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:
- Give thanks to our God who is gracious;
God’s love endures for ever.
- Sing to God a new song;
For God has done marvellous things.
- 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.