online, or in the room? My experience is the equipment to maintain the virtual congregation often took centre stage – directly affecting the ‘performance’ of liturgy because it all had to be within the scope of a camera which was often unmoving. This resulted in liturgies that did not “move” – a type of late medieval restoration of the ‘private mass’ – all done at the altar and mostly by one person. In some places, far better equipment has changed that. But in other places, either from exhaustion of the few ‘tech people’ or of a deliberate choice to prioritize those present and proximate, the cameras are taking a back seat (literally) or being turned off. The calls for countless workshops and discussions on how to do these liturgies continue, but at a muted level compared to a year ago. While a number of meetings (and prayer groups) continue online, my experience (again – in one corner of the world and in two ecclesial communities) is the waning of the virtual.


So much of our liturgy is about the eschatological trajectory we are on as well as the eschatological source of our being. How do we take the almost obligatory conversations about “where are these people?” “why haven’t they come back?” and turn it to “where are we going with these new people?” “how do we together invite many more to hear these lifegiving words and to learn to pray?” How have our lived experiences of being immersed in something beyond our control changed our prayer? How has living so close to death and the imminent possibility of death changed our priorities? How have the implications for our daily life and work called us as individuals to reassess what we actually need versus what we want? And how have all of these changed our liturgies?


The Coronation of King Charles III, 6 May 2023

On May 6th there will be a ritual, liturgical, cultural, political, beloved, controversial event that will be of great interest to many and of no interest to some: the coronation of an English King according to the rites of the Church of England. While the interest in the readership of PrayTellBlog may be limited to English readers (who already know most of this) and Commonwealth readers who may be responsible for the addition of prayers and liturgies over the next few weeks, there may also be a general interest in accessing the extensive online materials available.

First – the daily prayer services, the collects, the intercessions, the different liturgies prepared for the Coronation are primarily intended for use from Easter Day through the 6th of May, a 28 day stretch of time. The online resources are extensive (only one, the “Book of Daily Prayers” is being sold through Church Publishing, chpublishing.co.uk/Coronation) and the nature of the booklet is such that it is clearly functioning as a memento of the Coronation.

Second, what is particularly striking (aside from the unbelievable amount of work that has gone into the ritual, liturgical and community materials) is how this the Coronation is seen as a “missional opportunity”: “As we prepare for The King’s Coronation, may we seek to serve others, connect with our neighbours, and give thanks to God for the wonderful unity we find in the great diversity of our nation.” To that end, the resources of reflections and prayers also include community celebrations and volunteering, programs for schools, young people, and families.

Lastly, most of the materials are available on the Church of England website churchofengland.org/coronation/prayer-worship

Of the several primary collects (the collect to be used at the coronation itself is not yet available), the first reads in a very traditional style, while other prayers are composed through the ear of more contemporary concerns:

Almighty God, the fountain of all goodness, bless our Sovereign Lord, King Charles, and all who are in authority under him; that they may order all things in wisdom and equity, righteousness and peace, to the honour of your name, and the good of your church and people, through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen

Gracious God, in company with our King, we rededicate ourselves to your service. Take our minds and think through then, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire with hope for you and your kingdom; that here we may have your peace, and in the world to come may see you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen

Listening to the Triduum Liturgies again


Every year when I hear the same central readings of the Triduum I think I’ve heard it all – all the readings and all the angles of approaching those readings. But I haven’t; the words of the proclamations are the same, but as is the case with everyone, I’m different this year, others are in a different place, it is proclaimed differently, the world is different – these contexts are a large part of the reception and processing of scripture we annually anticipate and celebrate. So, may I call us back to Holy (or Maundy) Thursday’s gospel through a historical/scriptural lens, a theological lens, and a pastoral lens.


A number of years ago I was invited to speak at a wonderful conference for which I fell down an academic rabbit-hole to explore a fascinating (and obscure) liturgical history puzzle. It took several years for the papers to be published, but when they came out this past year the gap in time rekindled my curiosity around the puzzle of footwashing and its many interpretations in our ecclesial and theological history (“Welcoming the Stranger and Practicing Humility” in Liturgische Bibel Rezeption/Liturgical Reception of the Bible). What had caught my eye was at the heart of the scriptural puzzle of John 13:3-17 and its two parts (and how the two parts of the pericope actually fit together – understanding the pericope has an additional interpretive conclusion in verses 31b-35). Biblical scholarship on the Johannine gospel and the community for whom it was originally compiled has suggested this passage has more to do with baptism than with eucharist, and for the particular study I was drawn too, I started there and explored how that fits in the particular historical setting of Christian Merovingian Gaul.


The scriptural work is well documented and centres on the focus of verses 3-11 as being primarily about “sanctification”, whereas the second part (verses 12-17) points to humble service. What I wrote several years ago was

as scholars and theologians have pointed out since Ambrose of Milan, the first part of the pericope (3-11) is about “sanctification” or soteriology – having a “share” in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. The second part (12-17) is interpreted as an exemplar of humble service. The puzzle, therefore, is how the narrative section (6-11) fits with the discourse (12-20 in most analyses). The literary questions turn to redactional issues regarding the reception of the discourse by 1 John with an emphasis on humble service, in spite of the better contextualized ‘fit’ of the narrative in the Johannine passion narrative, and the strong link to verse 8 to seeing both sections as best interpreted by the events of the cross.

(with thanks to Andrew McGowan, Martin Connell and John Christopher Thomas)

The historical use (or lack of use) of John 13 on Holy Thursday was part of an interest for me in how the Missale Gothicum, the Missale Gallicanum Vetus, and the Bobbio Missal describe the meaning of footwashing at initiation (following baptism and chrismation but before the eucharist) in their ritual texts for Easter Vigil. While the ritual formulae are clearly based on John 13:4-11, the Johannine readings was not heard at the Easter Vigil, (nor was it the primary gospel for Holy Thursday). In that particular study, I went on to other understandings of the “chain” of traditio around footwashing: Jesus begins, and at verse 14 says that “you should also do as I have done to you” which leads to “Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, so I (the priest or bishop) wash the feet of the newly baptized, and charge you, the new Christ, to wash the feet of pilgrims and strangers.” (493)


Returning to the Triduum of 2023, I was again reminded that I never hear of the sanctification aspect of the John 13 reading – ‘do this, follow this, and you will have a share in me through the suffering and death of the cross…’, and this year was no exception. Instead the homily I listened to was focused on the “institution of the Eucharist’ and the intimately related institution of the priesthood (not a wayward topic at all on this night – just one I struggle with theologically). Setting aside the priesthood focus, the institution of the eucharist always strikes me as theologically problematic because, first, the eucharist is something the church does between the Ascension and the Second Coming (it’s the “in the meantime” action); second, the eucharist centred on the body and blood of Christ is a reality predicated on the passion and death (and resurrection) of Christ – how can it be the institution of that sacrament before the death and resurrection of Christ? (and yes, none of this is original with me). So, what we have is the anticipation of the eucharist (a proleptic eucharist?) Or the ritual rehearsal of what will be the eucharist? At any rate, this theological question links back to John 13 and the context of the footwashing – what has the footwashing to do with the eucharist? Perhaps eucharistic participation leads to footwashing as an example of service to others (Chauvet’s ‘pay it forward’ connection of liturgy and ethics) What has footwashing to do with participation in the suffering and death of Christ? Perhaps that question would make more sense if the footwashing of the Johannine community was a one-time ritual of baptism, rather than a repeatable act symbolizing service to one another. Or, perhaps more if baptismal and eucharistic participation were more boldly linked to a commitment to walk in the potential of suffering and death as a follower of Jesus. What might a different homily, different music, and even a different setting (Thursday night is, after all, already Good Friday) make in theological interpretation?


Finally I mentioned at the beginning of this blog I would conclude with a pastoral reflection. We’re all trying to figure out a post-pandemic way of being church. Things are different (the phone on its stand livestreaming the liturgy this Triduum was just one reminder, the smaller in-person gatherings are another). What happened at your parishes when it was time for the footwashing? What I observed was a whole-hearted embrace of the ritual action. There were instructions for washing each other’s feet before we began, there was a team of 2-3 parishioners at each of the 4 footwashing stations who discreetly kept a supply of clean water and clean towels coming, there was participation by young and old, there were smiles and gestures of invitation to those hesitant, and the footwashing was done in an un-rushed and attentive way. As in many places, the musical texts interpreted the action and the focus was solely on loving one another, caring for one another, carried by simple ritual responsorial music shared by choir and congregation. It was completely reflective of one aspect of John 13 – serve one another. The disparity of Johannine complexity appeared to ruffle no feathers as this Triduum began. Almost the opposite – a return to the ability to sit close, to touch each other, to know oneself as part of a community that “does this” was sufficient. And I suspect that it was sufficient for this time of the church – but, it does make you wonder what might emerge if another aspect of John 13 were to be drawn out, right?

The Beginning of Lent: An Anglican Muddle

I know this post is looking a bit backwards in time because it is focused on Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, but it seems by the First Sunday in Lent it’s time to move on to all the other questions circling around the season which seem more pertinent and urgent, and so it gets set aside again. At the heart of of my recurring question is the relationship between “Shrove Tuesday” and Ash Wednesday, and related to that, if there is actually an absolution in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday in parts of Anglicanism.

First, it might be worth noting for Roman Catholics and others that while private confession is in the book of common prayer (in two forms for the US and Canada and elsewhere), the focus of my concern is the corporate “Confession of Sin” regularly done in the midst of the eucharistic rite (either before the preparation of gifts and altar or at the beginning of the liturgy in contemporary practice). This form of public confession dates back to the various protestant reformations and in Anglicanism takes shape from 1548 forward, being spoken out loud by all since 1662. The most common contemporary English language version is based on an ecumenical work from the Joint Liturgical Group in England.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen

The confession covers sins of omission as well as commission, contrition, and – perhaps more vaguely – amendment of life. The sacramental absolution given in the older-language version reflects the longer history of the practice and is explicit in naming God’s forgiveness and the church’s absolution from the effects of sin, while the newer version is shorter and not explicit about absolving from the effects of sin.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As noted by the editor of PrayTellBlog last month, Steven Wedgeworth (in Ad Fontes) has pointed out the recent reality of using the sacramental materiality of ashes within Anglicanism. Aside from odd branches of Anglicanism, unofficial devotions, and piety, ashing is mostly a result of the ecumenical impact of Vatican II. While the historical use of ashes is difficult to find in official Anglican prayerbooks, it is worth noting that Ash Wednesday was included in the 1549 prayerbook (along with the Sarum prayers surrounding ashing). My query, however, is in the language of Ash Wednesday in the 1979 US prayerbook which has had an impact on other late 20th and early 21st century prayerbook revisions.

The structure of the Ash Wednesday rite (between the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the eucharist) in the 1979 BCP begins with an exhortation and invitation into Lent, a prayer over the ashes (which is deliberately not a blessing – although understood as such by many priests and often accompanied by a blessing gesture), the ashing itself, Psalm 51, moving into a lengthy versicle and response form of repentance (which is the apparent confession, shifting in the responses of the community from “have mercy on us, Lord” to “we confess to you, Lord” to “accept our repentance, Lord” before a final set of three different responses concluding with the eschatological “bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection”). This ‘litany of penitence’ is concluded by the lengthy and unique ‘absolution’ – unique in that it is quite different than the more common form noted above (to which the 1985 Book of Alternative Services of Canada deliberately returned, not following the Ash Wednesday lead of the 1979 BCP).

The US form is missing the direct “Almighty God…forgive you…strengthen you…keep you…” , instead listing the authority given by God to God’s ministers “to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.” The indirectness of the text continues with “therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit…” What just happened in the ‘performance’ of these ritual words? Is it about the power of the keys given to priests but not applied here? or maybe applied here? Or is the suggestion that what we receive is not pardon and absolution but “true repentance”?

Let’s add one more piece here – the so-called “Shrove Tuesday.” This is not an official day with any official ritual or rite in the prayer book of the US church, and its roots are often overshadowed by Mardi Gras, morphing in Anglicanism to “Pancake Tuesday.” But going back in the history of English Christianity it is clear in late medieval times that to be shriven before Ash Wednesday was the pattern. Aelfric of Eynsham (Benedictine Abbot of the monastery in Oxfordshire) writing c. 1005 says:

in the week immediately before [Lent] everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do…

“what he is to do” – for penance, in Lent! So Ash Wednesday might be thought of as the day to remember our mortality and begin the penance, rather than the single day on which we remember our sins and promise amendment of life, are assured of God’s forgiveness and given absolution to free us from the obligations of sin. Is that part of the reason for the vague absolution formula in the US prayerbook? Do ashes set us apart, perhaps to return in the longstanding association of Holy (Maundy) Thursday’s daytime mass of reconciliation at the end of Lent (before the evening mass focused on the traditio of eucharistic foundations)? Is the addition of the footwashing somehow linked to reconciliation and return (recalling the baptismal and reconciliatory aspects of footwashing, rather than only the focus on service)?

These are some of the unresolved questions which challenge my immersion of Ash Wednesday every year – especially observing the day in the United States and speaking not only the reference to absolution but also the invitation to the people of God to observe a holy Lent “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”