The Rite of Sitting Down—Not

In the Eucharistic liturgy, what do the faithful do between the moment the priest ends the reading of the Collect and the lector reads the first reading?

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which generally guides celebrations of the Divine Worship form of the Roman Rite, the faithful “should stand from the beginning of the Entrance Chant, or while the Priest approaches the altar, until the end of the Collect” (GIRM 43).  In some places, however, the practice is that the faithful stand “until the end of the Collect *and until the priest sits down.*”  This seems to be a kind of rite of sitting down, which does not make sense liturgically, as far as I can tell.  I suggest, moreover, that it is especially discordant with the Anglican patrimony.

(Note that acolytes have the responsibility of remaining standing until the priest sits down for the practical reason of helping the priest arrange his vestments.)

The issue of whether Scripture—read in private or in the liturgy—has always been as available to the faithful as would have been ideal is complex.  (Low levels of literacy among most of the laity would be one of the complicating factors.)  But it is clear that one of the successes of the English Reformation was a kind of renaissance of the place of Scripture in parochial and cathedral liturgy.

One way—an understandable but misguided way, I suggest—of looking at this historical phenomenon would be to attach it to an anti-clericalist view, since it would have felt to many, in the sixteenth century, as though listening to Holy Writ in their own tongue was to lay claim to a part of the liturgy that had previously been intelligible only to clergy (or at least to clergy truly literate in Latin).  In our day of widespread literacy and ready availability of texts in all kinds of formats, it is difficult for us to appreciate the extent of the love affair between many among the laity of the sixteenth century and Holy Writ.  As sometimes happens when one falls in love, reason sometimes flew out the window, which sometimes resulted in a kind of bibliolatry and a concomitant anti-clericalism.

But another way of looking at this rediscovery of the role of listening to Scripture in the liturgy is that profound listening was now much more accessible to both priest and people—the entire People of God.  It is for this reason that once the priest finishes the Collect, the focus of both priest and people should be turned from the priest to the readings.  And the role of the faithful at this point in the liturgy is not to watch the acolytes and the priest but to prepare themselves to listen to the reading of Scripture.

The point I am making might seem fussy or pedantic.  But the ethos or spirituality of the Anglican patrimony is made up of many subtle distinctions that, taken together, add up to something distinct.  (Not better, but distinct, of its own ethos.)  And the practice of settling in for the readings once the Collect is done (rather than creating a visual rite of watching father sit down) is a way of privileging the Anglican patrimony’s emphasis on listening throughout the liturgy and especially at this moment which is the Liturgy of the Word.

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (“According to the Use of the Episcopal Church” of the U.S., pp. 570-571), the Consecration of a Church includes a blessing of the lectern.  Perhaps no further comment is needed concerning the importance of what takes place at the lectern other than to provide the words of the blessing:

“Father, your eternal Word speaks to us through the words of Holy Scripture. Here we read about your mighty acts and purposes in history, and about those whom you chose as the agents of your will.  Inspired by the revelation of your Son, we seek your present purposes.  Give us ears to hear and hearts to obey.”

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