Choral Masses

We’re having a month of Sundays at St Mary’s at the moment. Well, strictly speaking we are having a month of festival Sundays.

The West End Festival is currently going on around these parts – the largest cultural event in Glasgow. One of the responses that we’ve made to it here in St Mary’s this year is to have special music on the Sundays in the festival. It has been a lot of work for the musicians, particularly as the church festivals (Pentecost, Trinity, Corpus Christi) which sometimes fall in West End Festival time were early this year and so we kept them with gusto before launching off on the festival programme immediately afterwards.

Last Sunday the upper voices in the choir had a morning to themselves – the tenors and the basses having a morning not singing and the sound of the service was quite different to what we normally get. The music was the Fauré Messe Basse, one of my favourite settings and one which sounds simple and calm.

Having a choral mass means that the choir sing more of the music and particularly the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. [On Sunday we had a congregational Gloria because Fauré didn’t write a Gloria for the Messe Basse]. These bits are called the Ordinary of the mass. That’s because they appear through the year. There’s not a Gloria in Lent and Advent, but apart from that these are the bits of the service where the text remains the same throughout the year. Other things (readings, hymns, Eucharistic Prayers, collects, post-communion prayers etc) change around them to give us the seasonal variations. The idea is that there is a familiar structure to the service – the same basic shape, that allows us to relax into the worship whilst the things that change stimulate the mind to meditate on the passing themes and the stories of the Christian Year.

The worship we celebrate in the Scottish Episcopal Church is a form of the Western Rite. That’s the liturgy which is celebrated primarily by the western church. If you go to church in an Eastern congregation (Russian, Greek, Syrian, Coptic etc) the the liturgy does feel quite different. Whereas, if a Scottish Episcopalian goes to mass in a Roman Catholic Church or a Roman Catholic comes to mass in one of our churches, they are more likely to comment on the similarities than the differences. Indeed, it is common for us as a Cathedral in a city to find after a service that there are foreign tourists at the service who have not realised which denomination they are actually in.

I’m a bit of a Western Rite groupie myself. It is how I am and who I am. My identity is formed by it. It gives shape to my life and allows me to be who I am.

I sometimes think that we don’t talk enough about where it comes from, what it is and what it does. Corpus Christi, that feast we celebrated with the rose petals and great clouds of billowing prayers the other week was the liturgical celebration of joy in the actions of the eucharist.

It it hard to beat Dom Gregory Dix’s emotion in the following passage, which comes to my mind every year at Corpus Christi and is what I’m thinking of as I stand at that altar.

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.


  1. Dom Gregory Dix – a way with words.

  2. frdougal says

    He also remarked when asked if he trusted the House of Bishops “Why should I when the sign of a bishop is a crook and that of an Archbishop a double cross?”

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