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Rubrics and Grammar 2


In the first post in this series, I proposed thinking of the rules of liturgy (the rubrics) more as being descriptive than prescriptive. I am following a model that sees liturgy (its actions, signs, gestures, and words) as being akin to language. Good language follows certain rules so that we are intelligible and communicate with clarity and grace. Native speakers of the English language, as just one example, follow the English rules of grammar intuitively. Those who have been well formed in Christian worship, similarly (in their use of actions, signs, gestures, and words) do what the rubrics describe.

I’m drawing on Joseph Williams Style (Lessons in Clarity and Grace). He divides grammar rules into three kinds. Breaking the first kind, “Real Rules”, would make our discourse essentially incomprehensible – it would basically cease to be English. The same, I suggest, is true for liturgy. Breaking the “Real Rules” of liturgy would make these actions, signs, gestures, and words cease to be Christian worship. We come now to Williams’ second type of rules:

2. Social Rules
Social rules distinguish Standard English from nonstandard: He doesn’t have any money versus He don’t have no money. Schooled writers observe these rules as naturally as they observe the Real Rules and think about them only when they notice other violating them. The only writers who self-consciously try to follow them are those not born into Standard English who are striving to associate themselves with the English-speaking educated classes.

To make these distinction in rubrics of liturgy, Real Rules would be akin to what is required to make our actions be Christian worship. Social Rules would be what is appropriate in the context.

I think using water to baptise, for example, is a Real Rule. But what to wear presiding at the Eucharist, I would suggest is akin to a Social Rule.

The presiding priest at the Eucharist should wear a cassock and suprlice with stole or scarf, or an alb with the customary vestments. (NZPB/HKMA p 515)

What the presider wears at the Eucharist does not affect whether the worship is Christian liturgy or not. I suggest that wearing jeans and a T-Shirt in Canterbury cathedral for Christmas Midnight Mass would be inappropriate. Similarly, I suggest that, in a small house-group or hospital-bedside Eucharist, fully vesting in alb and chasuble could be inappropriate.

I think that the language used in the rubrics often attempts to distinguish different levels of bindingness: does, should do, appropriately does, may do. I note that there was a ‘middle period’ after NZPB’s publication when ‘should’ was unfashionable. Before the Liturgical Commission would endorse my book, Celebrating Eucharist, I had to remove the ‘should’s. ‘Should’, I note, is back in for some more recent liturgical documents. But, in the Anglican Church of Or, ‘should’ has now pretty much lost any clout.

To be continued…

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4 thoughts on “Rubrics and Grammar 2”

  1. Your example of vestments reminded me of a situation once where a new Metropolitan Community Church clergywoman had moved into the area and wanted to start a local MCC congregation. She had “come back home” and wished to have an MCC in her hometown. She advertised an organizing meeting to be held in the rear seating section of a local gay bar.

    About a dozen or so had gathered and were having a few drinks will waiting for her to arrive. The sun was lowering in the west and when she walked in the west facing door she was just a silhouette with bright sun behind her. She was a rotund imposing figure of a woman. After the door closed and our eyes readjusted to the dimness, as she walked toward us we could soon see that she was dressed in what she obviously thought was full, high church! Cassock, surplice, stole & chasuble.

    I know that she wore this to lend an air of ecclesiastical authority to herself, but unfortunately for her, it didn’t help her cause. No one respected her for it and it was never forgotten the whole time she attempted to organized this local congregation.

    1. Yes, David! I have been present at a home communion where the temperature was in the 30s (that’s around 90°F) and the priest robed in full alb, stole, & chasuble – sitting on a comfortable couch using the coffee table for the altar. Blessings.

  2. Jesse Billett

    A helpful reflection, Bosco. I wonder if “vestments” are properly “social” in the liturgical-grammatical sense (though of course I get what you mean), rather than just the, well, “social” sense.

    I might have thought that the “social” grammatical rules would map onto differences between the major Christian traditions. So, not “Should I wear a chasuble or just my street clothes” (which I think would be a third-order rule within a single tradition), but, “Should I use leavened or unleavened bread? should I make the sign of the cross left-to-right or right-to-left?”

    On the one hand, I suppose that such differences would count as the equivalent of “Standard English” in their own ritual traditions, and so wouldn’t be analogous to Williams’s “social” category of rules. (E.g. American standard English vs. British standard English: you can speak like a toff in either, though you will be assumed to be stupider if you speak the American version in Britain, while the reverse is not true.)

    But it is certainly the case that such second-order differences have struck people from other traditions as fundamentally “ungrammatical” — e.g. Armenians despising the admixture of warm water in the wine by Byzantines, and Byzantines despising the Armenian use of unleavened bread. In those two cases, the outward practices were taken as inextricably linked with inward heresies — in other words, as going right to the heart of the question of who was really a proper “Christian.”

    All this to say that I think vestments/no-vestments may need to slide down the ladder in terms of significance. There’s rather more at stake (at least ecumenically) before we arrive there!

    1. I think that’s helpful, Jesse. I think context is also part of your point. I became aware of that in facebook discussions around this post and will write up more in response to that under “What to wear? Part 2”. Blessings.

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