A Note from the Rector – 5/26/19

A series of vestments: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

A blessed Sunday of Rogation to you.  Also, I wish everyone the best during tomorrow’s remembrance of those who have died in service to this country.   

We celebrate Rogation day the Sunday before the Feast of the Ascension, which is this Thursday, May 30th.  Rogation comes from Rogare which is the Latin verb “to ask.”  Rogation is a time to ask for God’s blessing on the agriculture and the resources of creation.  It recognizes these resources as gifts from God upon which all humans rely for life.  Our celebration of Rogation Sunday involves a procession to Wynnewood Valley Park next door, where we will read some scripture and pray a brief series of prayers and blessings.  It is also reflected in today’s Prayers of the People which are excerpted from the Great Litany.  The Litany is traditionally prayed on Rogation days because it represents the universal Church’s intercession and petition for itself and for the whole world. The prayer book version of the Litany that we pray in a much abbreviated form (we chanted the whole thing on the first Sunday of Lent, if you remember) was composed in 1547 by Thomas Cranmer as a pastoral response to ongoing wars between England, Spain and France.  It is truly one of the treasures of our Anglican heritage.  

The past four weeks I have been writing about vestments.  I promised to come back to that fancy cape thing I wore at the Easter Vigil, and will do so by discussing choir dress a little more.  Choir dress refers to vestments worn when there is no celebration of the Eucharist, for instance at a service of Morning Prayer, or Evensong. Choir dress is cassock and surplice (I wrote about those in the second part of this series), followed by an academic hood if the person is so entitled.  Clergy can then wear a black scarf called a tippet.  A tippet is generally wider and longer than a stole and is always black. Military chaplains or clergy who served in the military may attach any metals and other honors to which they are entitled to the tippet, and it is customary to sew patches to the tippet representing dioceses or seminaries.  As you can see, there is more of a customary usage to choir dress that has to do with titles and ranks and styles.  This puts it at odds with some of the theology of vestments that I have been trying to convince you of in previous posts, but it also pertains to the fact that ours is a church with a long and varied history and embedded tradition.

 Choir dress was very common before the 1979 prayer book when Morning Prayer was the principal Sunday service in most Episcopal churches on most Sundays.  Pictures of the earliest services here at Holy Apostles show the clergy and choir so appareled.  Also part of choir dress are “preaching tabs” small white bands of cloth that hang from the neck, typically denoting who is going to preach; and several variations of black hats: one called the Canterbury cap that has three corners, and one called a biretta that has three corners, a “fin,” and large pom-pom on top.  Trust me, I know how ridiculous that sounds.  Google it sometime, and then you will know how ridiculous it looks!  Much of the garments in choir dress share a common origin with academic regalia (the mortar board is related to the biretta) and with the traditional attire of the legal profession (Supreme court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s white neck ruffles are related to preaching tabs).  The reason for this has to do with the fact that the earliest universities of the western world were institutions of the Church, and the first lawyers trained at such institutions were canon lawyers, that is, lawyers engaged in the interpretation and litigation of the Church’s laws and policies (yes, they’re that complicated!).  

The cope is also part of choir dress.  The cope is a semi-circular cape-like garment, open at the front, and held in place by a clasp of metal or cloth.  It probably shares its origin with the chasuble: garments worn by dignitaries of the Roman empire in the 4thcentury.  It came to be used as garment “in choir” and especially for processions.  Processions in the medieval church were often longer than just a leisurely jaunt down the center aisle of the church, and were often outdoors.  On Rogation days in medieval England (some places retain this tradition today), it was common for a procession to encircle the boundaries of the entire village, or parish, with stations along the way for prayers and scripture and blessings to be said.  This is called “beating the bounds.”  Our procession to the park this morning originates in this practice.  Aren’t you glad I don’t want us to process down Haverford road to City Avenue and then back up Earlington Road!  That’s not to say I didn’t entertain the thought…

Anyway, the cope is worn by the clergy and by cantors in these sorts of processions, and at other formal services that involve a lot of movement.  The cope is never worn during the Eucharistic prayer, so if a priest wears the cope for the first part of the service—as I did for the Easter Vigil—then it replaced by the chasuble before the Eucharistic prayer begins.      

The cope that belongs to us came from St. Faith’s.  It was made by J. Theodore Cutherbertson a  vestment maker based in Philadelphia in the early and mid-20thcentury.  It is a very fine piece of work, made of silk and velvet.  

A Note from the Rector – 3/10/19

Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent.  This morning we join in the prayers of the Church using a very ancient form of prayer—the Great Litany.  The Great Litany is the real deal; the big time; the major leagues of prayer.  This prayer was first assembled in response to a 4th century volcanic eruption.  It was further shaped by political uncertainty, war, and medieval outbreaks of the Black Plague in Europe.  In 1544, the Great Litany was the first part of the Liturgy to be translated (and heavily edited) into vernacular English by Thomas Cranmer.  Five years later Cranmer finished the first Book of Common Prayer, which stands at the fountainhead of our own style of worship.  Cranmer’s version of the Litany melded medieval catholic spirituality with the theological concerns of the Reformation.  Martin Luther’s hand can still be detected on the version of the Litany that is in our prayer book.

At one time, the Great Litany was prayed by every Anglican parish every Sunday.  These days, even though it is included in our version of the prayer book, it has fallen into disuse.  This is a real shame. As one scholar writes, the Litany is “a most careful, luminous, and comprehensive collection of the scattered treasures of the Universal Church.”  It holds together the reformed and catholic strands of our tradition, and it articulates the needs, anxieties, and suffering of humanity with a power that is rare.  More than that, the Litany is a profound reminder that we need to rely on the grace and mercy of God.  This is equally true today as it was in the 4th century, or the 14th.  Our life depends on God, whether we recognize it or not.  And the fact is, we often don’t recognize it.  Lent is a good time to correct that, so let’s do it with style.

This morning’s service is going to feel different.  We will begin the service by chanting together this ancient, beautiful prayer. The choir is going to march around the church really slow, and any children present might feel like joining in the march, which would be ideal as far as I am concerned.  My experience is that children intuitively understand the grandest and most sublime parts of liturgy, even if their response to them don’t always strike us adults as appropriate.  It’s going to take some time to chant the Great Litany, which is okay.  Don’t be anxious.  This is an opportunity to lose yourself in the mystery and the majesty of something bigger than you, something more important (really, it is) than the busyness and anxieties and luxuries of everyday life.  I promise it will be worth it.  I also promise to keep my sermon short.  🙂

For more on the history and use of the Great Litany see this excellent article from the Living Church magazine.