Why in the World Do You?
A short description and rationale behind those things which make St.
John’s different from other Episcopal Churches.
The Rev'd Lloyd Prator, Rector - St. John's Church in the Village
Manhattan, New York
Why is so much sung?
Singing the liturgy is particular to places like St. John’s because it makes us somewhat distinctive and every parish strives to cele-brate those things which make it unusual. We also work hard that each service is a participatory experience. While we have a fine choir that we are justifiably proud of, the hymns, psalms and service music should involve everyone and all our senses and abilities. Worship depends upon what we see, what we smell, what we touch, how we use our voices, and even what we eat. Having a choir sing most of the service can tend to undermine that corporate experience, so we have the choir sing the psalm, the alleluia verse, the communion tract and two anthems; the rest of the musical portions are sung by everyone. Having said that, there is a wealth of church music that is composed for all the principal parts of the service; so on occasion the choir will sing a particular setting of the Mass ordinary [Kyrie, Gloria or Agnus Dei], as well as an Anglican Chant setting of the Psalm. Introits, Graduals and Sequences are other places in our worship service that the Prayer Book rubrics tell us that non-congregational music may take place. By having this variety the service format doesn’t become predic-table and stale; we are also afforded the opportunity to hear glor-ious music but also take our place as the singing people of God.
Why is the altar always covered with a fancy cloth?
Some churches leave their altars bare, but the oldest English tradition is that the altar is always covered except during the last three days of Holy Week when it is bare. The altar is covered with fabrics which change colors with the seasons of the church year, and in this way, the building is always teaching something about the faith even when it is empty. Textile arts are important ways for artistic expression, and so the altar frontals are ways to display the work of Christian artists.
Why is the choir up in the back where we cannot see them?
The short answer is that this is so because that is the way that the building was built. But there is another answer, too. Choirs are meant mainly to lead singing. And singing is better led from behind, rather than from in front. Having the choir in back means that they sing out over the congregation rather than singing directly at them. In this way, they encourage us to take our part in the worship of God in song.
Why is the gospel read at the pulpit rather than down in the center aisle?
The practice of having the gospel read in the center aisle is not very old. It became popular only in the 1960s, not the most ancient or most productive era in the development of liturgical tradition. People began to have the gospel read in the center aisle because of an interesting misinterpretation of some ancient liturgical instructional texts. Those texts were written for buildings, probably athedrals or monastic churches, which had pulpits nearly half-way down one side of the nave of the church. They were placed there, robably, because the altar was so far away and people needed to have the preacher closer in order to hear. So, some ancient eremonial directions told the deacon and other ministers to go down into the nave for the gospel—never intending that they would stand in the middle of the aisle, but that they would go to a prearranged place for proclaiming the gospel, reading the readings and preaching the sermon. And some liturgists in the 1960s read these instructions and decided that it was a good thing to read the gospel from the center aisle. And it does not work very well. For one thing, the gospel, then, is always proclaimed with at least half of the congregation behind the reader—difficult for audibility. For another thing, in most cases the gospel reader is invisible in the rowd. And, for another, having the gospel read in a separate place disrupts the symbolic unity of the pulpit or ambo, the single place n the church which symbolizes the word of God, since from it is read the readings and the gospel, from it the homily is preached, and he Exsultet is chanted at the Easter Vigil. So, we use the pulpit, or as we call it, the ambo, as the single symbol of God’s word and ll the readings are read from it.
Why do the ministers of the chalice seem to wear little spoons around their necks?
In order to give holy communion to small children. In this parish, we follow the custom that all the baptized may receive communion, and the spoon is designed to make it easier for children to do so.
Why is incense used?
Read our other tract, the Sweet Smell of Incense at St. John’s for a complete explanation of the origin of ncense, how it is used and what it signifies.
Why do you use some prayers that I cannot find in the Prayer Book?
The Episcopal Church, of which St. John’s is a part, is currently trying some new prayers to see if we like them and to continue the process of expanding and deepening our liturgical tradition. Currently we use some Eucharistic prayers, for example, which emphasize the role of women in salvation history, the glory of God in creation, the way God acted in the time of the Old Testament, and some emphasis upon our stewardship of creation. From time to time these prayers are updated or deleted and, in that way, the continuing process of liturgical renewal is opened to the parish.
I am used to seeing chasubles, but what are those other things you wear?
The vestments which carry the color of the season are the chasuble, the dalmatic and the tunicle. The dalmatic and the tunicle are the outer vestments for the deacon and the subdeacon, respectively. They developed at about the same time, but probably in different places, as the chasuble developed. Their use is a part of Anglo-Catholic or “high church” tradition.
What are the black and white clothes the other ministers wear?
They are the black cassock and the white surplice. Not much seen in the church anymore, they are actually part of our English heritage and remind us of the English parish churches, collegiate chapels and cathedrals which are part of our tradition. In many churches these days, the cassock and surplice have been replaced by a single vestment called the alb, which fits poorly, drapes inelegantly, and is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as
the surplice and cassock.
Why do you use the strange version of the Lord’s Prayer?
Because we use contemporary language in our worship, it is an ecumenical version of the prayer of Jesus, and it is somewhat more singable than other versions. Nearly a generation ago, the churches which commonly use English in their liturgies, the Anglican churches, the Roman church, and some protestant churches, agreed upon some common texts for parts of the liturgy which they have in common. This consultation has continued to
explore the use of English in liturgy, including issues such as inclusive language, and the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer is one of the nicest pieces of work which they produced. The language is clear. As an example, we pray for forgiveness of our sins, not our trespasses because sin is a clearer, stronger word. We pray to be saved in the time of trial, rather than to be led away from temptation because temptation is a weaker, somewhat trivializing word. Interestingly enough, this version of the Lord’s Prayer seems to be a better fit to the ancient chant which we use when we sing it.
Why don’t you have a recessional hymn?
If one is planning to have a recessional, it implies that one is planning to walk out of church backward, which while an interesting prospect, is probably not accurate. A hymn going out of church is called a retiring rocession, not a recessional. But, in fact, what ever one calls it, we don’t have one, anyway. And here is the reason why. The placement of hymns is governed by rubric. A hymn is permitted at the beginning of the liturgy, but, you will
notice, there is no permission for a hymn at the end of the liturgy on page 366 of the Prayer Book. So, it is not suitable to have a hymn here. But why did the church decide to omit closing hymns when we have had them for so many years. The dismissal is meant to close the liturgy and its words are definitive—Go in peace, let us go forth, go forth into the world—all are phrases which close the liturgy and tell the people to go. It seems incongruous to tell people to go and then not allow them to leave but insist that they remain for a few verses of a hymn. After all the wording is not “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord after we sing four verses of Alleluia, Sing to Jesus.” The words are :”Go” and go we are meant to do. Actually the last place in the liturgy were a hymn is permitted is after the postcommunion prayer, and that is where we sing the final hymn. That hymn is
usually chosen from familiar music including themes of mission, praise and dismissal of the body of Christ to serve the world. The blessing and the dismissal end the service and nothing more is—or should be—said or sung. The liturgy ends.
Why don’t you let everyone have time to greet everyone else in the church at the time of the peace?
Because the peace should not be confused with the coffee hour. The peace is not a casual, frivolous greeting. It is not a time to hug someone you would like to hug or chat about the content of the sermon—as appropriate as those comments might be elsewhere. The peace is the sign of a reconciled humanity. It comes right after the confession and absolution and it is a sign that we have been forgiven our sins and reminded that we are part of a community which is relentlessly random in its texture and content. Greet whoever is next to you, great friend, constant companion, or absolute stranger. Those who happen, even for a fleeting ecclesiastical moment, to be our neighbors are those with whom we are called to be at peace, and it is that reality which the peace celebrates. Take the time to greet everyone you need to talk to at the coffee hour; that is what it is for. But don’t confuse it with the Peace, because the peace is about a much serious matter of liturgical business—the reconciliation of the people of God.
Why don’t you call out page numbers so we can find our way through your complicated books?
We don’t shout out page numbers because doing so interrupts the flow of the liturgy and gives the books too predominant a place in our worship. We want everyone to learn our liturgy so that it becomes a part of your spiritual furniture, rather than for you to be tied to various books, as fine as they may be. So, until you learn
your way, we have two resources to help you. The first is the fellow sitting next to you. It is the vocation of established parishioners to help you find your way through the liturgy, guiding you by opening books or pointing to page numbers. That ministry of hospitality is one of the most important which Christians exercise to and for each other. The other resource is the service leaflet, which is very carefully designed. The leaflet is user
friendly. At most of our services, all you need is the leaflet and the hymnal. Very short pieces of music which you are asked to sing are not cited in the hymnal but are, in fact, actually printed in the leaflet at the point in the service where they are used, in situ, as they say in publishing. To call out page numbers causes you to
become too wedded to the book and the page callings interrupt the flow of prayer and praise which should characterize a good liturgy.
What is the funny hanging lamp over the altar?
Actually, it is not a lamp, it is a hanging pyx. A pyx is a vessel to contain the blessed sacrament, the consecrated bread from the Eucharist which is used for communion of the sick. The idea of a hanging pyx is medieval English. One still sees hanging pyxes in some English cathedrals and churches, and in some very old church buildings, the evidence of the pyx which once hung over the altar still remains in the form of bracket outlines left over from
the suspension apparatus removed during the reformation. The sacrament can be reserved in several ways—a tabernacle, which is a cabinet in the center rear of a high altar, an aumbry, which is a cabinet on one side of the sanctuary, and a sacrament house which is a free standing cabinet with architectural features. Our pyx is in
the form of an orb surmounted by a maltese cross and a dove, a symbol of God the Holy Spirit. Our pyx is suspended over a free standing altar and operates by use of a cable which is suspended from the ceiling and controlled at a small cabinet on the south side of the church.
But isn’t there an aumbry on the south side of the church? What is that for?
The aumbry is actually an oil aumbry, designed to hold the oil of the sick and the chrism. Oil of the sick is used twice a week at our healing liturgies, on Sundays and Wednesdays, and is used by the priest in making home or hospital visits. Chrism is used during baptism, when the newly baptized are anointed and “sealed as
Christ’s own forever.” (Prayer Book, page 306) The oil aumbry is accessed from the church, through the glass door, and from the sacristy, for ease of reaching the oils. Because St. John’s has a very active healing ministry, we feel that it is appropriate to display the oils as a reminder to the faithful that the Church offers a ministry of healing, as a symbol of our commitment to ministry at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and as a sign that we are ommitted to that ministry as a part of the church’s seven-fold sacramental tradition.
Why doesn’t St John’s have a cross on its altar?
Most Episcopal Churches certainly do, although that practice is not as common as once it was because so many churches have free standing altars and placing a standing cross on a free standing altar is always problematic. The central focal point of our church is, undeniably, the tryptich, that three-fold icon which appears behind the altar, showing Jesus, Mary and John our patron saint. However, there is no shortage of crosses in the church if you stop to think about them. Within the tryptich itself, there is a cross, outlined in the nimbus behind the head of Jesus. There is a cross atop the hanging pyx, which is described elsewhere in this tract. There is another cross, a traditional crucifix, just north of the pulpit, at the station where the sick are anointed after the principal
Eucharist on Sundays. When a processional cross is used, it is displayed in the sanctuary so that it is visible to the congregation. And during the sacred triduum, the last three days of Holy Week, when the altar is bare, you will see that there is a cross on the fornt of the altar.
Why do a number of people receive communion directly into their mouths?
That custom is a part of another custom called intinction. Intinction is receiving the consecrated wine in communion by dipping the bread into the chalice and placing the bread upon the tongue of the communicant. In some places, communicants themselves dip the bread into the cup and receive in that fashion, but in the Diocese of New York, it is the policy of the Bishop, who sets the rules about these sorts of things, that the minister of the chalice is the one who touches the consecrated bread to the wine and places it upon the tongue of the communicant. Some people prefer to receive communion in this way if they know that they have a cold or influenza, others may choose to do so because they are careful about consuming alcohol. The point is that there are a number of ways to receive communion and different people find different ways to be more suitable to their needs and tastes.