Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Easter Vigil

Note: This post is intended to be a discussion starter which I am putting up here to get you all thinking about two issues. Firstly, whether the structure of the Easter Vigil as given in authorized Anglican sources is real the best and most authentic. Secondly, how do we fit the Vigil into parochial worship. So, have at it - but only when you have read the article!

From the mid-1960s onwards there have been various official attempts to revive the 'Easter Vigil' as a living part iof parochial worship in the Anglican tradition. In general, the forms officially set forth - for example by the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1967 and the Episcopal Church, USA, have followed the forms set forth by Rome in 1955 and follow this format

Blessing of the fire
Blessing and lighting of the Paschal Candle
Procession and lighting of congregation's candles
The Four Prophecies interspersed with psalms and collects
Blessing of the Font
Renewal of Baptismal vows
The Eucharist

The first part of the service is a bit of a disaster mainly because it isolates the Exultet, from the lighting and blessing of the candle itself. It becames 'a big sing' for the deacon or celebrant and perhaps the dullest part of the whole service, which is a pity given the beauty and antiquity of this chant. I believe it would be far better to restore the use of the 'Hasta' or 'Trident' to light the candle during the Exultet restoring this action, along with the ancient ceremonies to this chanting of this prayer.

Another problem occurs, at least in those parishes which use the BCP forms for the sacraments, with the blessing of the font and sprinkling of the at least from the point of view of the ancient Western liturgy with the renewal of baptismal vows. This seems to fit awkwardly with traditional western Baptismal theology in there is a sense in which one is repeating that which congregation following the renewal of Baptismal Vows. Anglican practice since the Reformation has been to bless the water anew for every baptism. This makes the blessing of the font redundant so far as the Anglican liturgy is concerned. I also believe that the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, although popular, fits awkwardly with the character of Baptism which is a once only sacrament conferring an indelible character upon the soul.

It seems to me that there is a case for Reforming the Easter Vigil after the model of that used in the old Dominican Use. This omitted the elements not needed in a friary, which, strangely enough, are those not needed in an Anglican parish. The form of the service should therefore be:

Blessing of the new fire
Exultet with the lighting of the Paschal Candle, etc.
The Four Prophecies with attendant tracts and collects
The Litany
(The Eucharist)

The final question that occurs to me is, do we celebrate the Eucharist?

I think in the end this is a matter that has to be decided by every parish for itself. In my parish, because of the low attendance at the Vigil, it always seems to fall flat. What is intended to be a great festal Eucharist ends up being a simple Sung Mass with about a dozen folks present. I suspect that in many parishes the tradition of the Easter Sunday morning celebration of the Eucharist is too entrenched to be dislodged. Coupled with this there is also a danger of making it seem too much like Christmas Eve, and one constrant criticism of liturgical traditions is that there is not enough variety in our services. Of course, if you can bring it off, the Vigil should culminate in a Solemn Eucharist, but I think that it most parishes it would be better to use the Vigil as a stand alone service of preparation for the High Celebration on Easter morning.

The final and weightiest consideration is what the Prayer Book provides. The BCP provides Morning Prayer, Ante-Communion and Evening Prayer, and then Easter day begins with Morning Prayer as usual. We have no permission from the Book of Common Prayer to replace or rearrange any of these elements.

I would therefore suggest that in most parishes the following timetable might be found satisfactory:

9.00am Morning Prayer
9.30am Ante-Communion and Sermon
Church cleaning and preparation for Easter ending with
Evening Prayer early in the afternoon.
After Dark - The Easter Vigil

9.00am Morning Prayer
10.00am Solemn Celebration of Holy Communion
7.00pm Evening Prayer

I have yet to bring this off in my own parish - Evensong being the sticking point - but I think it reflects a version of the Easter ceremonies which is, at least, not turning the Prayer Book inside out, and reflects the realities of our parochial ministry. The major difficulty with the 'reformed' Easter Vigil is that it is a product of the library, the classroom, and the monastery rather than the every day hurly-burly of parish ministry. I have often thought that the biggest and most valid criticism of the Liturgical Movement of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s is that so few of its proponants were parish ministers with the result that their demands are often unrealistic when transferred into the parochial setting.