Sursum corda

5 01 2010

With my colleague’s permission, I’ve posted a copy of a brief email exchange we had over the liturgy for Christmas Day. As we had no Christmas Day service in the Sunday Sanctuary, I was presiding at St Peter’s. We were discussing the opening lines to the Eucharistic Prayer, known as the sursum corda. It is optional in Common Worship, the Church of England’s authorised liturgy whether to start with either:

  • ‘The Lord is here’, to which all respond: ‘His Spirit is with us’; or:
  • ‘The Lord be with you’, to which all respond: ‘And also with you’.

Here’s wot I writ:

I’ve generally preferred ‘The Lord is here’ because I’ve wondered whether the repetition of ‘the Lord be with you/and also with you’ through more catholic liturgy that I’ve experienced doesn’t focus attention on the priest and the people responding to her/him rather than on God and her presence with us. Any thoughts?

Alex responded:

With a catholic theology of the sacrament, to say ‘The Lord is here…’ immediately before the prayer of consecration seems a little previous…! That’s why I guess Protestants prefer to score the opposite point by saying that the ‘Lord is [already] here’, because they think that nothing actually happens to the elements in the eucharistic prayer (there is no ‘consecration’). Though of course all agree that the Lord is here always.

I think for me ‘The Lord be with you’, usually used at the start of the mass, before the reading of the Gospel, before the Eucharistic Prayer, and before the blessing, has an almost contractual – or better ‘covenental’ – function in establishing that the Lord is present in the whole community of God’s priestly people gathered for worship, but who collectively acknowledge the particular role of the ordained priest to preside on behalf of all in the Lord’s name. The ordained priest begins, as it were, by saying that the priesthood belongs to everybody, then everyone passes it back, so to speak.

Why should any of you reading this be interested in the finer points of Anglican liturgy. I guess if you are, you are and if not, then this isn’t going to set your heart-a-racing! And why am I posting this on a blog that puports to be about mission at the cutting edge? Well because that mission, as far as I am involved in it, is still Anglican mission. We can’t escape questions of liturgy, even if we’d like to. Personally, I wouldn’t like to (escape questions of liturgy). If anything they’re all the more pronounced when we’re outside the familiar territory. Because as much as I’m not in the business of fostering worship-shaped church, but mission-shaped church, that doesn’t mean there’s no worship!

Anyway, this little exchange helped me to understand the eucharist and priesthood from a more catholic perspective. Something I’ve explored quite a bit in my training but there‘s always more to learn. I’d welcome anybody else’s thoughts on this…




4 responses

5 01 2010

I was going to say that my ‘preferred’ version has gendered language for deity (*His* Spirit is with us) so I have to mark it down on that score, but ‘Lord’, in English at least, is not completely androgynous either!

6 01 2010
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13 01 2010

Hi Mark
I have thought a bit about this post before replying as it is an interesting topic.
I guess for me it comes down to what you think your role as a priest actually is. In this day and age we seem to be very wary of making distinctions about roles (especially priestly orders) in fear of suggesting a hierarchy which places the priest above the people in their relationship with God. I would want to assert though, that as a priest you have been called to a distinct place /function/ role which through your “God-given” commission should enable people to catch glimpses of the divine in ways that make sense to us as sensory beings.
Again unpopular, but the term ‘impersona Christi’ perhaps needs a fresh exploration for priests in our modern times in order that we truly do believe and behave as though in some way we are an embodiment of Jesus, his life work and teaching.
I would also want to argue that this is especially true when we come to the sacraments of the church and primarily the Eucharist. Now whilst I wouldn’t expect everyone to sign up to the idea of trans / con- substantiation, there is perhaps a questions to be asked as to what we think is actually going on at the altar? For if it is just an agape type meal why would we at the epiclesis call down the power of the Holy Spirit and request that these gifts be changed into the body and blood of Christ if we were not seeing and expecting some kind of transformation both to the elements and the recipients (ourselves included)
On a slightly different note, I like you, think that we should address the difficult questions of liturgy and perhaps in your context there is an increased need to point out that whilst you are in a different building, doing things in a slightly different way (which is great by the way) that you still carry the authority of the church and its teachings and that your particular mandate comes from an unbroken line of succession which comes from the very apostles who sat with our Lord at that last meal.
Anyway enough of my high church ramblings…….. and good luck with the dissertation.

14 01 2010

Thanks Phil. This is a well considered response.

I wonder whether Alex was being mischievous by drawing such a stark distinction between catholic and protestant understandings of the eucharist. Isn’t it only the most hardened Zwingliists who would insist that ‘nothing actually happens to the elements in the eucharistic prayer’?

As an aside, I wouldn’t consider myself a protestant. I always describe the Church of England as the reformed catholic Church of this land. But it’s also just a matter of correct biography that my formation as a disciple and as a priest has not involved me being steeped in the catholic tradition of the Church of England.

I shy away from words like ‘transubstantiation’, not because I object, but simply because I think the philosophical basis of that idea is a bit past its sell by date and more than that because I think it tries to make too concrete something that is a deep mystery. I prefer to say that I believe in ‘the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass’ without tying down too much what is actually happening. I have no problem and indeed see great value in marking special moments in the liturgy such as the epiclesis – it is after all the moment when the Holy Spirit is invited to work whatever wonder may occur (in bread and wine and in people).

I think there is fear of hierarchy for good reason. But I also affirm the distinct charism of the priest to make present the priesthood of the gathered people of God. As Alex I think, nicely makes clear, this is what the words ‘the Lord be with you’ and its response throughout the liturgy make apparent.

The thing I think we need to discover is that priesthood – of people and priest – involves us in that apostolic ministry that Christ shared with that first generation and through them, with us. We are asent as well as a gathered people.

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