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NZ Anglicanism has gone from praying the Psalms as being the lifeblood of our spirituality to the Psalter being the most neglected book in the Bible! NZ Anglicanism has become a coalition of chaos!

Our diocese has undertaken a project around Biblical Literacy, and as part of this, the diocese was surveyed. The result confirmed anecdotal evidence that, of the readings set for the Eucharist (now the standard service in NZ Anglicanism), the psalm is the first to drop away and not be used.

Historically, I would argue that England had a strong Benedictine spirituality. With the closing of the monasteries, Cranmer’s vision can be seen as turning the whole of the country into a monastery: clergy were required to publicly pray the whole psalter monthly, ringing the church bell morning and evening – laypeople were encouraged to join clergy to do so in church, or, with it now in the vernacular, at home.

The basic Sunday services were Matins and Evensong – at the heart of which lay the psalms.

The 1988 meeting of NZ’s General Synod [shockingly?] voted that Anglican clergy no longer be required to pray the Daily Office (Matins and Evensong) – that was then voted on at all diocesan synods and passed by a super-majority at the next meeting of General Synod.

As someone who has prayed the psalms for over half a century, I contend that it is a foundation that helps maintain a life-long growth on our faith journey. The psalms cover every human emotion, every stage and phase of our faith life. It is unsurprising to me that, of all the Hebrew Bible, Jesus quotes the psalms the most.

I recently claimed that people would be hard pressed to disagree that currently our Church’s formation, training, and study around worship, liturgical life, and communal spirituality is at its all time weakest. And not a single person has even attempted to counter that suggestion. Many clergy asked to lead the Office from the NZ Prayer Book struggle to do so – skipping central parts, treating canticles as readings, and so forth. In our Church’s Daily Prayer app, Tuia, the psalm is categorised as a “Reading” rather than a text we pray. In our lectionary layouts, the psalm is indistinguishable from the other readings. And many places treat it this way: the psalm is used as one of the readings.

In discussions, many see dropping the psalm in a service as simply dropping a reading to prevent the service from getting too long. When the 1989 NZ Prayer Book came out, I timed the required material – I think it came to about 5 or 6 minutes; all the rest was locally decided and added. With the change that A Form for Ordering the Eucharist (pages 511ff) could be the main Sunday service, that has reduced even further. For quarter of a century, I was chaplain of a secondary boys’ school – Eucharist included a couple of choir pieces, maybe 450 communicants, there were congregational sung parts of the Eucharist, a sermon up to 10 minutes long, prayers, silences – AND THE WHOLE CONGREGATION ALWAYS CHANTED THE SET PSALM. The normal length of such a service was 50 minutes – and certainly well within an hour. Currently, in the Christchurch Cathedral where I am Acting Dean, the choir sings a refrain which the congregation repeats, then the choir sings the verses; the congregation joins the refrain – the whole praying of the psalm in this manner takes a couple of minutes.

If length of the service is of concern, cut back on inessentials, pious accretions, this “little prayer that I really like”, incessant commentary on what is happening or about to happen (let symbols speak for themselves!), shorten the intercessory prayers (God knows what we need! The psalm is an inspired prayer – the only one used in worship!!!), shorten the sermon (I acknowledge: it takes much longer to prepare a shorter sermon than a longer one!), have a better organised way to distribute communion, and so forth. And remember: to include the psalm, you are only looking to shorten the rest by a minute or two!

I coined “Anglican Church of Or” as a term to describe NZ Anglicanism. With our elections just round the corner, both sides of the House are using “Coalition of Chaos” to describe options after the elections. Coalition of Chaos is even more catchy than “Anglican Church of Or” and describes NZ Anglicanism so well.

How to pray a Psalm at a Eucharist

Remember: the Psalm is the only inspired prayer at a Eucharist – don’t miss it out. It is a prayer, not simply a reading – so we pray it. Together. [It doesn’t conclude with, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church…”] Even when the choir, or the other side of the aisle verbalises a piece of the psalm, we are praying it. (We need to learn to pray when someone else is verbalising a prayer – just like we do when someone prays grace before a meal; this is what we are doing, for example, during the Eucharistic Prayer or the Collect).

Here are some ways to pray the Psalm – and remember the Book of Psalms is essentially the Jewish hymn book; if possible, sing it. The Psalm is prayed as a response to the first reading.

  • The Psalm can be chanted from a service sheet, Prayer Book, or screen. There are plenty of (simple) chants available – including on YouTube. This can be done by all chanting together. Or antiphonally (one “side” singing one verse; the other “side” singing the next verse); it can be sung antiphonally between choir and congregation. I think splitting the verse at the colon is more jilted. Please don’t divide by gender, as I saw recently.
  • The Psalm can be chanted with a refrain – the choir beginning with the refrain, repeated by the assembly, and then the choir chanting a section of verses, with the refrain repeated throughout. The refrain needs to be well known (more on this following) or on the service sheet or screen. There needs to be a cue for the refrain to come in – this could be a musical cue.
  • If singing is not possible, saying the psalm in any of the preceding suggested ways is the way forward. The practice of the leader reading a refrain and the congregation repeating it without having a text in front of them is the least desirable way to pray the Psalm – most of the focus ends up on trying to remember the refrain. I have seen Prayer Books that present half a dozen different standardised refrains – that is one way forward. With that in mind, I produced three, with each one having a cue. This can also be used sung/chanted. My suggested three are:
  1. Give thanks to our God who is gracious;
    God’s love endures for ever.
  2. Sing to God a new song;
    For God has done marvellous things.
  3. Hear us, O God, and save us;
    Be our rock and our fortress.

Remember: the Psalm at the Eucharist does not conclude with, “Glory be to the Father…”

Please put any other ways to use the Psalm at the Eucharist, or any comments at all, in the comment section below. There’s a good discussion on the Liturgy Facebook Page.

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8 thoughts on “Psalms”

  1. Yes, at Waiapu Cathedral,we pray the psalms at both morning services, the ANZPB psalm at 8am, in the responsive manner you have described, and chanted by the choir at 10am, and when we have Evensong. On Sunday, as it happens I’ll be preaching on the psalm.
    Over the years I’ve begun to think of them as a mature Christians prayer, particularly after Alastair Hendrey wrote of the powerful laments contained within the psalms. And of course the deep comfort, of Ps 139, and 121. (Not just 23!)
    If I were in charge of the world, I would change the Tuia version to the ANZPB version because of the ability to say them responsively. (While disapproving greatly of the gross editing that the PrayerBook Commission carried out initially, which has never been corrected). Having said that though, I want to say how wonderful and fantastic Tuia is, and I never open it without giving thanks for the people who worked on that project.

    1. Thanks, Jenny. Yes – cathedral worship in NZ is not a useful indicator of general NZ Anglican worship. If you are following the Facebook discussion on this post, you will see that sermons on the psalms rank as the most popular in a well-known priest’s ministry – even with requests. I don’t understand your Tuia point: why can the NRSV version of the psalms not be prayed responsively? Blessings.

  2. I’m not familiar with the ANZ prayer book or the local issues that underlie this article. The historical references to 16th century Anglicanism don’t seem accurate. The changes that took effect during Tudor monarchy were ordered by the Kings: first Henry VIII then Edward VI. Their concerns were political, foreign policy and succession, and most of the focus was on the unity of the the kingdom and sovereignty of the King. The changes in religious liturgy were resisted by most of the parishioners until the Elizabethan settlement was finally accepted.
    The article seems to recognize the different role of the Psalms in the daily offices and in the Eucharist. But it is unclear what the controversy is about. Psalms are Hebrew songs that are responses to readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. They have antiphons that accompany them in the Anglican chants, not “refrains” , normally a cantor sings the antiphon so that the congregation can follow it and the verses are sung by the cantor or choir.
    Benedictine spiritual practices seem to have been revived by the Oxford Movement in the late 19th century. There were many religious orders prior to Henry VIII and they held great landed estates and much wealth, which is what the Kings needed to pay for wars against Scotland, France or The Holy Roman Empire. The struggle with the Pope was just one additional complication for the English Crown.
    I agree that it is unfortunate that he Psalms and Canticles aren’t sung more frequently because most parishioners today don’t know them. They The benefit is that the Eucharist has been restored to the position of principal Sunday liturgy. That’s not likely to change anytime soon.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bruce.

      You don’t state which province you are in, but your concluding two sentences appear to indicate you have similar experiences: Sunday Eucharists where the psalm has been dropped.

      I used the word “refrain” so that the general reader is not struggling with more technical language, but your description is only one way indicated in my post (and I describe this with choir rather than cantor). You indicate that all the psalms are provided with an antiphon – I would be interested which Anglican prayer book you are drawing this presumption from.


  3. Bosco, I couldn’t agree more. I’m glad that in my part of the Anglican Church of Canada the psalms still seem to be an integral part of our worship on Sundays. But when i go to England, I hardly ever find them included in a Sunday worship service.

    I think for people who struggle with depression or other mental health issues, the psalm may often be the only honest prayer they can pray in the service. It’s awful to leave it out.

    1. Thanks, Tim – absolutely agree; the psalms are a wonderful framework during dark days. Your point about CofE cf Canada makes me wonder if there is a province-by-province difference about this. Blessings.

      1. I think that one factor may be that, despite the popularity of worship bulletins, it is still very common to see actual copies of the B.A.S. in the pews in Canadian churches – it’s not too thick or too expensive for that to happen. So a prayer book that includes the full psalter is readily accessible.

        But in England I very rarely see copies of Common Worship in the pews, so if people want to say psalms together, they have to print them in a worship bulletin. This isn’t difficult, but for some people, I can see it being a space-saving issue. I still think it’s a feeble excuse, but it might be a factor.

        1. in 2005, Tim, we printed an NZ Prayer Book/HKMA in NZ, it was slim and affordable. The 1989 was a bit thicker & we had handed over our copyright to overseas. The 2020 book with the same name is impossibly huge. Some places would still have the 1989 books, but the habit not to use them, I suspect (would love the stats) would be the majority. We also had huge controversy around our psalter version – removing tracts of mentions of “Israel” and “Zion”. I think your point is a good one. I have long recommended the use of a refrain – a bit like the RC Mass approach, but with, say, only 3 or 4 options so that the focus isn’t on remembering the refrain (or a refrain could be printed in the worship bulletin). Blessings.

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