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?…