Project Canterbury

"I Can't Follow the Service!"

London: Church Literature Association, no date.

MR. X. is a faithful lay member of the Church of England. He has been baptized and confirmed, and goes regularly to receive Holy Communion. He has been accustomed for many years to go to his parish church for Morning or Evening Prayer. Then one Sunday--perhaps during his holiday, perhaps after moving into a new neighbourhood--he goes to a strange church at eleven o'clock, and finds a service which is unfamiliar to him. He recognizes the service of Holy Communion, which he has often attended in the early morning; but the way in which the service is conducted appears very strange to him. The garments of the priest, the servers round the altar, the incense, the bells, and the genuflexions all seem somehow unnecessary and un-English. Mr. X. cannot understand why the simple service of Holy Communion should be accompanied by so much singing and ceremonial. Above all he cannot understand why, at the service of Holy Communion, few if any of the congregation go to receive the Sacrament. He will tell his friends afterwards that he supposed the church was High, but that he didn't see the meaning in what was going on, and that he preferred a simple service himself.

Now it is quite natural that Mr. X. should feel bewildered and rather uncomfortable because, as he says, he "can't follow the service." Just as he dislikes a sermon which seems to mean nothing, so he dislikes a service which he cannot understand. Perhaps Mr. X. will allow his irritation to get the better of him, and decide there and then never to go near such a church again. But perhaps he will have noticed one or two other things about the service and congregation. He will see that the people in church are not all freaks and cranks, but ordinary normal people like himself. And they seem to follow the service quite easily, and to worship as reverently and attentively as the congregations at the churches to which he is accustomed. It may, indeed, be that Mr. X. will find an atmosphere of prayer and devotion at this service such as he has never met with before; he will be interested and attracted, and anxious to join in the worship, if only he can understand what it means, if only he can follow the service.

This tract is addressed to Mr. X. Whether he is "put off" by the service, or whether he is attracted, we are sure he wants to know why people worship in this way. Even if he tells us he is "not High Church himself," we believe he is too reasonable a person not to wish to understand our point of view.


First of all Mr. X. wants to know why the chief service of Sunday morning is not Morning Prayer, but what appears to be an elaborate repetition of the early service.

The Gospels tell us that in the same night that he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ commanded his disciples to perform a sacred rite. At his last supper he took bread and wine, he blessed and gave thanks, and distributed them to his disciples, saying," Do this in remembrance of me." That is the one service which our Lord has commanded his Church to observe; and therefore the Church has always regarded it as her chief form of public worship. No Christian would deny that the "Our Father," the prayer which our Saviour Christ himself has taught us, is the greatest of all Christian prayers; so also the Communion or "the Mass" is the greatest of all services because it has been given us by our Lord himself.

In the Acts of the Apostles we are told that the first Christians "continued steadfast in the breaking of bread and the prayers." "The prayers" probably refers to services similar to the Jewish services with which the disciples were familiar, and in which the reading of the scriptures played an important part. Thus the service of Holy Communion today is substantially the same service as that at which the first Christians worshipped at Jerusalem. From the beginning to the Creed we have "the prayers" (including scripture readings); then we proceed to "the breaking of bread." And from the first it has been the custom of the universal Church that every baptized person should attend the Lord's service on the Lord's day. It is clearly wrong that we should neglect that duty nowadays; and therefore it is important that the Lord's service should take place on Sundays at an hour when most people can attend church. In England this is usually at some such hour as n o'clock. By this service, as St. Paul says, we "do show the Lord's death till he come." At the Last Supper our Lord gave his followers a means by which they could enter in to that one perfect sacrifice which next day he was to offer upon the Cross for the salvation of all mankind. So at the Lord's Service we offer to God the Father that Body and Blood which were offered once for all on Calvary, and unite the offering of our sin-stained souls and bodies to the perfect sinless offering of our Lord. Because Jesus has said, "This is my Body . . . This is my Blood," we know that when the priest has repeated our Lord's words and actions over the Bread and Wine "in remembrance of him," what God sees upon the altar is no longer bread and wine, but that Body and Blood which were offered on Calvary; and therefore we believe that Jesus Christ is really present in his Body and Blood, though we ourselves perceive only bread and wine.

We enter most fully into that divine sacrifice when we receive Holy Communion. But not everyone is prepared to receive Holy Communion every Sunday; and there is a very ancient rule of the Church that when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ it should be the first food that passes our lips that day. So usually those who wish to receive the Sacrament do so at an early hour; while others come to the "parish Mass" to join in the great act of worship which the Church makes "through Jesus Christ our Lord." Even though they do not receive Holy Communion, they can still join in showing the Lord's death till he come, and make the memorial which Christ has commanded us to make.

Since, when we speak of Holy Communion, we generally mean the act of receiving the Sacrament, it is usual to refer to the whole of the Lord's service by the name of the Mass. This word is short and convenient, and though it originally had no doctrinal meaning, it has come to be associated with the idea of Sacrifice. It is a word that has been used in Christendom for 1,500 years, and is familiar to us in such words as Christmas and Michaelmas.


Mr. X. wishes to know why music, colour and ceremonial play so large a part in our worship. There are several reasons for this.

1. In the first place we wish to give God the best worship that we can. God, who made heaven and earth, has filled the world with things of beauty; and he "saw every thing that he had made and, behold, it was very good." Because God has given to us so many good and beautiful gifts, we wish to offer some of this goodness and beauty back to him in our worship. So the rich colours of the priest's vestments, the fragrance of the incense, the splendour of the lights upon the altar, the sonorous hymns and anthems which we chant, are rightly offered to God.

2. Many of the ceremonies which at first sight seem strange and unfamiliar are very ancient customs of the Church. We cherish these, just as in ordinary life we do not like to lose old family possessions and keepsakes which have been handed down from father to son. By observing these time-honoured ceremonies, we emphasize that we are joining in the worship of the Church of the ages, that we take part in the same service that the Church has offered five hundred, a thousand, nineteen hundred years ago. We do not wish to make a break with the past by abandoning the old order. So we burn candles on the altar (and not, for instance, electric light), and use incense, which in days past was necessary to cleanse the atmosphere of our churches, even though the cleaner habits of the present day have rendered its use for this purpose unnecessary. So too, the Eucharistic vestments which are worn by the priest were originally the ordinary everyday dress which people wore when they came to church. When fashions changed, the priests of the Church continued to wear the old dress at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice in order that the service should not seem different from the service of older generations. So today these vestments are particularly associated with the Lord's service; and their use is ordered by the Ornaments Rubric that stands in. the Prayer Book immediately before Morning Prayer.

3. Many such ceremonies, originally introduced for practical reasons, have, in course of time, developed a symbolic significance. Thus the lights on the altar signify the presence of the Light of the world; the smoke of the incense represents the prayers of the faithful ascending to the throne of heaven; and the vestments suggest the garments worn by our Lord during his Passion.

4. But above all, the reason why we try to preserve dignity, beauty and order around the altar is that we believe that Christ himself is present in the Blessed Sacrament. Hence we treat the altar as his throne and resting-place, and celebrate his coming with an ordered ceremonial such as befits the visit of a King. Like the wise men at Bethlehem, or the crowds who welcomed him into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we offer him the royal homage which so often was refused to him during his life on earth. Our gifts may not be very rich and splendid, but we give the best that we can. As far as lies in our power we desire to offer him a worthy welcome.


When the Celebrant and Ministers enter for Mass, they bow before the altar, as to the throne of Christ; and members of the congregation usually do the same when they enter and leave the church. During the central portion of the Mass (from the Consecration to the Communion) those who pass before the altar genuflect or kneel on their right knee before the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This latter act of reverence is also performed by those who pass in front of an altar where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for the needs of the sick, the dying, or others unable to be present at the time of Communion. A white light always burns near the place of reservation in token of the continual presence of the Lord among his people.

At certain points in the service the Celebrant and those present make the sign of the Cross, touching with their right forefinger first their forehead, then their chest, then their left and right sides. That sign, which was first made upon us at our Baptism, reminds us that we are consecrated to the service of Christ crucified, and that we are not ashamed to confess our faith in him. Before the reading of the Gospel at Mass, the sign of the Cross is made first on the forehead to signify our belief in that faith; then on the lips to signify our readiness to proclaim that faith; last on the breast to signify that we will treasure that faith in our hearts. Holy water stands at the door of the church, and those who enter and leave dip their finger therein and make the sign of the Cross in memory of their first entrance into the Church of Christ through Baptism.

The vestments that the priest wears are the Amice, a square piece of linen worn about the neck like a scarf; the Alb, a long white linen garment reaching down to the feet; the Girdle, about the waist; the Maniple, a strip of coloured silk (originally a towel), worn on the left wrist; the Stole, a longer band of silk worn over his shoulders; and the Chasuble, a large sleeveless silk garment worn over the Alb and Stole. When the priest is assisted by Deacon and Subdeacon, these wear the same vestments, except for the Chasuble; instead they wear silk garments with short sleeves, the Dalmatic and Tunicle. The Subdeacon wears no Stole, and the Deacon's Stole is worn over his left shoulder only. The colours of the vestments vary with the season. On Feasts of the Church they are usually White; but at Whitsun and on feasts of Martyrs they are Red. Purple is worn during penitential seasons, Green at the seasons after Epiphany and Trinity, and Black at Masses for the repose of the faithful departed.

A bell is rung when the priest says "Holy, holy, holy" at the end of the Preface and also at the times of Consecration and Communion. The purpose of this is both to express the Church's joy at the most solemn moments of the service, and also to rouse the congregation to devotion.

The most solemn form of the service is called High Mass. The priest is then assisted by Deacon and Subdeacon, incense is used and the service is sung. In churches where there are too few clergy to make High Mass possible, the Celebrant sings the Mass without assistant ministers, and incense is often not used. When a priest celebrates without music or incense, the service is known as Low Mass. "Early services" usually take this form. At all these forms of Mass it is usual for there to be laymen assisting in the sanctuary as servers. This custom emphasizes the fact that, although it belongs only to the priesthood to consecrate the Sacrament, the laity have a definite part to play in the offering of the Church's Sacrifice.

It is worth mentioning that the earliest way in which the Church offered the Holy Sacrifice resembled High Mass more nearly than Low Mass. The Bishop normally used to be the Celebrant, and would chant the service surrounded by his priests. In later days, when the faith spread and more churches were necessary, the parish priests sang Mass in the churches over which they had charge, attended by deacons. Only much later was the shorter and simpler form of Low Mass introduced as a concession to the hurry and bustle of modern life. While Low Mass is the normal service on early mornings, it is right and customary that on Sundays and great feasts the Holy Sacrifice should be offered with the greatest possible dignity.

In some churches, before the principal Mass on Sundays, it is customary for the Celebrant to sprinkle the congregation with holy water. This ceremony is known as the Asperges, from the Latin word meaning "Thou shalt purge me," this being the first phrase of the Anthem sung at the sprinkling. The Asperges expresses in action the thought of the familiar prayer at the beginning of Mass: "Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts . . . that we may perfectly love thee."

Project Canterbury