By Robin G. Jordan
If your church uses the 1928 Communion Office, the 2003 Reformed Episcopal Communion Office, or its Modern Language Version, you are probably accustomed to singing a hymn before the sermon. This practice is allowed by the rubric at the bottom of page viii of the 1928 Prayer Book, which permits the singing of hymns and anthems before and after any office in that book and before and after sermons. It is, however, not obligatory.
The origin of this rubric can be traced at least in part to a royal injunction of Queen Elizabeth I, in which she authorized the singing of a metrical psalm before and after the services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.
Singing a hymn before the sermon is a practice that is sometimes seen in Lutheran churches as well as Continuing Anglican and Reformed Episcopal churches. Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli in Manual on the Liturgy Lutheran Book of Worship (Augsburg Publish House, 1979) make this important observation:
The early Lutheran and Episcopal practice was to sing a hymn as preparation for the sermon. This is still an option in the Lutheran Book of Worship. But it is difficult for a congregation to see how a hymn fits with the sermon until they have heard the sermon. The preferred practice, therefore, is to follow the readings with a sermon to show clearly that the sermon is the exposition of the Scripture just read, and then to sing the hymn as a response to the whole proclamation in reading and sermon.I have personally observed that the so–called sermon hymn more often than not has no connection with the sermon. This may be attributed to poor coordination between the church’s music minister and the preacher for a particular Sunday or occasion or to a limited selection of hymns related to the theme of the sermon in the church’s hymnal or both.
It is also attributable to the unfamiliarity of the church’s music minister and/or the church’s priest with the basic principles of hymn selection. A hymn may be picked without any regard for not only its relationship to the theme of the sermon but also its suitability for the place in the service in which it is to be used.
Too often the responsibility for selecting hymns for church service is passed off to a music minister who, while they may have musical training and are able to play the organ or the piano, do not have any training in the use of music in liturgical services.
The rector of the Episcopal church where I was senior lay reader for fifteen years once hired the music teacher and chorus director of a local high school as the church’s music minister. The new music minister was an excellent musician and choirmaster but he came from a Baptist background and his only experience in church music was gained in Baptist churches. He had no idea on how to plan the music for liturgical services and his selection of hymns and worship songs reflected his lack of knowledge in this critical area.
The rector offered the new music minister no guidance, having told the selection committee which interviewed him when he was the only candidate for appointment as vicar of the church that church music was not his forte and he would leave its selection to the music minister. He had clashed with his church music professor in seminary over the appropriateness of singing the Thomas Ken Doxology at the offertory and this clash had soured him on the subject of church music. I suspect that there may have been more involved but this was the story that he told.
The basic principles of hymn selection are not difficult to learn. One of the most readable books on the subject is Lionel Daker’s Choosing and Using Hymns (Mowbray, 1985). Betty Carr Pulkingham offers excellent advice in Sing God a Simple Song: Exploring Music in Worship for the Eighties (Marshall Pickering 1986). For music ministers of traditional Anglican churches whose worship is “old school”—I prefer the term “vintage,” these two books from the 1980s are an invaluable resource. Other books that I recommend are Percy Dearmer’s The Art of Public Worship (Mowbray, 1920) and The Parson’s Handbook Twelfth Edition (Oxford University Press, 1932), Howard E. Galley’s The Ceremonies of the Eucharist: A Guide to Celebration (Cowley, 1989) Marion Hatchett’s A Manual for Clergy and Church Musicians (Church Publishing, 1980), Marilyn J. Keiser’s Teaching Music in Small Churches: Hymnal Studies Three (Church Publishing, 2000), Byron F. Stuhlman’s Prayer Book Rubrics Expanded (Church Publishing, 1987), and James Rawling Sydnor’s, Introducing a New Hymnal: How to Improve Congregational Singing(GIA, 1989). Any music minister who reads these books will receive a good grounding in not only the use of music in liturgical services but also the introduction of new hymns and service music in liturgical worship.
Singing a hymn before the sermon also widens the gap between the proclamation of the Word and its exposition in the sermon. As Percy Dearmer points out in The Art of Public Worship, the exposition of the Word should follow closely upon its proclamation is one of the underlying principles of The Book of Common Prayer. The rubrics of the 1928 Communion Office, however, direct that the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed must immediately follow the Gospel (except when the Creed has been used at Morning Prayer, in which case it may be omitted), and then the Notices and the Marriage Banns. The Bidding Prayer and other authorized prayers and intercessions may follow the Creed or the Notices and the Marriage Banns. A sermon hymn is an unnecessary addition to this clutter.
The practice of singing a hymn before the sermon can be traced to the Prone, a short, late Medieval preaching service that was inserted into the Mass. In this service the sermon was preceded and followed by hymns and other devotions. Its introduction was an attempt to restore the sermon to the Mass. The Scottish Reformer John Knox and the Swiss Reformer John Calvin would use the Prone as the basic form of service for their reformed church services. It was the form of service that the Puritans favored and was the only authorized form of service that was permitted during the Interregnum after the abolition of The Book of Common Prayer. It resulted in what was known as a“hymn sandwich” which was at one time typical of church services among the Non-Conformists.
It may also have been influenced by the revivals and tent meetings of the nineteenth century, in which a medley of hymns and gospel songs were sung to warm up the congregation for the main act--the revivalist's sermon.
For Anglican churches that wish to follow a more Catholic pattern of worship in their celebrations of Holy Communion the omission of the sermon hymn restores something of the cleaner lines of the earlier shape of the Mass.
In Anglican churches using the 1928 Communion Office, the 2003 Reformed Episcopal Communion Office or its Modern Language Version the hymn or anthem that may be sung during the ingathering and presentation of the alms and oblations at the offertory is the logical choice for a response to God’s Word proclaimed in the readings and the sermon. Like the Lutheran Hymn of the Day which may follow the sermon in The Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and must follow the sermon in the newer Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), it may be a comment on the readings and the sermon as they are related to the season of the Church Year.
Using hymns and service music taken from The Book of Common Praise 2017 and other sources the music of a celebration of Holy Communion omitting a hymn or anthem before the sermon might look something like the following:
Introit: 637 Ye watchers and ye holy ones LASST UNS ERFREUENThe hymn sung at the offertory serves as a response to the sermon, echoing the theme from the sermon. The “proper hymn” that may be sung in place of the Gloria in Excelsis is used to round out the post-communion devotions—a period of silence for private prayer and the Post-Communion Prayer which follow the distribution of the Communion elements. The hymn also echoes the sermon’s theme.
Kyries: 762 Lord have mercy upon us (nine-fold) MISSA DE SANCTA MARIA MAGDALENA
Gradual: 510, How lovely is thy dwelling place BROTHER JAMES’ AIRE
Offertory: 406 What wondrous love is this WONDROUS LOVE
Sanctus: 763 Holy, Holy, Holy MISSA DE SANCTA MARIA MAGDALENA
Great Amen: [Service Bulletin] Amen DANISH AMEN Sung twice.
Communion: [Service Bulletin] Let us break bread together on our knees LET US BREAK BREAD
Post-Communion: 354 Give to Our God immortal praise DUNEDIN
Recessional: [Service Bulletin] Tell it! Tell it out with gladness HYMN TO JOY
After the Blessing which concludes the service and dismisses the people, the ministers process out to a rousing mission hymn, the perfect choice for sending the congregation back out into world to be witnesses to Jesus Christ and instruments of God’s love.
To some readers this selection of hymns and service may seem to be a lot of music. All of the hymn tunes, however, are memorable. They are also not difficult to sing. If you listen to them a few times and then sing them a few times, they will stick in your mind. Both the settings of the Kyrie and the Great Amen have the same characteristics. The most difficult tune I find is the setting of the Sanctus. It has a fairly slow tempo, is apt to drag and then to deteriorate, and does not stick in the mind like the other tunes. I agree with the late Peter Toon that composers need to come up with some new settings for service music for use with the 1928 Prayer Book, settings that are brighter than the older settings and easier to learn and to sing and which small congregations that do not have a choir can use.
Do we then really need to sing a hymn before the sermon? The answer is “no.” Our celebrations of Holy Communion will not suffer from its omission. Rather they may become less disjointed and flow more smoothly. They will become shorter, simpler, and more streamlined, definite musts on today's North American mission field. Even if our church is too small to take a collection during the offertory, we can still sing a hymn in response to the readings and the sermon as a part of our offering of thanksgiving and praise.