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The psalm at a Eucharist

The Revised Common Lectionary (and its Roman Catholic equivalent, the three-year cycle of Sunday readings) has three readings and a psalm. My friend and colleague, Peter Carrell, is the Director of Education for the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch. He is one of the people who would have a very good overview of the worship life of our diocese. He has, in more than one place, mentioned that, from the lectionary, the psalm is little/least used.

I was at a service recently where the psalm was used. It was treated as if it were simply an Old Testament reading. The reader began, “A reading from the Book of Psalms, chapter 89, beginning at verse 19…”, and ended in the way readings usually conclude, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. Thanks be to God.”

It has been pointed out to me that the psalm is presented in the lectionary as just another reading. On some occasions the lectionary does have “for the psalm” when a canticle replaces the psalm. Sadly, the Prayer Book gives no real help on how to use a psalm in the liturgy. Without training and formation in a community that uses the psalms I can understand, sadly, how this treasure is being lost. Alongside the loss in New Zealand of the daily office comes the loss of our psalm heritage. Anglicanism, Christianity actually, was once so steeped in the psalms. Anglicans prayed the whole psalter at least once a month.

And that last sentence underscores what the psalms are: the psalms are prayers. Personally I cannot recall any Eucharist at which I have presided and had any input at all into what was happening in which we did not pray the psalm. At every Eucharist at which I preside we pray a psalm. It would not enter my mind to consider dropping the psalm. Liturgy is full of nice prayers. The psalms are inspired prayers.

We have spoken here quite a bit recently about prayer being drawn into the life of God. Surely praying the prayers that God gives us to pray must somehow be central in that?

I copy here what I wrote two decades ago in Celebrating Eucharist:

Christian liturgy generally and Anglican worship in particular has deep roots in the Psalms. Worship leaders need to consider carefully, if they regularly omit the psalm appointed in the lectionary, how this rich heritage can be preserved now that the Eucharist is the normal Anglican service.

The psalm appointed (sometimes called the “gradual” or “meditation psalm”) usually reflects on the first reading and provides the worshippers with opportunity to respond to it. It acts as a bridge to the second reading. The psalm (or psalm portion) is not concluded with the Glory to the Father.

Psalms are intended to be sung. As well as Anglican Chant and Plainsong, there is a growing number of settings suitable for Psalms for Worship. There are also a number of other good modern translations with musical settings. Psalms may be recited in unison or antiphonally (either between two “sides” or between cantor and assembly). Alternatively, a congregational refrain (e.g. a brief line paraphrased from the psalm) can be used to respond to a cantor in the style of Taizé. Using the refrain after approximately every two verses works best. Another option is for a reader, or group of readers to read the verses, with the assembly singing the refrain. Where singing is not possible, it would be preferable to adapt one of the above ways to read the psalm rather than neglect the psalm altogether. Whatever method is used, the psalm needs to be experienced as a prayerful response by the assembly to the first reading rather than as another reading.

It is preferable that the psalm not be led by the presider as this diverts the attention of the assembly from the lectern to the presider’s chair. Hence, it is better for the reader of the first lesson to begin the psalm or for a cantor to move to the lectern for this. If the psalm is announced, verse numbers are preferably omitted (unless they are needed for reciting in unison or antiphonally). Because of its meditative quality, remaining seated for the psalm is an appropriate posture for the assembly.

What is your experience? What do you think?…

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10 thoughts on “The psalm at a Eucharist”

  1. the older I get, the more I love the psalms.
    At Choral Eucharist, we usually use the choir as cantor, do a plainsong setting, with congregation joining the refrain every few verses. Usually, not always, men and women alternate sets of verses. Monthly Choral Evensong we do Anglican chant. We are blessed in a musical congregation and an extraordinary Minister of Music. Any psalm on a page I now hear internally as one musical form or the other.

  2. I’m with Judith. I love the Psalms more and more as time passes.

    We always sing or pray the Psalms as a congregation. If we sing the Psalm, the presider does not lead the singing, which is as it should be. We use several of the variations you mention, Bosco.

  3. I feel the Eucharist is lacking when the psalm is omitted.
    We at S. Thomas’ Runanga have the Responsorial Psalm as we use the Roman Missal for the collect and all the readings. An Australian Prayer Book also have the Responsorial Psalm.

  4. As a Catholic, I can’t imagine Mass without the psalm. It would be like Mass without the Gospel. The psalm is usually sung, less often spoken, but never announced (we have “A reading from the book of the prophet…” or “…from the letter of Paul to…” but never *ever* “…from the Nth psalm”), and even when spoken it is a call-and-response prayer.

    Of all the psalmodies I’ve seen I think the Gelineau is my favorite. We used to use that at one of the Masses I sang at for a while: full congregation on the refrain and me and a soprano in harmony on the versicles. I don’t think the Gelineau is technically allowed any more because of its translation (the Grail translation?), although people do occasionally substitute hymn settings of the appropriate psalm. (Which bothers me, because the hymn verses don’t always match the versicles chosen for the weekly psalm.)

  5. I second (or third?) Judith and Grandmère Mimi. The older I get, the more I get out of the psalms. Real gems just pop out at me from that treasure trove when I’m at a loss for words in prayer. If I’m taking the “order of worship” handout home from church on Sundays, chances are it’s because of something that struck me in the psalm of the day.

    And the psalms are definitely *not* a reading. They are prayers. And they are not just inspired prayers: they are the prayers Christ Jesus prayed. Some of his last words on the cross were snippets from the Psalms! He prayed them to the last.

    At the Episcopal church I attend, sometimes the psalms are recited, sometimes they’re chanted. I grew up in a liturgical tradition where *everything* was chanted, so I prefer when they’re chanted or sung. It’s really not that hard: there are plenty of plainchant or plainsong traditions out there, and people generally can handle a simple melody with the lead of a capable cantor. (It’s called “plainchant” and “plainsong” for a reason, after all, no?) Antiphonal singing or “call and response” verse by verse can make it easy for even the shyest or least music-savvy to catch on and join in.

  6. Gregory,

    Thanks for mentioning the chant, which feels such a natural vehicle for the psalms to me. I sometimes have described Gregorian chant as music intended for people to sing, who can’t sing and have to get up at 3 AM to sing anyway.

  7. Thank you for that
    wonderful post
    I think it says a lot about the church that ‘the prayer book of our Lord’ is so widely ignored
    The situation is very much the same in England from whence I have recently come

  8. Thanks for starting this discussion. In our small church we have gone a bit astray with the Psalms and have increasingly treated them like another reading.Don’t know if we’ll ever get a chant happening but at least we should try to get some discussion going with the worship team on how best to restore the Psalms to their rightful place in our worship.One of the challenges of Local shared team ministry is keeping people of different liturgical experience interested, motivated and up to speed. Bosco, your resources are often consulted! Blessings

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