Ways to shorten the service of Holy Communion and to make the service more engaging
By Robin G. Jordan
While we may not want to follow the example of the Bucks minister who cut the length of his church service to 12 minutes, we do need to keep church services to a tolerable length for today’s churchgoers. If a church service is experienced as long and tiresome, first time worship visitors may not return for a second visit.
How long a church service will be regarded as tolerable depends upon a number of factors. In some parts of the world what might be to Western congregations a church service of barely tolerable length would not be considered long enough. Cultural context is an important determining factor.
In Western churches age difference is also factor. What might be a church service of tolerable length to older members of the congregation may not be to younger newcomers.
The experiencing of a church service as tedious is not entirely tied to its length. If one of the older Anglican service books is used for church services, the unfamiliarity of the language, the length of the prayers, the clergy dominance of the service, and the lack of meaningful congregational participation will contribute to the tedium of the service. In some churches the addition of material from manuals such as the Anglican Missal, an unnecessarily fussy ceremonial, and too much kneeling will make the service even more tedious.
A priest does not need to make the sign of the cross over the bread or wine a half dozen times like a magician making passes with a wand over a hat from which he is about to pull a rabbit. After the people have been dismissed with a blessing and sung a final hymn, they should not have to drop back down on their knees while priest says vestry prayers from the back of the sanctuary and an acolyte extinguishes the altar lights. Such practices do not enrich the worship of the people. They only make church services more wearisome and mind-numbing.
Three parts of the service of Holy Communion tend to accumulate liturgical clutter that not only makes these parts of the service longer than they need be but also gives them a prominence which is unsuitable for what are ancillary rites. These three parts are the opening of the service, the ingathering and presentation of the people’s offerings, and the close of the service. Those planning church services can significantly reduce the length of the service by eliminating the accretions that have come to clutter these points in the service.
Worship planners can pick the simplest opening rite for the beginning of the service. This requires paying careful attention to the rubrics of the service and avoiding the use of every text printed in the service including those texts that are optional—an unfortunate common practice. The ministers do not have to enter in procession to a hymn. They can enter to instrumental music or unobtrusively take their places before the service. If a church has a choir or music group, it should quietly take its place before the service. The formal entrance of the ministers should be limited to the presiding minister, any assisting ministers, and servers with lights and processional cross.
Worship planners can eliminate the singing of the doxology and the recitation of offertory prayers and presentation sentences at the presentation of the people’s offering. All that is needed at this point in the service is an offertory sentence and a hymn, anthem, or instrumental music. The people’s offerings may also be gathered and presented in silence.
Worship planners can pare down the closing rite to its most essential elements. In the case of the 1979 eucharistic rites these elements are a hymn or other song before or after the post-communion prayer and a blessing or a dismissal, depending on the rite. In the case of the 1928 communion service the most essential elements are the Gloria or a hymn and a blessing. In both cases the ministers can exit informally or in procession to instrumental music.
The 1979 eucharistic rites provide for three Scripture reading; the 1928 communion service two. Lectors reading lessons from the Old Testament, the Epistles, or Acts should sit close the lectern or pulpit from which they will be reading such lessons. The congregation should not be kept waiting while the reader ambles his way to the lectern or pulpit from the back of the sanctuary.
Ideally the lessons should be read and the sermon preached from the same pulpit/lectern placed in a location where lectors and preachers can be heard as well as seen by the congregation and which is easily accessible both from the sedilla and the congregation. Sound systems are not fool-proof and churches do experience power outages in the middle of services.
The 1979 eucharistic rites permit the recitation of a psalm or canticle or the singing of a psalm, canticle, hymn, or anthem between the first two Scripture readings and before the Gospel reading. When a congregation does not have the right acoustical environment and/or musical leadership to chant a psalm or canticle, metrical versions may be sung. Whether a psalm or psalm portion is recited or sung between the first and second readings, it is customary to omit the Gloria Patri at a celebration of the Holy Communion. Antiphonally or in unison are the preferred methods for reciting a psalm at a eucharistic celebration. On some occasions a psalm may be best recited or sung by a single voice due to the particular type of psalm.
In selecting hymns and other songs for use at these points in the service and elsewhere careful attention should be given to the length of the hymn, its meter, and its tempo. Some hymns may be carefully edited to shorten them. Any attempt to shorten other hymns will mutilate the meaning of the hymn, resulting in the congregation singing nonsense or worse. The practice of singing only the first three verses of a hymn is to be abhorred!!
Singing several hymns of the same meter in a row may cause the service to drag as may singing several long or slow hymns in a row. To get the service off to a good start the first hymn or song should be bright and vigorous and about four or five verses at most in length. The exception may be longer hymns with short verses and a fast tempo. If a hymn or other song is sung before the Gospel reading, it should not create too wide a gap between the second reading and the Gospel reading. Except during Advent and Lent the singing of a alleluia is the best choice to announce the Gospel reading—a simple alleluia such as the Celtic Alleluia, “Halle, Halle, Halle,” the Happy Land Alleluia, and the Taize Alleluia. Long hymns and slow hymns should be reserved for the ingathering and presentation of the people’s offerings and the preparation of the Table. Simple praise choruses and worship songs may be sung during communion, choruses and songs that the people can sing as they go to communion.
The rubrics of the 1928 communion service permit the singing of a hymn or anthem between the Epistle reading and the Gospel reading. This includes a prose or metrical setting of a psalm or canticle. It is also appropriate to sing an alleluia at this point in the service, except of course during Advent and Lent. The practice of singing the children’s hymn “Thy gospel Jesus we believe” before the Gospel reading should be assiduously avoided. This hymn was sung during Sunday school classes at which children were preparing for First Communion and as a communion hymn at their First Communion in the nineteenth century. The liturgical indices in The Hymnal, 1940 suggest a number of hymns for use between the Epistle and Gospel readings. None of them is “Thy gospel Jesus we believe.” The only use for which The Hymnal, 1940 suggests this hymn is as a communion hymn.
While the rubrics of the 1928 Prayer Book permit the singing of a hymn before the sermon, this practice is not recommended at a celebration of Holy Communion. As Massey J. Shepherd Jr. points out in his discussion of the Creed in the 1928 Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper in The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, Cranmer placed the Creed before the Sermon because he considered the Creed to be “part of the first, or instructional, half of the service.” The sequence of Creed and Sermon “forms a logical and complete service of instruction in itself.” The singing of a hymn between the Creed and the Sermon disrupts this sequence.
Omitting the so-called sermon hymn is more consistent with Cranmer’s intentions. The rubric is permissive. It does not require the singing of a hymn before a sermon. Good practice strongly favors its omission.
The communion rite is one of the longer rites in the 1928 communion service. While the rubrics permit the singing of a hymn before the distribution of the communion elements, this permission should be used sparingly. The practice of reciting or singing the Agnus Dei before the distribution at every communion service drags out the communion rite. The rite is long enough as it is.
As we have seen, a number of steps can be taken to shorten the service of Holy Communion and make the Sunday worship experience less off-putting. These are just a few of the ways that celebrations of Holy Communion may be shortened and made more engaging. What others can you think of?
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