Easter 2024

14 March 2024
A Case for the Communion Propers in the Episocpal Church

In the middle of last year, I introduced the Communion propers at the church where I serve as Director of Music. And I can now confidently say that the Communion proper should be widely sung at services of Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church.

What is a proper, you might ask? Propers are distinct from the ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei). Propers include the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion. It is something more specific to the particular service being offered.

In the practice of many Episcopal churches, there is no need to sing the Introit, Gradual, or Alleluia, as these moments in the liturgy are ably serviced by the singing of the hymn and a lectionary-prescribed Psalm. The Offertory proper has also widely been supplanted by a choral anthem (and possibly a "Presentation" hymn). The Communion proper, however, could still have a place in most parishes today, regardless of churchmanship.

If one of the propers is sung in a church, it is likely the Introit: a piece of music is sung just prior to or simultaneously with the entrance of the ministers who will lead the service.

The traditional form of the Introit is an Antiphon followed by a psalm verse (or more than one verse, as circumstances require). The Antiphon is then repeated. This past Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the words were directly related to the idea of entrance: "I was glad when they said unto me: Let us go to the house of the Lord." (In other places, a relatively short piece of choral music may be chosen by the director and called an "Introit".)

The Communion proper takes this same form: an Antiphon followed by a psalm verse. Over time, the psalm verse was dropped.

But as an historic part of the Western Church's liturgy, these antiphons (and psalm verses) deserve our consideration, possibly over and above the creative whims of the director of music.

Furthermore, an important moment in the liturgy is often left unaccompanied by choral singing, which is a break from the tradition of the Western Church: the Communion of the Celebrant.

In the regular order of operations, the Canon of the Mass ends with the Lord's Prayer and is followed by the Fraction. In many Episcopal Churches a Fraction Anthem is then sung or said (perhaps the Agnus Dei, or another text). After this, the rubrics of the Episcopal Church's 2016* Book of Common Prayer require two things of the Celebrant: 1) the spoken Invitation to Communion and 2) the Communion of the Celebrant.

The rubric reads, "The ministers receive the Sacrament in both kinds, and then immediately deliver it to the people." While the rubric is a bit murky about who goes first, the Church's tradition is that the Celebrant receives first. And it is this moment at which Communion proper begins.

What happens in most churches? There is likely either organ improvisation or silence during this reception, as well as the movement of the choir, who usually arrive (a bit too early) at the place where they will receive Communion.

Using the Communion proper has led me to believe both practices are undesirable. The beginning of what the prayer book calls "the ministration of Communion" is a fitting time for music, especially so given that we have received from the tradition of the Church the perfect piece of music for this moment. Historically, the time at which the Communion proper should begin is the Communion of the Celebrant.

How, then, can the Communion proper be sung?

The words of the proper may be sung quite simply, or they could be sung in Latin in a traditional musical form that has been passed down through the centuries. Thanks to the work of Bruce Ford, they can also be sung in a kind of "Anglican compromise": to the traditional plainsong melodies adapted to English words. Some freely available resources for all three approaches are:

  1. Anglican Use Gradual - C. David Burt - English, simple chant tones
  2. Graudale Romanum (1961) - Latin, traditional chant melodies
  3. American Gradual 2020 - Bruce Ford - English, traditional chant melodies, adapted

Whether sung by a cantor, a portion of the choir, or the choir as a whole, I contend that the Communion proper should be employed in Episcopal churches today.

A rubric about music at Communion specifies: "During the ministration of Communion, hymns, psalms, or anthems may be sung." While it does not forbid organ improvisation, the prevailing practice in the Episcopal Church seems to use improvisation as a default during the ministers' reception of Communion. Organ improvisation can easily be delayed until a moment when it is more fitting: when the choir itself receives. It is easy to infer from the Prayer Book a preference for sung music over the strictly instrumental variety.

I have become increasingly fascinated by traditional plainchant, or what is often called Gregorian chant. Within the liturgical year, each Sunday has an associated set of melodies for each of the propers, including the Communion proper. I wondered what it would be like to engage with these traditional materials over several years.

Bruce Ford's American Gradual 2020 is a new edition of the work he began in his American Gradual (both freely available resources).

The musical experience has been a challenge. We have taught ourselves to read traditional neumes in four-line notation. We have familiarized ourselves with Ford's approach to the quilisma as outlined in his preface (the reverse of the prevailing practice). The musical demands of each Sunday's Communion Antiphon vary widely, ranging from the simple and direct to the florid and complex. The results have been hard-fought and, if we assess things honestly, a little rough around the edges in the liturgy on occasion.

But even six months into this project, I can report that the benefits of engaging with this historic repertory far outweigh the costs. The words are those of scripture, and they often hold great significance at the moment of Communion. The melodies are those of the ancient church, removing us from the fallacies of preference and desire. The synthesis of the scripture and the music is often so great as to be undeniable. Even in its adapted form, these chants are remarkable aids in contemplating the Divine Mysteries.

In our present situation (and I suspect this would be true for the vast majority of places), the Antiphon alone is sufficient for the ministers to receive. After singing the Antiphon, the choir themselves then come forward to receive Communion. The Communion Antiphons vary in length; in some weeks, even the Antiphon alone is slightly longer than required. I do not believe that the clergy or musicians in the parish have lost any sleep over an extra 15 seconds at Communion every now and then.

We have yet to learn the Communion propers for this Easter season, which are, of course, replete with Alleluias! Many of the Communion propers we have learned lodge themselves quite compellingly in the mind, and I look forward to singing them again in future years.

While I am personally drawn to the historic plainchant of the propers, I know that their performance will not be possible or desirable in every situation. A simpler version of these propers could be used, say The Anglican Use Gradual by David Burt. The chant tone is easily learned and repeated from week to week. Specifically in these shorter versions, a psalm verse or two could then be added without fear of making the proper unduly long—and, indeed, the length of the form would be highly predictable from week to week.

My hope for the Episcopal Church at large is that church musicians will rediscover the Communion propers, notice how tailor-made our liturgy is for their insertion, and then create new musical forms so that a rich variety of material is available for use.

* yes, the Prayer Book was revised in 2016, and referring to it as the 1979 just causes confusion. Make sure you get your lectionary right, especially in Holy Week!

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