The Beginning of the Communion Service

ONE should not conclude from the title of this segment that “the beginning of the Communion Service,” as distinct from “the rest of the Communion Service,” has always been a defined portion of the English coronation ceremony. For while the Mass was split in two by the Anointing and Crowning in the ninth-century First Recension, and the Prayer-Book Communion Service has likewise been split in two since since the introduction of the Sixth Recension in 1689, the Eucharistic Liturgy at Coronations in the seven hundred intervening years was celebrated without interruption at the end of the solemnity, after the Coronation proper had concluded. Nevertheless, for ease of comparison, when I come to those intervening years I will only deal with the text of the  Mass up to the Creed  the point where its ancestors and descendants are divided. And as this point is held to mark the transition of the Mass of the Catachumens to the Mass of the Faithful Liturgy of the Word to Liturgy of the Eucharist, in today’s lingo I trust none shall accuse me of arbitrarily dissecting the mediæval rite.

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The First Oblation

LEST the Sovereign be puffed up with pride upon hearing the triumphant sounds of the Recognition, the Coronation Service had long provided for the Sovereign to perform an act of humility and submission immediately afterwards. This act — called the “First Oblation” to distinguish it from the Second Oblation, which occurs at the Offertory in the Communion Service — sadly fell into disuse with the coronation of Edward VII, and has yet to be restored.

The First Oblation begins in the Liber Regalis as follows:

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The Recognition

THE great majority of words one hears in the Coronation Service are subject to stark restrictions concerning both who shall utter the words and who shall be the subjects of the words: Archbishop and Choir are nearly always the ones uttering, while God and Sovereign are nearly always the subjects. When reading the bare words of the script, one can therefore be inclined to forget the deeply communal nature of the occasion. One must bear in mind that Westminster Abbey is the site of the coronation not only because it is old and beautiful, but also because it is large enough to house the multitudes of lords, ladies, prelates, and commoners come to see their Sovereign crowned. This host is largely a silent witness, but it does have some lines of its own. Near the end of the service, certain Bishops and Peers will kneel before their liege and make homage with kisses and oaths of fealty. And at the beginning of the service, immediately after the Entrance Anthem and the Sovereign’s brief private devotion, there is another sort of homage – wherein all the guests, of whatever rank or station, show their allegiance with one united cry.

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Crossing the Tiber

IN a textbook world, a Protestant contemplating leaving his church for Romish regions would make his choice by examining the doctrines of the two communions and entering whichever communion he found most faithful to the teachings of Christ. But very frequently, other factors will intrude on the process. For one thing, the potential convert will have to weigh how his conversion will be perceived by his fellows. Romish apologists delight in telling tales of heroic Protestants who realize the folly of their creed and sacrifice jobs, family ties, and social standing to save their souls in the Barque of Peter. There is another obstacle, however, about which Rome is understandably less eager to speak. For it is one of the facts of life that Anglicans have better taste than Romanists, at least when it comes to English composition. An Anglican crossing the Tiber loses not only his denomination but also the literary treasures of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

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I was Glad

FOR the next installment in my coronation series, I thought it might be a good idea to begin at the beginning. The 122nd psalm has covered “The Entrance into the Church” in every English coronation since 1625, from Charles I to Her Present Majesty.  I shall mostly be discussing the text of the psalm as it appeared in the orders of service, of course, so on the left-hand column we have it in the Coverdale translation. But lest any snobs of Biblical Criticism be lurking nearby to rescue us from the inaccurate translations of our forefathers, I reproduce on the right this splendid little hymn of the Hebrews as found in the venerable New Revised Standard Version.

 Laetatus sum

I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.

Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.

For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord : to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.

For there is the seat of judgement : even the seat of the house of David.

O pray for the peace of Jerusalem : they shall prosper that love thee.

Peace be within thy walls : and plenteousness within thy palaces.

For my brethren and companions’ sakes : I will wish thee prosperity.

Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good.

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

I was glad when they said to me,  “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together.

To it the tribes go up,  the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.

For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:  “May they prosper who love you.

Peace be within your walls,  and security within your towers.”

For the sake of my relatives and friends  I will say, “Peace be within you.”

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,  I will seek your good.

Westminster Abbey may not be the Tabernacle or Temple for which the psalm was written, where the Glory of YHWH abode in a thick cloud betwixt the Cherubim. But it is assuredly a “house of the Lord” in the larger sense. On the great Day of Coronation, thrones of judgement are set up therein, and the English church prays for the peace of the English realm. No fitter text could be prescribed for the occasion.

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The Lively Oracles of God

THE English coronation service has long been an object of my fascination. The script of this ancient pageant reads like a systematic demolition of the political principles held dear by Left and Right alike in the United States. There is no separation of powers: the Sovereign is the chief executive, the chief legislator, and the chief judge. There is no separation of Church and State: the Archbishop crowns the Sovereign; the Sovereign appoints the Archbishop. All men are not created equal, nor do governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed: the Sovereign reigns by right of blood and the will of God. While sadly much of the script can no longer be taken at face value (Parliament, and only the elected half of it, at that, is the real authority), even the words are enough to be noxious to a true son of Uncle Sam. But I have apostatized from the American civil religion long ago, and feel no guilt in pining for the Mother Country’s reactionary rites.

Someday when I have more time and more knowledge, I hope to produce a comprehensive coronation commentary. But for now I shall content myself with looking at a certain facet of the ceremony a facet that glitters especially brightly to a monoglot like me, since, by virtue of its uniquely late arrival, its history can be traced entirely in the vulgar tongue. As the old 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia explains,

The service for the coronation of the King of England even in modern times remains substantially the same, though English has been substituted for Latin and though many transpositions and modifications have been introduced in the prayers and ceremonies, all distinctively Roman expressions being studiously suppressed… the only new element introduced into the English rite since the Reformation is the presenting of the Bible to the sovereign.

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