Wednesday 9 June 2010

The Place of Chanting the Lessons at High Mass

What you can see above is a typical image from a typical S. Magnus Liturgy, of the Subdeacon reading the Epistle of the Mass accompanied by the MC. Now Rubricists will balk at the dreadful disregard of Roman custom in a Parish that claims to practice the traditional Roman Rite in full. I do myself sometimes wonder how to justify this perhaps eccentric custom of having the Subdeacon sing the Epistle from the gates of the Sanctuary.

I refer frenquently as the Classical Roman Rite, by which I mean that developed rite which existed in regional "dialects" both within and without the immediate Central control of later Committees. I include under that term the Roman Rite properly called (i.e. the Use of the City of Rome) which came to be regarded as the normative, authoritative form during the Counter Reformation, as well as regional varieties of the same Liturgy which are now termed "Uses". This term necessarily includes various customs which were region-specific, and some of these customs applied to the place of reading the Epistle(s) at Mass. The Roman custom that is now regarded as the norm is that the Subdeacon, having reverenced the Altar stands some distance from it towards the edge of the Sanctuary (the South side) and sings the Epistle facing East, but as I will mention shortly, this custom is only an approximation of what happened anciently.

However, another question to consider is practicality. While the Rubrics of the Mass are supposed to safeguard the dignity of the celebration and to limit personal excess, they have historically not been an obstacle to considerations of practicality. Different churches have different shapes, some are large and some are small. I wonder where one would send the Subdeacon to sing the Epistle at the Crib Altar in the Grotto of Bethlehem!

One of my favourite photographs that I have on a bookcase at home is a black and white photograph of the ancient Roman church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, whose portico hosts the famous "Bocca della Verita" or Mouth of Truth. In this photo the church is unadorned except for the altar furnishings: a frontal and six typically Roman tall candlesticks (last time I went in there there were two large electric heaters kicking around the sanctuary). I've always felt that the starkness and simplicity of the church's mouldings are off-played by the wonderful patterns of the marble and the warmness of the frecoes and the intimate, embracing form of the basilican schola. The present structure might not be the original, but it is certainly based on it. The schola structure also indicates where and how the lessons and gospels would have been read. On either side of the schola there is an ambo (which means simply "high place"). The one on the North side is reserved for the Gospel, while that on the South for the Epistle and Lessons. Originally however, there was only one. We read in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Originally there was only one ambo in a church, placed in the nave, and provided with two flights of steps; one from the east, the side towards the altar; and the other from the west. From the eastern steps the Subdeacon with his face to the altar, read the Epistles; and from the western steps the deacon, facing the people, read the Gospels. The inconvenience of having one ambo soon became manifest, and in consequence in many churches two ambones were erected. When there were two, they were usually placed one on each side of the choir, which was separated from the nave and aisles by a low wall. An excellent example of this arrangement can still be seen in the church of St. Clement at Rome. Very often the gospel ambo was provided with a permanent candlestick; the one attached to the ambo in St. Clements is a marble spiral column, richly decorated with mosaic, and terminated by a capital twelve feet from the floor.

Where there were two or more ambos, one was used only for the Gospel. The common arrangement was that of an ambo on either side of the church, between the choir and the nave, as may still be seen in many old basilicas (e.g., S. Maria in Cosmedin at Rome, etc.). In this case the ambo on the north side was reserved for the Gospel, from which the deacon faced the south, where the men stood. The north is also the right, and therefore the more honourable, side of the altar. The ambo on the south was used for the Epistle, and for other lessons if there were only two. In the case of three ambos, two were on the south, one for all other lessons, one for the Epistles. This arrangement still subsists, inasmuch as the Epistle is always read on the south side (supposing the church to be orientated). Where there was only one ambo it had two platforms, a lower one for the Epistle and other lessons, a higher one for the Gospel (Durandus, "Rationale", IV, 16). The ambo for the Epistle should still be used in the Roman Rite where the church has one; it is used regularly at Milan.

From this history then, we can see that the custom of facing the altar developed from the use of one Ambo only. When churches without ambos became more common, and the Gospel was read facing north (i.e. without turning ones back to the Altar), this action was theologised as providing a link between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (a division which deserves another post!). However, we also see that churches made their own arrangements according to the structure of the building, and that practicality ruled in reading to the faithful. We also get a sense of the importance overall of the "High Place" in reading both the Epistle and the Gospel.

Time to share these two photos. The first is from the Alcuin Club's reconstruction of Sarum ceremonial, and shows the Subdeacon reading the Epistle from the entrance of the screen, facing the people but also positioned somewhat to the South side of the entrance. This is more or less what happens at S. Magnus, minus the screen of course.

In this second photo, from a celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (note, not Dominican rite) in Blackfriars, Oxford. You will notice the Subdeacon reading from the "Epistle side" of the Sanctuary but facing the people, not the Altar.

One of the worst features of the Modern Roman Liturgical praxis is that it perpetuates the false division of the "Liturgy of the Word" and the "Liturgy of the Sacrament". Through what is admittedly a little bit of retrospective theologising, the link between the two "halves" of the Mass is exemplified in the Roman Rite by the reading of the Collects at the altar, the Subdeacon facing East to chant the Epistle, and the Celebrant's reading of the Epistle and Gospel there too. It is therefore imperative for someone wishing to preserve the ethos of the Roman Rite to consider this link with the Altar when deciding to break free of Roman custom in the name of practicality.

However, in both of the pictures above, we can see that both the Altar and the "Ambo" are present in the Subdeacon's position. In the first, we notice that the Subdeacon is directed to remain just outside the screen, but still on the highest step. We need only think of the what the word "altar" means those whose rites involve an Iconostasis to realise that in standing where he does, the English Use Subdeacon has not really left the "altar" at all. He is also reading from an "ambo", a "high place", being elevated by some steps from the lowest level of the church. Exactly the same is true of the Mass at Blackfriars, where the Subdeacon is standing a step or so higher than those you can see in choir, he is also in an equivalent position to the basilican ambo whilst remaining within the Sanctuary of that church as it is configured.

We can see then that there is some legtimate latitude in the position of singing the Epistle at High Mass in the Classical Roman Rite. Looking at tradition and customs from across the West, we can discern that the two principles of the Ambo and the Altar are what determine the "correct" place from which to chant the Epistle and other readings. But, there is never any point in being too prescriptive without thought of circumstance : I'd love to hear suggestions of where the Subdeacon should go to sing the Epistle in the beautiful, multi-level church of San Miniato in Florence!


  1. Excellent post. Of course O'Connell devotes a lengthy footnote to this very question in Volume III of The Celebration of Mass. The rubric directs the Subdeacon to genuflect in medio, and then, vadit ad partem Epistolae contra Altare.

    Interestingly, of course, in the rite of the ordination of a Lector, the Bishop still bids him: ''While you read, stand in a place of the church so that you may be seen and heard by all.''

    At Blackfen we follow the Roman custom, although when I am M.C I insist that he stand nearer the Altar-rail than ''the Epistle corner.'' The direction the Subdeacon faces is important theologically, just as much as the direction the Deacon faces, since the proclamation of the appointed Lessons are as much an act of worship as for the instruction of the faithful...

  2. Looking at the San Miniato photo (quite lovely!), perhaps the Subdeacon ought to be standing at the edge of what looks like the 3rd level presbytery (that is beside the pulpit to the south); putting him in a ‘high place’ above those on the elevated chancel (2nd level above the crypt).

    Alternatively, would he be allowed on the pulpit/ambo itself?

  3. Patricius,

    But does contra altare necessarily mean "facing"? could it not mean in that corner of the Sanctuary that is opposite the Epistle corner?

    Perhaps another legitimate position in the Roman rite is to face North, so as not to turn ones back to either the Altar or the people.

  4. Gregorian Chant workshop at Portsmouth Cathedral.

    This Saturday from 10am.

    God bless you.

  5. Joseph, interesting points. Hopefully (when I get the money, resources, connexions etc) I shall organise an experimental day of Medieval Liturgy where the entire day shall be devoted to sung Office, with High Mass sung after Terce (depending upon the rank of the Feast). It will be a perfect opportunity to experiment with questions such as these - which is the more ancient praxis?

    As regards ''contra Altare'' - it could mean anything. Some rubricians direct the Subdeacon to stand more or less where he does for the Introit. You have to be aware of practicalities of course. Some churches (such as Our Lady of the Rosary at Blackfen) have small sanctuaries, and so it is better to stand farther away.

    As regards facing the North, this is more or less an emulation of Pontifical High Mass at the Throne, where to avoid turning one's back on the Bishop at the throne on the Gospel side, and the Altar, the Deacon faces north to chant the Gospel pericope. I am not sure if this would work for the Subdeacon. As regards the ''northern barbarians'' I expect most of those are actually sat in the congregation...

  6. On Sundays, we tend to have an OT reading (I know)from a lectern facing the people outside the sanctuary gates, then the subdeacon chants the epistle from the step or just outside the sanctuary gates as above, then the gospel is taken right out down the aisle and subg from there facing West. We decided that there was at least some sort of flow in that arrangement.

  7. When I was a server at All Souls Brighton in the early 1960s the sub-deacon sang the Epistle at High Mass from the central north side of the chancel, between the choirs stalls. If my memory serves me correctly he used to sing it facing the (rather splendid) High Altar. Sadly All Souls closed in 1968 and its site is now a dual carriageway. At that time All Souls and the Annunciaton were the only Anglican churches in Brighton which ever gave Benediction and then only with a ciborium - bishop problems! I promised the ACHS a history of All Souls' but haven't quite written it yet!

  8. At S. Clement's we reverted to the Tridentine Roman position for the lessons at the beginning of Fr Swain's incumbency in 1993. The Epistle is sung from behind the celebrant, but at some distance, just within the communion rails, facing liturgical east; the Gospel is sung facing liturgical north, also from within the rails, and at the north end of the presbytery. At Sung Mass, the celebrant sings the Gospel from the north corner of the altar. There are no other lessons, outside of the Easter and Pentecost Vigils, the Ember Days, etc. It is true that it would have been possible to use the ambo for the Epistle, or to sing the lessons at a greater distance from the altar, and still have been in accordance with the interpretations of the rubrics given by the various approved authors. If I had to guess, I believe that the more commonly used positions were employed to suggest a continuity with traditional Roman (i.e. the city of Rome) and the more extreme historical Anglo-Papalist usage.

    With respect to the more general question of what model of liturgical ceremonial to use, after some twenty years of assisting with various celebrations of the sacred liturgy it is my strong opinion that a known and codified system should be used as faithfully as possible, subject only to any impossibilities of architecture or ecclesiastical politics, and that such an approach is infinitely preferable to the alternatives. In my own case, I think that the Tridentine Roman rite (as revised through, say, Pius XI) works very well, and, as far as lies in my power, I advocate a strict adherence to the rubrics and commentaries of the approved authors, even if that means a slavish following of the various decrees of the S.R.C. The only real alternative, of course, is a system derived from the ever-changing whims of the reverend clergy, and these are generally motivated by ignorance, arrogance, sloth, or an unpleasant combination of the three.

    I also believe that, having decided on a particular model, it is less than helpful to attempt to justify actual practices by means of innovative readings of the rubrics or the approved authors. I find that it is far simpler (and much more honest) to say that at S. Clement's we use the Tridentine Roman rite in the vernacular, with the exception of X, Y, and Z, because we are afraid of the bishop, protestant agitators, or because Father picked up this bizarre idea in seminary or in one of his parishes, and can't be dissuaded from it.

    The above is very blunt, I'm afraid, and I hope that I haven't offended anyone overmuch. I do, though, think that we need to think about our first principles when it comes to liturgy, and not merely smile indulgently on every irregularity as long as it's pretty or the right people are involved, as one sees far too often on various well-known 'blogs.

  9. "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

  10. Apropos the photo of fr Lawrence Lew OP chanting the Epistle at Blackfriars, you should perhaps note his response to the comment which was made on the Studentate blog in relation to the direction he was facing.