How (not) to write liturgical history

A recent conversation in another forum about Wittgensteinian spacemen reminded me that I had this lurking on my hard-drive. Originally a product of my time at Seminary (not altogether wasted then!) I dragged it out of the recesses of my mind for a lecture in around 2012 on the reconstruction of ancient liturgy. Having remembered it, I thought it worth sharing…

Several hundred years after the destruction of the planet earth, archaeologists and historians from the planet Zog begin the scholarly study of earth’s civilization, and have a particular interest in liturgical and religious practices… A leading journal carries the following article:

A new fragment from the Methodist hymn book:
climbing and veiling in 18th century Methodist liturgy

The study of the liturgy of the Methodists, a Christian grouping from the eighteenth century, has been limited by the lack of available written sources. However a recent discovery of fragments from a leaf of the Methodist hymn book may cast new light on an obscure area.

The text is given first, followed by an attempt at reconstructing the liturgy which lies behind it.

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness! [lacuna]

Unfortunately the rest of the text is missing, but the Methodist provenance is clear as the fragment’s typography, paper and numeration fit with the other available fragments of the Methodist Hymn Book.

We intend to argue that this liturgical fragment demonstrates close similarity between the liturgy of Methodists in the eighteenth century and that of Roman Catholics in the same period, in particular that both celebrated the rite known as benediction. However, there is also a ritual, namely climbing into a roof, which has not clearly been attested before, but which enables us to understand a number of references in contemporary liturgical sources.

It is to this ritual that we turn first. The reference to angels in the first line is almost certainly a reference to angels (heavenly beings) which are found in roofs in some English churches of the period, for instance those found in the excavation of the church of S Wendreda in March.angelfoor

We may thus surmise that the congregation is being told that the angels are singing and that they are to listen. The text which the angels sing, and to which the congregation is to listen, is then found in the following lines:

“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”

What follows is a rubric:

Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies.
With the angelic host proclaim:

Since the skies are the place in which angels dwell, here represented by the church roof, I suggest that the congregation is being directed to climb up to the roof in order to sing along with the angels, joining with them in the line “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” If such a reading is correct, than this in turn illuminates other liturgical fragments of the period which have previously remained obscure, in particular references to singing alongside angels, such as the following from the BCP of 1928:

Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying, HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, Lord God of, hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High. Amen.

It has previously been suggested that, given the appearance of angels in a roof-space, there should be movement towards the roof by the congregation at this point, but for the first time there is clear evidence that such a ritual actually occurred.

The means by which the congregation is to mount the roof is uncertain, though it is possible that liturgical ladders were employed. This in turn might explain the appearance of a ladder in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.liturgicalladder

The congregation, by now in the roof, is then to sing antiphonally with the angels, singing the line “Christ is born in Bethlehem”, here joining in with the song which the angels are singing, and then listening to the angels repeat the refrain, “glory…”.

Having established that the fragment supports the hypothesis of a rite of liturgical climbing into a roof space we may proceed to examine parallels which are more securely founded, namely the witness that the hymn bears to the rite known from the closely related cult of Roman Catholicism of the same period termed “benediction”.

It is in the second verse that the possible linkage with benediction appears as it makes reference to Christ appearing in the liturgy (“Behold him come…”) The means by which this appearance occurs is not clear; however, the reference to veiling (“veiled in flesh”) may be significant. Recent research on benediction in Roman Catholicism in the same period has speculated on the use of a veil in the liturgy. Whereas the purpose of this veil is unclear, it may be that the presence of the Godhead is initially hidden behind the veil and then slowly revealed. This in turn illuminates the text found among the Hymns Ancient and Modern fragments: “O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see…” “Flesh” is another word for “meat”, at least in the cognate Germanic languages (so Flemish, fleis, German Fleisch); this obscure phrase indicates that the veil is made of a slice of meat.

We may further wonder whether this text is likewise not one which accompanies benediction, and enquire whether the recently discovered Ancient and Modern fragments, on this basis, have a Methodist provenance.

Although the reference to the veil is not altogether clear, the link with the liturgy of benediction is secured through the third verse of the fragment: “Hail the sun of righteousness.” For although many details of the practice of benediction are obscure, in particular the precise role played by the veil, it is clear that the ritual employed an object which looked very much like a stylized sun; an example is given in the following figure.


It is perhaps this object which the congregation is greeting as they “hail the sun of righteousness”, singing with the angels from the roof-space as the object of devotion, the sun, is slowly unveiled. Again, the reference is to the manifestation of the Christian deity, Christ, also known as the Sun (vl Son) of God, whom the congregation greets.

For all the continuing uncertainty, this fragment establishes that the early Methodists practised the same liturgy of benediction known to Roman Catholics in the same period; further research may explore what further common liturgical ground the two occupied. Beyond this, the rite of climbing the roof is now demonstrated to have occurred, and so other references to this rite may appear in new light.

Leonel Dix Mowinckel

As a postscript, I had an enquiry from the library about copyright (seriously!) when I circulated this in advance of the lecture. I told them that the Planet Zog had waived reproduction charges due to the high cost of bank transfers outside the solar system. I realize now that I should have said that this was a more advanced civilization, and had abandoned copyright fees altogether!



Filed under Anything else

4 responses to “How (not) to write liturgical history

  1. Tom McLean

    I think I might have been in the lecture in question in 2012 (Sarum?).

    Does the Zoggian copyright policy apply to adaption and reuse? I have a course I am going to be teaching soon that it might be a good piece to use in.


  2. It was indeed Sarum… so I guess you were there. They showed me the door after that one.
    I have put your enquiry to the librarian (Princess Bod-Leah) on the planet Zog, via a time-warp and Google translate, and it says that the text is “living literature” (whatever that means) and can therefore be adapted and re-used. However, there is an agent’s fee to be paid in the intergalactic currency JLS, of 86.
    And since I now realize that I taught somebody who is au fait with fourth-century Cappadocian pneumatology, I might ask the further favour of looking over a passage in my book on the Canons of Hippolytus. It has gone to the publisher, but is nowhere near the press. Pm to vicar at uptoncumchalvey dot org dot uk.
    Many thanks in advance. The JLS payment will be receipted and generously reviewed here.


  3. A colleague did a similar exploration on an NT theme.

    Mary had a little lamb

    had to be a Messianic hymn…….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The mention of NT brings inevitably to mind Eric Mascall’s Christmas carol, “Hark the herald angels sing/ Bultmann is the latest thing/ or they would if he had not/ demythologized the lot….”


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