Whither the Chrism Mass?

I have a little list of those liturgical moments in the life of the church that I think could do with a bit of a rethink. Some of the most popular and well attended things that happen in churches would make it onto my list. Mothering Sunday and Remembrance Sunday are both on my little list. However, towering above them, comes a service that most Christians will never attend – the Chrism Mass.

One of the things that I realised a few years ago was that the services which I’m most apprehensive about are often the services which don’t have a terribly long standing place in the Christian Calendar. They’ve not been in there that long, if they are fully in there at all. I’m attracted to a comment that a friend made this year about Mothering Sunday – that we should keep the commercial reality of Mothers’ Day and, if it makes sense in our lives, live it large but that the kitsch, sentimental, more modern and so very often upsetting Mothering Sunday stuff we should have no hesitation in expunging from our common ecclesiastical life.

The Chrism Mass is much like Mothering Sunday and Remembrance Sunday in that lots of people have very strong opinions about how it should be celebrated and what it represents.

The trouble is, there’s never been a common mind in the church about what those essential things are.

And the consequence if you are the ring-master, is almost inevitably conflict and upset.

The Chrism Mass, for those who’ve not a clue what I’m talking about, is one of those liturgies invented in the second-half of the twentieth century and which has acquired a curious patina of fake ageing. The idea is that the Bishop should bless the oils for the diocese for the coming year, surrounded by clergy of the diocese who will all joyfully reaffirm their ordination vows. And all this on Maundy Thursday.

Now, there are some shreds and patches from history from which this rather elaborate quilt has been inelegantly stitched together. No doubt bishops did indeed consecrate holy oil.  However, the idea that diocesan clergy all “traditionally” gathered around them through the ages from Maundy Thursday to Maundy Thursday to renew their vows is patently absurd. We struggle to get half the clergy to come to St Mary’s for this ceremony and we’ve got motorways and motorcars. People did not, you must trust me on this one, nip in from all over Strathclyde, to renew their vows every Maundy Thursday with St Mungo. Geography and the lack of the electric train system gives the lie to the spurious claims sometimes made about these liturgies.

These are some of the truths that I have learned about Chrism Masses over the years:

  • They *must* be held on Maundy Thursday. That is the traditional day.
  • They must *not* be held on Maundy Thursday – clergy are far too busy to be gathered together at that point in Holy Week
  • The renewal of vows is something that is intrinsic to the life of the priest
  • No-one should be expected to renew vows *unless they have consciously broken them*
  • We’ve *all* broken them
  • We’ve *not* all broken them
  • They happen in *every* diocese all over the world.
  • Some dioceses have *never* had them
  • The bishop is in charge – it is a *diocesan* service.
  • The cathedral is in charge – it is a *cathedral* service.  (oh yes!)

And so on. The competing truths about Chrism Masses lead almost inevitably to conflict.

Then, add fresh conflict onto that.

Chrism Masses in some parts of the church – (Englandshire, I’m talking about you here) have become bizarre tests of loyalty as to which bishop your theological peccadillos most match.

Yes, the English heresy of Pick Your Own Bishop reaches a great climax with competing Chrism Masses which become tests of loyalty. If you can’t affirm the ordination of priests or bishops who happen to be women then you’ll take yourself off (in the name of unity and keeping the church catholic and united) to a separate Chrism Mass with a bishop who can’t affirm them either.

Sometimes there’s unintentional absurdities thrown into the mix too. I discovered a few years ago that the liturgy that I’d inherited here had people “reaffirming” the English ordination vows, which most of us had never made. (And that can really matter – the last thing we want is our bishops in Scotland believing that they are the focus of unity for a diocese as the English vows assert and which our Scottish ordinal steers well clear of).

And that’s a real question – how do you affirm vows that you didn’t once make. I have the same trouble over affirming baptismal vows at Easter. I never made any when I was baptised – I just wanted to be baptised, so I struggle a bit with the idea of affirming or renewing anything.

Some people always come to the Chrism Mass and love it. And for them, I try to put on a Chrism Mass, when I’m called to put on one, which they will recognise and enjoy. We did pretty well on Saturday with Bishop John coming over and celebrating for us in Glasgow, Bishop Gregor still being off sick. It was jolly enough but it is clear that this just isn’t important to some people, and I’ve got to admit, for the sake of honesty that I do have some sympathy with them too. (When I lived in the Diocese of Bridge of Allan, I can’t say I was terribly diligent in running up the road to Perth for the Chrism).

So what would I do if I were the Lord High Arbiter of Liturgy for the Universe? (Apart from warding off all the other pretenders to that role).

These are the conversations about the Chrism that I’d be looking to start:

  • Is the pairing of the ceremony of the oils and the renewal of vows an appropriate and natural one?
  • Is there anything to be learned from the experience of the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles which I think celebrates the Chrism Mass at their Diocesan Synod – just because of geography?
  • Should the clergy consider affirming their sense of themselves in private at a Clergy Conference if that’s what they need to do?
  • If not, which lay people should be present and to whom are these vow renewals addressed?
  • Do they (sorry, I mean we) need to do it anyway?
  • How do we affirm callings to the episcopate, priesthood and diaconate in an appropriate way in churches which affirm other kinds of ministries?

Some liturgies feel terribly blocked by the sense that Things Have Always Happened This Way when in fact they’ve happened this way since the 1970s. The Chrism Mass is one such. I wish we had a way of thinking it all through from first principles again though my hunch is that that possibility is long gone.

Maybe it will evolve over time naturally.

This little Christian in his small corner of the vineyard rather hopes so.



  1. Paul Hutchinson says

    Here in this little corner of Englandshire, east of Leeds, the Diocesan Bishop always washes feet too. You’ll know the one I mean…

  2. Paul Hutchinson says

    Perhaps some caution is needed with the use of the term “vows”. In the Englandshire books, it’s not used at all in the Ordinal or in the liturgies (plural) for the “Chrism Eucharist”. Nor is it used in Baptism, though it makes a careless appearance in the section of the Easter Liturgy (now there’s another “what we’ve always done” thing…) entitled “Renewal of Baptismal Vows”.
    Properly, it belongs solely in matrimony and monastic profession, surely?

    But your point about the need (or not) to reaffirm commitment to ministry is well made and welcome. Looking back over 20 years, the most valuable experience of Maundy Thursday morning was my first Deanery Chapter, where we all went for a pub lunch en route home (and those who couldn’t get to the cathedral were even able to join us). They still do it…

  3. Martin Reynolds says

    Rarely inspired by a Chrism Mass, but I was yesterday. The bishop had something to say and it reached the parts needed touching in me too. His call to put away small things and to focus on loving humility had an eternal ring, even if the service does not have such claims, over and above gathering together.
    I was surprised some priests were still alive, yet alone able to walk and talk, that was nice.
    The clergy come in vast numbers here in Newport … for many years there has been a very nice lunch at a very pleasant restaurant with good wines. Maybe that has something to do with it?
    The presiding bishop has been struggling with the problem of Llandaff’s Chrism Mass, in the hands of the extraordinary Dean Gerwyn Capon.
    Having made such a pigs ear of recent events the bishop of Swansea & Brecon realised that clergy might well make non attendance at the service a sign of their dissatisfaction of his handling of the vacancy and failed appointment. So lunch was restored. Then, realising food might not be enough, the recently “resigned” assistant bishop was pulled in to preach … A slightly different take on the political nature of the service.
    By the way, Dean Capon reads scripture in a way that inspires.
    He has a good voice, but it’s far more. Without device or theatricality he lifts the words from the page and carries them into the deeper parts of ones heart, a real “pontifex” and a rare gift.

  4. Bertrand Olivier says

    The Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf likewise hold their Chrism Mass and renewal of vows during their Synod in February. It is practical, and binds everyone at the end of a week of corporate reflection and decision making about ministry, and certainly makes sense that way.
    I agree that having different Chrism masses for different shades of grey is not helpful nor ecclesiologically right. However, I certainly feel a great sense of collegiality and encouragement on Maundy Thursday by being with fellow clergy in the cathedral – even if it is only symbolic, and we all quickly disperse back to our own fiefdoms.
    Have a good Holy Week.

  5. Richard Grand says

    The Diocese of Ottawa, Canada, has the Blessing of the Oils
    (Chrism Mass) at is Diocesan Synod in the fall, at the Cathedral. There is no Renewal of Ordination Vows, however.

  6. Pamela says

    I do not feel the need to make an anual pilgrimage to the church in which i was married to renew my marriage vows. Always felt this way about my ordination vows. Why do I need to renew them… if it was a special anniversary I may wish to give thanks with a service…. if i had strayed .. oh.. then maybe confess my sin and renew my ordination vow… but not each year..
    No mention of the abolition on the Christinge !

  7. Jenny PETERSEN says

    In 20+ years I’ve never been able to attend one. Never felt like I missed anything. Thanks to new ‘three line whip’ job, I’ll be attending tomorrow but we’ll have an interim bishop. I will be most interested to se what happens/how it helps me to become more like Christ. And I must remember to take a shopping bag for the oils.

    • I tend to the view that if you have to make church services compulsory in order to get people to attend then they can’t be much good in the first place.

  8. Keith Battarbee says

    My wife (clerk in holy orders) and I (Reader aka licensed lay minister) are currently on a placement in the Diocese of Manchester and were at the Chrism Mass on Monday along with – at a very rough guess – 200-300 other ordained and lay ministers. It was a lovely occasion – very warm, hymns sung with gusto. (And yes, some of us went to the pub for a nice lunch together afterwards.) I was interested and wryly amused by Provost Kelvin’s deconstruction of the ancience [sic] of the Chrism Mass tradition, but have been struck in the dioceses where I have attended it (Europe, Lincoln, Manchester) by the very positive vibe, and am somewhat sad to hear negative reactions. But for more far-flung dioceses [of which Europe is a perhaps *the* prime example], holding it in conjunction with Diocesan Synod sounds a good idea – and Holy Week is fairly full of other major special services anyway.

  9. Father Ron Smith says

    Dear Kelvin,
    Our Chrism Mass is held, in the Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand, on the Tuesday of Holy Week, for the specific reason that this allows more clergy to be present, with our Bishop Victoria, for the Blessing of the Oils of Baptism (Chrismation) and Unction (Healing). To further accentuate our sharing in the diocesan ministry with our Bishop, not only the clergy, but also the faithful laity present, and the bishops present (there were 3 bishops with us yesterday) made (separately) renewed our Vows (baptismal, clerical & episcopal) before the ensuing Mass. The Tuesday date allows all of us to be present in our parish churchesd for the Great Triduum toi follow. Not all ‘additions’ to the ‘Sacred Tradition’ are useless or heretical

  10. Jim Pratt says

    When I was in the Diocese of Western Newfoundland, the Chrism Mass was very much a movable feast. Occasionally it took place at Synod; other years Tuesday in Holy Week. And I don’t recall it being done every year — maybe every 2 or 3 years, whenever the supply of oils ran low. I think it fits well as part of Synod.
    In Montreal, we have it annually on Maundy Thursday, with attendance by about half the clergy. Renewal of Vows takes place at the annual Lenten clergy retreat, not at the Chrism Mass.

  11. Fr Keith says

    I attended at St Paul ‘s Cathedral, London yesterday, after a gap of three years (when I’d been serving for Holy Week in the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles) – it was a moving service, though I’m now wondering whether that was as much for the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and worship with such a huge number of fellow clergy as for anything else. In Argyll and The Isles we do indeed celebrate the Chrism Mass in the context of the diocesan synod (as we did last month) – in fact, it’s at that Mass that the synod is constituted. It would be hugely impractical to get folk together on Maundy Thursday (easier and quicker for me to get to Oban from London than from Stornoway), and it does make more sense, it seems to me, to do such things (the blessing of oils, the re-commitment to one’s ministry) when gathered together with one’s bishop in synod.

  12. Andrew Dotchin says

    Suffolk unites Oils and Renewal of Commitment Ministry and includes prayer for healing with anointing and the Laying on of hands. Very powerful as we corporately recognise our vulnerability. Maundg Thursday works for us (for me) as it means we do not somehow fall into the Evening Service having run around doing the usual business of funerals and pastoral work. The year we had the Royal Maundy the Chrisma Mass was moved to Tuesday and it just did I not fit. A meal afterwards is also very important. The cathedral now offers a free bag meal to everyone but many do wander off to a local pub. For me it is the day when I, the only paid cleric in a team of six pay for the meal as my personal thanks for their service. Spouses and partners are also an important part of our way of doing things as their is a strong recognition that vocations are shared and supported within our own families

  13. Peter says

    Okay it’s hard for me to assume you are either Catholic or Anglican. I’ll assume you’re the former, like myself. I just returned from Chrism mass. It’ll be my last. Apart from the bishop facing the people ( which I detest as I believe unequivocally in ad orientem worship at mass) the crowds at this mass seem to give this liturgy a theatre like star studded atmosphere as they peer and talk among themselves about the identity of over 400 priests to choose from all straining and trying to verbally identify. Because priests are huddled in our cathedral in the center of the church, people who aren’t liturgically literate begin to recite those parts of the mass strictly reserved for priest e.g the consecration because the huge concelebration throws them off and they are following along in huge special programs. Then there is the “ communion pandemonium “ with clergy trying to speed things up by disrupting the flow of communion by suddenly giving it out at the rear of the church! And the overall sense of “ celebration” vs “ worship” due to so many addresses and welcomings that people feel free to simply talk rather than prayerfully follow along. Add to this the uncharitable crowds that jostle for a seat and squeeze an already packed pew beyond its capacity. Heaven help you if you need a washroom break and find out your seat was taken by one of these hustlers! ( as happened to me). If I had it my way, the old 1962 Latin liturgy would be restored. The one positive thing was that here in Canada tge chrism mass is not in Holy Thursday but either the Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week.

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