04 February 2017

Liturgy (Readers, 2015-2017): Sacrament, Word and
Note: integrating Scripture, Music, the arts and
cultural understandings into the Liturgy of the Church

Christ enthroned ... the Book of Kells

Patrick Comerford

Reader Course Day Conference Programme

10.30 a.m., 4 February 2017, The Hartin Room

Liturgy (Readers):
Sacrament, Word and Note: Integrating Scripture, Music, the arts and cultural understandings into the Liturgy of the Church


Recently, in a session on Church History, we were looking at the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and the early development of the ‘Celtic’ or ‘insular’ church.

One of the great achievements of the ‘insular’ church was the way it expressed Christianity in art, including illuminated manuscripts, carved stone High Crosses with their Biblical images, including images of the passion, and metalwork like the Ardagh Chalice, which was found in 1868 within the bounds of my new parish in the Diocese of Limerick.

The great illuminated manuscripts produced in Ireland include the Book of Durrow (ca 650-700) and the Book of Kells (ca 800), both now in Trinity College Dublin, while the monasteries in England produced the Lichfield Gospels (or the Saint Chad Gospels, ca 730), in Lichfield Cathedral, and the Lindisfarne Gospels (ca 715), now in the British Library in London. It is interesting to note that these two English Gospels are both older than the Book of Kells.

During the Dark Ages in Europe, Irish missionary monks and their monasteries were havens and sanctuaries for scholars and theologians, keeping alive Latin learning and the monastic schools in Ireland became centres of learning, attracting people from throughout Europe. The manuscripts and metalwork were produced by and for monasteries, yet these early forms of Christian art had profound influences beyond the monasteries on Western mediaeval art.

But, of course, most of these great works of art were produced not for art galleries or private collections. They were produced for liturgical use, as processional crosses, processional Gospels, and so on.

Just imagine a great procession in a mediaeval Gothic Cathedral – the music, the processional cross, the processional Gospel, the vessels and vestments, the choreography, the frescoes on the wall, the impact on your eyes, ears, nose and throat, are designed to stimulate your senses and draw your whole body, and not just your brain, into the fullness of the experience of worship.

Is this going to be your your experience of worship in your parish church tomorrow morning?

If not, why not?

Are we afraid to stimulate more than our brains and our intellect in the Church of Ireland in our worship today?

What are the objections, or the obstacles?


Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ ... misused in promoting Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’

People will come to your churches to see the windows, or a painting, or the Telford organ, or the carved pews. Who can deny that these are religious experiences?

Over the course of your ministry, you will hear from many people of who have had deeply spiritual experiences as they encountered great works of art: Carravagio’s Taking of the Christ in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin or Michelangelo’s ceilings of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, for example.

We are all aware of how the spiritual message of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper has been misused in promoting Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ ... the first image of Christ that I remember from my childhood

But think of how many people visit Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London solely to see William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. For me, this is the first image of Christ that I remember from my childhood, an image first shown to me in a book by my grandmother.

But works of art that are less well-known also have a strong impact on people, and often during the first encounter. Although many of our churches have large east windows, this is the place for great works of art in, for example, the chapels of many colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, or in Lutheran churches throughout Scandinavia and Germany.

Is there ‘Christian art’?

So is there such a subject as Christian art? And what is the place of Christian art in our churches, in our use of Sacred Space? Does it have any connection with how we worship, with our liturgy?

Christian art is sacred art that seeks to illustrate, supplement and portray the principles of Christianity. Today, most Christian groups use art to some degree.

But there are strong objections to some forms of religious images, and there are major periods of iconoclasm in the past.

Which forms of Christian art do you find yourself feeling most comfortable about?

And which forms of Christian art do you find yourself feeling most uncomfortable about?

Statues of saints on the west facade of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


What about the following examples:

● Stained glass windows;
● Icons;
● Statues;
● Stations of the Cross;
● Paintings;
● Frescoes.
● Cheap kitsch popular devotional prints.

To what degree is your taste or distaste related to the subject matter?

The subjects represented in Christian art may include:

● Images of Jesus;
● Narrative scenes from the Life of Christ;
● Scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament;
● Images of the Virgin Mary;
● Portrayals of saints.

Can you think of others?


You may think portrayals of saints and their representation in statues are much rarer in Anglican and Protestant traditions than in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy traditions. But think of the carved statues on the west fronts of Westminster Abbey or Lichfield Cathedral.

David by Michelangelo ... part of the story of Florence and of the heritage of Western Christian art (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

What do you think of the place of Moses and David by Michelangelo in Florence in shaping our understanding of key figures in the Old Testament?

Christianity makes a greater use of images than the other two principal monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam, which discourage and even forbid the use of religious imagery.

The oldest image of Christ is the Icon of Christ from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai

Early Christian art can be traced right back to the beginnings of Christianity:

●The oldest surviving Christian paintings, from Megiddo, date from around the year 70.
●The oldest Christian sculptures are early 2nd century sarcophagi.
● The largest groups of Early Christian paintings come from the tombs in the Catacombs of Rome.
● The oldest image of Christ we have is the Icon of Christ from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai – there is a copy in the chapel.

However, Christian art is not only religious. It speaks to, informs and influences the development of art in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Church became one of the greatest patrons of art.

In Byzantine Christian art, the primary purpose was to convey religious meaning rather than the accurate representation. The controversy over the use of graven images, the interpretation of the Second Commandment, and the crisis of Byzantine Iconoclasm led to a standardisation of religious imagery in the Eastern Orthodoxy.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought an end to the highest quality Byzantine art, produced in workshops in Constantinople and, most notable, in the school in Crete. Yet Orthodox art has since continued with relatively little change in subject and style.

In Western Europe in the Middle Ages, the Church commissioned paintings and sculptures, and until the Reformations, Christian art continued to be commissioned in great quantities by the churches, clergy and the aristocracy.

The Reformation brought a virtual halt to the production of public Christian art in many European countries, and saw the destruction of great works of art in churches, monasteries and religious foundations.

In Roman Catholic countries, the Church role in commissioning art continued, and, this increased with the Counter-Reformation.

From the 18th century, the number of religious works by leading artists declined sharply, although important commissions continued, and some artists continued to produce large bodies of religious art on their own initiative. Examples of these include the Pre-Raphaelites in 19th century Victorian Britain.

By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in Western Europe, some secular artists treated Christian themes, but only rarely was a Christian artist, such as Stanley Spencer, regarded as culturally significant.

However, in recent decades there has been a resurgence in religious art, with many modern artists, both Jewish and Christian – such as Eric Gill, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland – producing well-known works of art for churches.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) is best known for his painting The Light of the World [see The Light of the World: art as spirituality]. But consider some other works of art and their potential for engaging with Liturgy:

Dante Rossetti, The Annunciation (1850):

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Annunciation (1850)

The poet, painter, and designer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelites. The son of the exiled Italian patriot and scholar, he was a brother of the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1893), author of one of the greatest Christmas carols, ‘In the bleak mid-winter.’

Dante Rossetti studied at the Royal Academy, where he met William Holman Hunt and John Millais, and together they formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Rossetti’s first Pre-Raphaelite paintings in oils, based on religious themes and with elements of mystical symbolism, were The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and The Annunciation: Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), both in the Tate Gallery, London.

Rossetti’s The Annunciation was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, along with works by Millais and Holman Hunt, all with Christian themes. In this painting, white dominates, only relieved by small areas of blue, red and yellow. This emphasises the quality of the Virgin Mary’s purity. The Archangel Gabriel offers Mary a lily – a flower that always denotes purity when shown alongside the Virgin Mary – as he tells her she is to bear the Christ child.

But what is unusual about this painting?

What was controversial about it?

Did you notice how Mary is shown in a state of fear?

How she is cowering against the wall and casting her eyes down?

This portrayal of Mary contrasts with many artistic depictions of the annunciation, where she is shown in a state of humble acceptance.

In painting his Annunciation in such a realistic manner, Rossetti was breaking with tradition. Italian Renaissance artists had painted the Virgin Mary as a holy figure, isolated and set aside from ever-day life. But in this work, she is an ordinary Mary, an every-day girl bewildered by the news she has just hear from the Angel Gabriel.

And, as you can image, large sections of the public were enraged.

How might you use this painting to give fresh meaning and understanding to the Canticle Magnificat at Evensong?

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927):

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927)

This painting hangs in the Tate Gallery in London and I have been intrigued by it long before it was used to illustrate a major feature of mine in The Irish Times.

The English artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1956) believed that the divine rested in all creation. His earthy Christian faith and his preoccupation with death and resurrection are reflected in many of his works.

Much of his greatest work depicts Biblical scenes, from miracles to the Crucifixion. However, they are set not in the Holy Land, but – like this painting, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923–1927) – are set in Cookham, which he referred to as ‘a village in heaven.’

The Resurrection, Cookham is the first of a great series of resurrection paintings. The entire population of the village – including Spencer – is seen popping out of their graves in the churchyard, looking as dapper as ever, squinting in the sunlight of a bright sunny day – just like today.

Christ is enthroned in the church porch, cradling three babies, with God the Father standing behind. Spencer appears near the centre, naked, leaning against a grave stone. His fiancée Hilda Carline – whom he married in 1925 while working on this painting – lies sleeping in a bed of ivy. At the top left, we can see risen souls being transported to Heaven in the pleasure steamers that then ploughed along the River Thames.

But do you notice anything odd here?

This is a resurrection without a last judgment. It seems everyone in Cookham is to be forgiven their sins.

Salvador Dalí, Christ of Saint John of the Cross (1951):

Salvador Dalí, Christ of Saint John of the Cross

The Christ of Saint John of the Cross was painted by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) in 1951, and is probably the best-known modern painting of the Crucifixion.

The painting shows Christ on the cross in a darkened sky floating over a body of water complete with a boat and fishermen. The people beside the boat are derived from a picture by Le Nain and from a drawing by Velazquez. But the painting takes its theme, inspiration and title from a drawing by the 16th century Spanish Carmelite mystic Saint John of the Cross, in which Christ is depicted as if seen from above. That work is now in the convent in Avila.

Although this is a depiction of the Crucifixion, did you notice how there are no nails, blood, wounds, or crown of thorns?


Dalí said he was convinced in a dream that these features would mar his depiction of Christ.

Secondly, take a look at the angle that we are asked to see Christ from.

Once again, Dalí said that in a dream he was revealed the importance of depicting Christ in this extreme angle.

In 1961, the canvas was damaged by a visitor to the museum who threw a brick at it. He later explained his action, saying the viewpoint of the artist was looking down on rather than up at Christ on the Cross.

Thirdly, notice how the composition of Christ is based on a triangle and circle. The triangle is formed by Christ’s arms; the circle is formed by Christ’s head.

What is the artist saying here?

The triangle, since it has three sides, can be seen as a reference to the Trinity. The circle may be an allusion to Platonic thought.

On the bottom of his studies for the painting, Dalí explained its inspiration: On the bottom of his studies for the painting, Dalí explained its inspiration: ‘In the first place, in 1950, I had a “cosmic dream” in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the “nucleus of the atom.” This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it “the very unity of the universe,” the Christ!’

This painting now hangs in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, and has been voted Scotland’s favourite painting.

Which images of the cross are acceptable in your church?

Which images of the cross are not acceptable in your church?


An introduction to Church Architecture

Lichfield Cathedral... the great mediaeval Gothic cathedrals have shaped the ideas of church architecture in our minds’ eyes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Where we worship shapes how we worship and what we think of worship. The shape of our churches shapes our liturgies, enabling some styles of worship, but inhibiting others, so that liturgical change cries out for a change in buildings.

Church architecture has evolved over the past 2,000 years, partly by innovation and partly by imitating other architectural styles, usually responding – for better or worse – to changing beliefs, practices, local traditions and cultural, political and economic circumstances.

The simplest church building comprises a single meeting space, built of locally available material and using the same skills of construction as the local domestic buildings. In Europe, we think in terms of rectangular or square shapes. But in those African countries where circular dwellings are common churches may be circular in shape too.

The Church of Ireland parish church in Collon, Co Louth … in many parishes, the parish church may be the oldest and most beautiful building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But church architecture goes beyond the utilitarian and the functional. In many parishes in Ireland, the parish church may be the oldest building, and is larger than any pre-19th century structure except perhaps a barn. The church is often built of the most durable material available, often dressed stone or brick.

It may be the most striking – perhaps even the most beautiful –building in a town or village, and it may have more interior beauty than many other buildings too: paintings, historic monuments, works of art, stained glass windows, Arts and Crafts furniture, brass work, gold and silver altarware, organs that are as good to look at as they are to listen to.

For most people on these islands, when we close our eyes and think of the shape of a church, we think of Gothic revival parish churches or cathedral, with their pointed windows, towers and steeples, side aisles and sanctuaries.

But this is conditioned by where we live. Other people would think differently in Germany, Italy, Greece or Russia.

Think of the great Romanesque abbeys and churches from the mediaeval ages that survive throughout Europe, and that survive in the many ruins throughout Ireland.

Or, think of the great Renaissance basilicas, with their emphasis on harmony, in southern Europe, some of them replicated in late 19th and early 20th century churches in Ireland.

Over the space of history, the needs of parishes and congregations have altered, changed and grown. No longer would we think of building a single-chamber church, and so any exercise in the history of church architecture cannot be reduced to a antiquarian pursuit of the primitive, but must seek to understand where we are today, and why are here.

‘The Presence in the Midst’ by Doyle Penrose … even Quaker meeting houses have liturgical shape and space

Today, churches have two clearly defined areas: one for the congregation and one for those who have liturgical responsibilities – even that most simple of liturgical spaces, the Quaker Meeting House, often has an elders’ bench.

In the course of time, our liturgical needs and our efforts to make our churches and our liturgies more beautiful and more accessible have seen the addition of side aisles, baptisteries, bell towers and belfries, side chapels and mortuary chapels, transepts and vestries.

The lower part of the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome … built directly over a house where early Christians worshipped

From the first century to the early fourth century, most Christian communities worshipped in private homes, often secretly. Some Roman churches, such as the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, are built directly over the houses where early Christians worshipped.

Other early Roman churches are built on the sites of Christian martyrdom or at the entrance to the catacombs, where Christians were buried.

With Constantine’s victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge over 1,700 years ago, on 28 October 312, Christianity became first a lawful religion and then the privileged religion of the Empire. This freedom gave freedom in the expressions of architecture, and the new buildings were modelled on the patterns of civic and imperial buildings.

Why did early church architecture not draw on the plans for Roman temples?

Well, those Roman temples did not have large internal spaces for worshipping congregations. The Roman basilica, on the other hand, was used for meetings, markets and courts, with large open spaces for meeting and assembling inside, similar to the needs of churches.

The basilica, with its large rectangular meeting hall, became the model for new churches in both the East and the West, with a nave and aisles, and sometimes with galleries and clerestories. Roman basilicas were large vaulted buildings with high roofs, braced on either side by a series of lower chambers or a wide arcaded passage. At either end, a basilica had a projecting apse, a semi-circular space roofed with a half-dome, where the magistrates sat in court.

Saint John Lateran, Rome ... dates from the early 4th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The first large churches were in Rome and had their origins in the early 4th century. Several churches in Rome, such as Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major), San Giovanni in Laterano (Saint John Lateran) and Santa Constanza, date from the fourth century.

With the development of liturgy, processions became the introductory part of worship. The processional door led from the furthest end of the building, while the public used the door central to one side of the building, as in a basilica of law.

As the clergy increased in number, the apse with the altar was too small to fit them all. A raised dais called a bema formed part of many large basilicas. We know from some early examples (Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s outside the Walls) that this bema extended laterally beyond the main meeting hall, forming two arms so that the building developed a T-shape.

From this beginning, the plans for church building developed with transepts into the shape of Latin Cross, and this became the standard shape of many cathedrals and large churches in the west.

The Rotunda in Thessaloniki … planned as an imperial mausoleum but turned to use as a church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Another influence on early church architecture was the mausoleums of Roman nobles, which were square or circular domed structures built to house a sarcophagus. Early examples include the adaptation of the imperial mausoleum, the Rotunda, in Thessaloniki, which became a church, and the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by Constantine in Jerusalem.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Round Church, on the corner of Round Church Street and Bridge Street, Cambridge … its design replicates the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later examples include the Temple Church in London and the Round Church in Cambridge, and the shape of a former round church in Dublin, Saint Andrew’s, can still be traced in the semi-circular street line from Suffolk Street into Saint Andrew Street around the perimeter of the later Gothic Revival building.

These circular or polygonal churches have a centralised focus, rather than an axial one.

The dome became a marking characteristic of Byzantine churches and churches throughout the Orthodox East

Many early Byzantine churches have a longitudinal plan. Aghia Sophia in Constantinople has a central dome, which is framed on one axis by two high semi-domes and on the other by low rectangular transept arms. But the overall plan is square. This large church has influence the design of many later churches.

A square plan, with the nave, chancel and transept arms having equal lengths, is what we know as a Greek cross. In these churches, the crossing is generally surmounted by a dome.

This became the common form for Orthodox churches in Greece, and throughout Eastern Europe and Russia.

With the division of the Empire into East and West in the fourth century, liturgy and liturgical needs evolved in different ways in the east and in the west long before the Great Schism in 1054.

But, you can see from this introduction, that we still need to ask whether our liturgy should shape our buildings, or whether our buildings force the shape of our liturgy.

Pugin’s interior, including his rood screen, in Saint Giles’s Church, Cheadle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the Mediaeval Western Church, the rise of the monasteries changed the shape and architecture of church buildings too.

The traditional nave-and-sanctuary church made the sanctuary the preserve of the clergy and it could then only be seen from a distance by the congregation through the intervening arch or rood screen. The elevation of the host became the focus of the celebration of the Eucharist, and some churches had holes or squints cut into walls and screens so that the elevation could be seen from the nave. The liturgy was said in Latin, and the people engaged in their own private prayers devotions until the elevation, but people in the congregation seldom received Holy Communion.

Pulpits had always been a feature of Western churches, but the emphasis on their place in churches developed with the friars who prized preaching.

The Reformations in the 16th century brought radical changes in church architecture. While Roman Catholic churches retained an emphasis on the sacramental, in some traditions the pulpit replaced the altar as the primary focus in worship.

In England, stone altars were removed and replaced by a single wood table, although many of these changes were reversed under Archbishop William Laud in the 1630s and 1640s, when altars, including stone altars, were moved back to the East End, and altar rails were introduced.

But we could say that in the post-Reformation and post-Trent period, all traditions in the Church came to emphasise full and active participation in the liturgy and public worship, even if there were different understandings of how this was attained.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, there was an emphasis on the emotional and the ecstatic, achieved through the ceremonial performance of the liturgy, and enhanced by marble statues, gold fittings, and stained glass windows.

Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London ... built a century after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

To a lesser degree, this was the experience in many Anglican cathedrals and churches too. There is a clear comparison between the architecture of Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s in London … Peter and Paul, Rome and London, the old empire and the new empire find their apostolic centres of worship.

For all, the common purpose was to help worshippers to feel they had come closer to God.

Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford ... one of Pugin’s great Gothic churches in 19th century Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The 19th century saw a tidal wave of church building in Ireland. Classical architecture was seen as representative of Anglicanism, and so AW Pugin’s Gothic style influenced many of the churches and cathedrals built in Ireland from the 1830s and 1840s on. Newman failed to have nay Byzantine churches built in Ireland, with the notable exception of the University Church on Saint Stephen’s Green, and the Gothic style spread quickly to Anglicans and others, including the Unitarians.

But priorities in liturgy were changing.

The Liturgical Movement from the 19th century on emphasised the insight that worship is a corporate activity and that the congregation is not to be reduced to spectators, certainly not to be excluded from sight. Simplicity became an important goal in Church architecture.

Reinforced steel and concrete and the popularity of white walls and colourless windows brought new possibilities in 20th century church architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Reinforced steel and concrete brought new possibilities in the 20th century to church architecture throughout the world. But so too did the popularity of white walls and colourless windows, and simpler seating.
The Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool Vatican II encouraged circular buildings with free-standing altars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the Second Vatican Council, the decree Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 1963) encouraged ‘active participation’ (participatio actuosa) in the celebration of the liturgy by the people and required that new churches should be built with this in mind (#124).

Subsequently developments included the introduction of free-standing altars that allowed the priest to face the people, and this encouraged circular buildings with free-standing altars, one of the best-known examples being the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool.

A ‘market place’ theology suggested building multi-purpose churches, with secular and sacred events sharing the same space, albeit at different times.

But the emphasis on the unity of the liturgical action was countered by a return to the idea of movement. Three spaces, one for Baptism, one for the Liturgy of the Word and another for the Eucharist with the congregation gathered around the altar, have been popularised in Anglicanism by Richard Giles, author of Repitching the Tent and Creating Uncommon Worship.

But these arrangements are more difficult for large congregations.

A different and separate development has seen the building of large, theatre-like churches, complete with stages and large amphitheatre-like seating.


Which liturgical priorities are reflected in the churches you know?

What is the primary point of focus in your parish church or cathedral?

What is the theological message that this sends out?

An introduction to Church Music

Saint Augustine … did he ever say ‘He who sings, prays twice’?

Saint Augustine of Hippo (died 430) is often quoted as saying: ‘He who sings, prays twice.’ The Latin citation is ‘Qui bene cantat bis orat’ or ‘He who sings well prays twice.’

However, although I am sorry to disappoint you, Augustine said nothing of the sort. What he actually said was: ‘cantare amantis est … Singing belongs to one who loves.’

And Saint Augustine also wrote:

Qui enim cantat laudem, non solum laudat, sed etiam hilariter laudat; qui cantat laudem, non solum cantat, sed et amat eum quem cantat. In laude confitentis est praedicatio, in cantico amantis affection… ‘For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him whom he is singing to. There is a praise-filled public proclamation in the praise of someone who is acknowledging Go), in the song of the lover there is love.’

On the other hand, Thomas Aquinas defined the Christian hymn in these words: ‘A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.’

Of course we can say that singing and music enhance our worship, prayers and liturgy, especially on Sundays. Just imagine how deadpan our Sunday Eucharist would be without hymns. But why do we not also sing the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei?

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis … part and parcel of the history of the Anglican choral and liturgical tradition

Sung and Vested Evensong in the chapel here on Thursdays during term time falls flat without singing at least two canticles, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

Singing canticles and the set parts of the Eucharist seem so natural to many of us as Anglicans that we almost become proprietorial about them, thinking they are quintessentially Anglican, and forgetting both their Biblical and historical roots and the Biblical and historical roots of liturgical music.

Music can go places where words can never go. It can touch, and heal, and liberate us in ways that theology can only stand back and envy.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem … We can trace Church Music back to the music of the Temple and the synagogue

We can trace Church Music back to Biblical roots and the music of the Temple and the synagogue. It seems so natural that Anglican liturgical texts that are based on the Psalms and the Psalter should be such a major part of the Book of Common Prayer in all its shapes and editions.

According to the Mishnah, the Temple orchestra consisted of 12 instruments, and the choir had 12 male singers. A number of additional instruments were known to the ancient Hebrews, though they were not included in the regular orchestra of the Temple, including: the uggav (small flute) and the abbuv (a reed flute or oboe-like instrument).

After the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people, music was initially banned:

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137: 4)

Of course, these restrictions were relaxed later.

Jewish music began to crystalise into definite form with the piyyutim or liturgical poems. The cantor sang these poems to melodies selected by their writer or by himself, introducing fixed melodies into synagogue music.

The music may have preserved a few phrases in the reading of Scripture that recalled songs from the Temple itself.

Psalm 150 calls on us to worship God with a variety of music instruments:

● trumpet;
● harp;
● lyre;
● timbrel;
● strings;
● pipe;
● cymbals;
● clashing cymbals.

The earliest music in synagogues was based on the same system as the system used in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The only record of communal song in the Gospels is at the end of the Last Supper, when Christ and the disciples sing hymns before going out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26: 30).

The first Christians continued to attend the Temple in Jerusalem and the synagogues. Can we presume the same musical traditions were carried over into separate Christian meetings?

The earliest Christian hymns are mentioned by Saint Paul in his letters, where he encourages the Ephesians and Colossians to use psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (see Ephesians 5: 18-19; Colossians 3: 16).

The 24 elders singing around the Lamb on the Throne ... the main panel in the Ghent Altarpiece

In his vision in the Book of Revelation, Saint John the Divine describes seeing the four living creatures with six wings, gathered around the throne and never ceasing to sing day and night (Revelation 4: 8) – an echo of Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6: 2-3), but they are singing rather than saying their praises – and they are joined by the 24 elders in singing too (see Revelation 4: 10-12), the saints who sing a new song (Revelation 5: 9-10), and the angels, living creatures, myriads and myriads, and thousands of thousands, “singing with full voice (Revelation 5: 11-12), and every creature “in heaven and on earth and under the earth … singing (Revelation 5: 13). And the singing goes on (Revelation 7: 12) and on (Revelation 11: 17-18), and on (Revelation 15: 3-4) … and on. There’s a lot of singing in the heavenly worship described in the Book of Revelation.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch … had a vision of angels singing in alternate choirs

Saint Ignatius of Antioch (died 107) had a vision in which the angels were singing in alternate choirs. The Greek hymn Φῶς Ἱλαρόν (Phos Hilaron), Hail gladdening light was mentioned by Saint Basil around 370. Latin hymns appear at around the same time, influenced by Saint Ambrose of Milan. Prudentius, a Spanish poet of the late 4th century was one of the most prolific hymn writers of the time.

Early Celtic hymns, associated with Saint Patrick and Saint Columba, including Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, are traced by some sources to the 6th and 7th centuries.

Hymnody in the Western church introduced four-part vocal harmony as the norm, adopting major and minor keys, and came to be led by organ and choir.

The introduction of church organ music is traditionally believed to date from the time of Pope Vitalian in the sixth century.

Gregorian chant is the main tradition of Western plainchant, a form of monophonic liturgical chant of Western Christianity that accompanies the celebration of the Eucharist and other services. This musical form originated in monastic life, in which singing the hours nine times a day was part of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Singing psalms made up a large part of the life in a monastic community, while a smaller group and soloists sang the chants.

Gregorian Chant has gone through many gradual changes and reforms. It was organised, codified, and notated mainly in the Frankish lands of western and central Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, with later additions and redactions. But the texts and many of the melodies have antecedents going back several centuries earlier.

Although popular belief credits Pope Gregory the Great with introducing Gregorian chant, scholars now believe that Gregorian chant began as a later Carolingian synthesis of Roman and Gallican chant.

During the centuries that followed, the chant tradition was at the heart of Church music, but it changed and acquired various accretions

Polyphonic music arose from the venerable old chants in the Organa by Léonin and Pérotin in Paris (1160-1240), and ended in monophonic chant. In later traditions, new composition styles were practised alongside monophonic chant.

Although chant had mostly fallen into disuse after the Baroque period, it went through a revival in the 19th century in the Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic traditions.

The Requiem Mass has a long tradition in Western liturgical music

Mass settings are found in and shared by the liturgical traditions of Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans, and there are many Mass settings in English in the Anglican tradition.

The Requiem Mass has a long tradition in Western liturgical music, with requiems by Palestrina, Victoria, Mozart, Berlioz, Brahms, Bruckner, Fauré, Liszt, Verdi, Benjamin Britten, Duruflé, Stravinsky and others.

The Reformation created two conflicting attitudes to hymns. Many Zwinglians, Calvinists and other radical reformers, considered anything that was not directly authorised by the Bible to be a novel and a Catholic introduction to worship that was to be rejected.

All hymns that were not direct quotations from the Bible fell into this category. They were rejected, along with instrumental musical accompaniment. Organs were removed from churches, and hymns were replaced by chanted Psalms, often unaccompanied. This is a tradition that has continued to this day among the “free churches” of western Scotland.

The second Reformation approach, favoured by Martin Luther, produced a burst of hymn writing and congregational singing. Luther and Lutherans often used their hymns, or chorales, to teach the faith.

John Taverner ... other composers modelled their work on his

In the century or two after the Anglican Reformation, Anglican theology was developed not only by academic theologians and bishops, but by poet-priests such as John Donne and George Herbert, by architects, and by composers.

Six composers in particular stand out in this period:

1, John Taverner (ca 1490-1545) is regarded as one of the most important English composers of his era. Most of Taverner’s music is vocal, and includes masses, Magnificats and motets. Most of his works were probably written in the 1520s.

2, Thomas Tallis (ca 1505-1585) is considered the father of English choral music. Tallis occupies a primary place in anthologies of English church music, and is considered one of England’s greatest early composers. He is honoured for his original voice in English musicianship, and is also remembered as the teacher of William Byrd.

3, John Marbeck (ca 1510–ca 1585) produced a standard setting of the Anglican liturgy. In the 19th century, the Oxford Movement inspired renewed interest in liturgical music, and the Irish-born John Jebb drew attention to Marbeck’s Prayer Book settings in 1841. In 1843, William Dyce published plainsong music for all Anglican services, with almost all of Marbeck’s settings, adapted for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Later in the 19th century, many editions of Marbeck’s settings were published, especially for the Holy Communion, with arrangements by noted musicians including Sir John Stainer and Charles Villiers Stanford.

4, William Byrd (1539/1540-1623) was a Renaissance composer who wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphone, keyboard and consort music. Byrd played a role in the emergence of the new verse anthem. His four Anglican service settings range in style from the unpretentious Short Service to the magnificent Great Service. The setting for the Eucharist we are taking part in this morning in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin is Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices.

5, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was one of the most versatile English composers of his time. One of the most versatile English composers of his time, he wrote a quantity of keyboard works, around 30 fantasias for viols, a number of madrigals, and many popular verse anthems. His choral music is distinguished by his complete mastery of counterpoint, combined with his wonderful gift for melody. He produced two major settings of Evensong, the Short Service and the Second Service. The former includes a beautifully expressive Nunc Dimittis, while the latter is an extended composition, combining verse and full sections.

6, Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) was a prolific composer of verse anthems in the late Tudor and early Stuart period. His life links the great Anglican composers of the Tudor and Stuart eras with the Laudian era and the Caroline Divines.

Tallis, Merbecke and Byrd are honoured, together with a feast day on 21 November in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church. All six have contributed immeasurably to the corpus of Anglican liturgical music.

The earlier English writers tended to paraphrase biblical texts, particularly Psalms. Isaac Watts followed this tradition, but is also credited as having written the first English hymn which was not a direct paraphrase of Scripture.

Later writers took even more freedom, some even including allegory and metaphor in their texts.

Charles Wesley’s hymns helped to promote the spread of Methodist thinking far beyond the boundaries of Methodism. The Methodist Revival in the 18th century created an explosion of hymn that continued into the 19th century.

Classical composers and Christian liturgical music

Mozart and Bach ... does anybody know who was Catholic and who was Protestant, and does anyone care?

Bach or Mozart? Does anybody know, or does anyone care whether Mozart or Bach was a Catholic or a Protestant?

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) saw himself not as a genius but as one of God’s craftsmen. Music should, he wrote, have no aim other than the glory of God and the ‘re-creation of the soul … Where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamour and ranting.’ His scores bear dedicatory abbreviations like ‘SDG’ (Soli Deo Gloria, ‘To God alone be praise’) or ‘JJ’ (Jesu Juva, ‘Help me, Jesus’).

However, the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth disagreed: ‘It may be that when the angels go about their task praising God, they play Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart.’

May I offer another version of that quote from Karl Barth: ‘Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure. I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart.’ Indeed, it is said that wittily that Barth lived with lifelong guilt that he liked Mozart better than Bach.

Barth’s devotion to Mozart is well known, and he claimed that through the music of Mozart he could hear the praise of Creation. He began each day listening to Mozart; he included Mozart in the Church Dogmatics, and he remarked: ‘If I ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart and only then inquire after Augustine, Saint Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and Schleiermacher.’

Towards the end of his life, Barth even experienced his first and only mystical vision – a vision of Mozart gazing at him benignly from the stage during a concert. Hans Urs von Balthasar was very impressed by this vision.

Barth once had a dream in which he was supposed to give Mozart an oral examination in theology. He knew in advance that ‘under no circumstances would [the composer] be allowed to fail.’ And so he did everything he could to make things easy for him; he filled the exam with friendly prompts and hints about his masses. But in answer to Barth’s question about Dogmatics and ‘Dogma’ and what they might mean, Mozart’s response was total silence.

Perhaps the Mozart of Barth’s dream had the right idea. Why worry about 13 volumes of Dogmatics when you can write a mass, a symphony, a serenade? We can imagine him inwardly chuckling at a theologian’s questions.

Thomas Merton, addressing Karl Barth, says: ‘Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to be a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation!’

(Revd Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture was part of the Reader Course Day Conference Programme on 4 February 2017.

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