The 'Gloria in Excelsis'... sung at the end?

The bat-eared amongst you may have noticed that last week's Gloria in Excelsis (sung to the setting in F by Harold Darke) featured slightly odd sounding words. This week's will also sound different from the usual, English version that we are accustomed to.

It is not just the words that are different--this morning as we were rehearsing the Gloria from Howells' Collegium Regale setting of the Eucharist for this coming Sunday, one of the choristers asked why it came after the Agnus Dei in the printed editions that we have?

Both Darke and Howells' settings set the Eucharistic service as found in the Book of Common Prayer (the BCP). The first edition of of the BCP was edited by Thomas Cranmer in 1549 after King Henry VIII's break from Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. Other editions followed during this tumultuous period of English History. It was finally standardized in 1662 and remains the sole, authorized liturgical book of the Church of England to this day.  

The BCP's communion service which was edited/designed by Thomas Cranmer is a wonderful piece of writing, penned by someone who was clearly one of the greatest liturgical scholars of his day. It is true a via media (or 'middle way') between the eucharistic theologies of Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Reformed Protestantism and it has served the Anglican Communion well for over five centuries. 

One of the most notable themes in the Communion Service (and, indeed, throughout the BCP) is that of sanctification. The service starts with the Collect for Purity in which the congregation ask for their minds and souls to be made pure in preparation for the service. The Liturgy of the Word is preceded by the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments which serves to enable those gathered to examine their consciences. The Litrugy of the Word follows during which the congregation is inspired and moved by stories of God's great mercy and marvelous acts to seek his forgiveness. The offertory follows the Nicene Creed which, in turn, is followed by the Confession and Absolution. Cranmer bookends the Absolution with the Comfortable Words--a series of quotations from the New Testament on the subject of God's boundless mercy and love. With the congregation being pure of heart and in a state of grace, the Sanctus and Prayer of Consecration follows. There is no Agnus Dei. In turn, this is followed by the reception of Holy Communion. After post-communion Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Gloria in Excelsis is sung. 

Unlike its Roman Rite counterpart, the BCP Gloria in Excelsis functions in an entirely different way. It plays the role of a hymn of thanksgiving for the reception of Holy Communion. It is also, arguably, a hymn in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament: this is because the BCP's rubrics state that any remaining body and blood are reserved on the altar only to be consumed after the service. This theological viewpoint is strengthened by the fact that the BCP's Gloria contains one too many iterations of 'have mercy upon us'--as such it contains a covert Agnus Dei. 

In conclusion, the Gloria in Excelsis serves as the liturgical apex of Cranmer's communion service. As in the embedded engraving, those present have entered the church on their knees asking for God's mercy. Through hearing his word and his holy laws, the process of sanctification is progressed and the communicants are enabled to commune with the divine--rejoicing is in order!

Perhaps the finest prayer to be found in the BCP Communion Service is the Prayer of Humble Access which is said by all before the reception of Holy Communion. It serves as a microcosm of the entire theological logic behind the Cranmer's service and his thematic arc of 'sanctification'. Read through the lens of Catholic eucharistic theology, it can serve as an extended meditation upon the 'Lord I am not worthy to receive you...' text that is said by the congregation after the 'Behold the Lamb of God'. Those who consume the Eucharist in a state of purity and grace are strengthened and sanctified by it. 
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. 
But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, 
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. 


Words: Gloria in Excelsis (BCP 1662)
Music: Herbert Howells 
Artists: Choir of St John's College, Cambridge & Iain Farrington/Christopher Robinson

This Sunday's setting of the ordinary of the Mass was composed by the British composer Herbert Howells in 1956 for the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. As explained above, the words are those from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. 

The Gloria bears a marked resemblance to a setting of the Te Deum that Howells composed for King's College in 1944. The Te Deum was composed in response to Eric Milner-White (the Dean of College) who informally bet Howells one guinea that he could not write a Te Deum for King's College--how this bet worked is anyone's guess...!



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