On Sung (And Other) Masses

Let’s clarify some terminology, shall we?

There are, fuctionally, three chief kinds of masses done in modern Episcopal Churches:

  • High Mass
  • Sung Mass
  • Low Mass

Let’s go through these.

Low Mass: This is a service where the priest and deacon say their parts. There’s no singing. It’s purely a said mass. However, this doesn’t preclude the use of hymns. There can be Low Masses with hymns as well as Low Masses without hymns. Your typical 8 AM service (whether Rite I or Rite II) tends to be a Low Mass without hymns; your typical Low Church service also tends to be a Low Mass (whether they’d refer to it as such or not) no matter how many hymns or praise songs get crammed into it.

There also aren’t a whole lot of servers in a mass of this sort, generally only one or two. Incense is not used; it doesn’t make much sense to have a Solemn Low Mass (Liturgically, “Solemn” = Incense).

Sung Mass: Now, when I use the term “Sung Mass” I mean the same thing as a missa cantata. I know that some authorities—particularly those in the earlier part of the 20th century—use “Sung Mass” as a term for a Low Mass with hymns. (This is the position of Ritual Notes, 9th edition.) However, in our current situation, saying “Sung Mass” makes more sense for two reasons: 1) using the Latin term seems a bit too precious, and 2) the literal meaning of the English means “a mass that is sung” not “a mass that is said where  some hymns are stuck in.”

In a Sung Mass, everything that would normally be said by the priest is sung. (Hence the note “Where rubrics indicate that a part of a service is to be ‘said,’ it must be understood to include ‘or sung,’ and vice versa.” on p. 14 of the BCP.) This category is the point of the post so I’m going to stop here and revisit this in a moment.

Generally there are at least two servers, often more. A choir is a nice thing but not essential. It does make sense to have incense here; a Solemn Sung Mass is not uncommon among Episcopal Churches that use incense.

High Mass: High Masses aren’t terribly common around the Episcopal Church and are only seen at some Anglo-Catholic parishes. High Masses are always sung, not said. The difference between a Sung Mass and a High Mass is personnel. A High Mass has a subdeacon as well as a full deacon; a Sung Mass does not. You can be as tricked-out and smokey as you like but without a subdeacon, you’re doing a Sung Mass not a High Mass.

[subdeacon tangent]

The Episcopal Church has formal ranks for priests and deacons—subdeacons, not so much. In the old days, subdeacon was one of the nine grades of ordination through which one traveled, and was the one in order right before deacon. The Liturgical Renewal Movement and therefore Vatican II didn’t like the nine grade system and tossed it out, officially abolishing the subdeacon.  Since no order for such an ordination exists, a subdeacon in the Episcopal Church can be a layperson but ought to have the training and qualities of life to fit the bill. If it were up to me—which of course it’s not—I’d think that officially licensed lay readers ought to be taught how to subdeacon, that being the closest thing to it these days.

It’s frowned upon but permissible to have a priest function as a deacon in a Sung or High Mass. Where there are deacons, a deacon ought to be used. Nothing annoys me more, however, than seeing a priest serve as a subdeacon. If it can be a lay position, than it ought to be one. In a church that puts a great emphasis on the ministry of the Baptized, a layperson serving properly as a vested sacred minister (i.e., not trying to usurp the priestly or diaconal roles) is a good reminder.

[/subdeacon tangent]

Alright—let’s go back to the Sung Mass again in order to engage this crucial question: What parts of a Sung Mass are Sung?

Let’s start by looking at our resources. The loose-leaf Altar Book edition of the BCP has a Musical Appendix that begins on p. 215 and goes through p. 238. It includes:

  • Opening Acclamations for the various seasons and occasions
  • Salutations  for use before prayers
  • 2 Collect Tones (the first of which is specifically identified for the Collect for Purity)
  • Directions and tones on chanting the “Lessons Before the Gospel”
  • 2 Gospel Tones
  • Prayers of the People, Forms I and V
  • [The Sursum Corda (Lift up your hearts) and Proper Prefaces are elsewhere in the book depending on rite, season or occasion]
  • The Christ Our Passover fraction anthem
  • 2 Invitation to Communion Tones
  • Blessings
  • Dismissals
  • Baptism Material

Hey, that’s quite a lot of material. Let’s flip over to the Hymnal now. The Eucharistic service music is found from S76 through S176. The Glorias are found in the Canticle section from S272 through S281. These items include:

  • Opening Acclamations (S76-83)
  • Kyries in Greek and English (S84-98)
  • Trisagion (S99-102)
  • Nicene Creed (S103-105)
  • Prayers of the People: Forms I, III, IV, and V (S106-109)
  • The Peace (S110-111)
  • Rite I Eucharistic Prayers
    • Sursum Corda (S112)
    • Sanctus (S113-117)
    • Conclusion of Prayer and Amen (S118)
    • Lord’s Prayer (S119)
  • Rite II Eucharistic Prayers
    • Sursum Corda (S120)
    • Sanctus (S121-131)
    • Memorial Acclamations (S132-141)
    • Conclusion of Prayer and Amen (S142)
    • Amen (S143-147)
    • Lord’s Prayer (S148-150)
  • Fraction Anthems (S151-172)
  • Episcopal Blessing with Responses (S173)
  • Dismissals (S174-176)
  • Glorias (S272-281)

Between the Hymnal and the Altar Book, the clergy and congregation have music for basically every part of the service except for the Confession of Sin, the middle parts of the Canon of the Mass, and the Post-Communion Prayer (both of which could be monotoned if you had to).

What I’ve seen in practice and what makes sense is to have a few different levels in the Sung Mass:

  • One where everything singable is sung except for the Lessons which are read
  • One where everything singable is sung on the Simple Tones
  • One where everything singable is sung on the Solemn Tones

These seem like good differences to distinguish between various parts of the liturgical year.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’ll notice an option that I don’t list here. In fact, one of the most commonly encountered Episcopal services isn’t found here. That’s the one where the service is said up until the Sursum Corda, then the Sursum Corda and the Proper Preface are sung and everything else is said.

This way of proceeding is common. It is also legal according to the rubrics of the prayer-book. But logically—theologically—what is this arrangement saying? That the Eucharist is a completely different kind of thing than what preceded it? Is this something that we want to be saying?

Galley is of the opinion that this is fine:

It is . . . important to point out that it is fully legitimate to sing [the Gloria and the Sanctus], or at least the Sanctus, even at celebrations at which there is no other music whatever. (It is also appropriate to sing the Sursum corda dialogue and the preface in such circumstances.) (Ceremonies of the Eucharist, 46)

Really? Why “appropriate”? To use my terminology, Galley is making the argument that the Gloria and the Sanctus should be considered songs and that, as in a Low Mass with hymns, they can be dropped in. I see his point here. In point of fact, these two parts of the Ordinary are angelic hymns in ways that the rest of the Ordinary is not. What does not make sense to me is the approval to then sing the Sursum corda and the Proper Preface that lead into the Sanctus without singing anything else. Again, what makes this appropriate? If the priest sings these parts, why not the rest? If the congregation can handle singing the Sursum corda dialogue and the Sanctus, then why not the Amen and other parts as well?

You wouldn’t usher in a subdeacon at the Offertory to switch a Sung Mass to a High Mass in the middle of a service. You wouldn’t sing the mass through the creed, then start speaking everything. So why speak until the Sursum corda and only then begin to sing?

36 Replies to “On Sung (And Other) Masses”

  1. I think there’s wide variation in how parishes and their clergy approach these things. One way is how things are done in my (Anglo-Catholic) parish, in which individual elements of a Solemn Mass are done in a particular way precisely because it’s a Solemn Mass and there’s an appropriate way to do each item in such a Mass. Some of the same elements are done differently at the earlier Sung Mass because it’s that type of Mass. The other way, used in many parishes, is to look at each element of the liturgy and make an independent decision about it: it’s sung because we’re used to singing it, or it isn’t sung because it’s too hard or hasn’t been sung in the past, or it varies from week to week depending on cool settings just discovered, or wanting to change things up a bit, or even how the Spirit moves at the moment.
    But I don’t think there’s a shared understanding of these three types of Mass, and in many places, as in many Roman Catholic parishes, there’s a single style of celebration that doesn’t easily fit into one of those three categories, or there are simply said Eucharists and sung ones, or perhaps said, sung, and choral.
    And then there are the differing understandings of “solemn” between, say, Ritual Notes and Fortescue. My understanding is that “solemn” means three sacred ministers and, typically, incense. (Solemn Evensong needs the three sacred ministers, too, or it ain’t solemn.) “High” means the celebrant sings his/her part: the Sursum corda and preface at a bare minimum, but usually also the collect of the day and the doxology of the Eucharistic prayer. So a Solemn High is signified by celebrant/deacon/subdeacon, incense, and singing celebrant. A Sung Mass is a type of High Mass that may have incense but definitely does not have deacon and subdeacon assisting. I agree with your description of a Low Mass, and a Low Mass can indeed have hymns. It’s low because the celebrant speaks rather than singing.
    There will probably always be these two approaches: progressive solemnity based on these traditional categories of Masses, and a more general and less consistently applied approach that makes decisions about individual elements of a liturgy based on preferences and resources.

  2. I certainly agree that there’s a lack of shared understanding on these.

    The two key issues, it seems to me, are these: 1) what term signals the presence of three sacred ministers, and 2) what term signals the presence of incense. (Underlying that I guess is the prior question, is there historical preceision with these terms…) There’s no doubt that a Solemn High Mass requires both. So what do “Solemn” and “High” mean when used in a technical sense? Fortescue talks about a solemn Missa Cantata implying to me the categories that I’ve laid down here. Now, I’ll admit that I may be trying to impose a certain linguistic precision not shared by other writers as well.

    The least helpful to me in my quest for clarity is The Ritual Reason Why which offers the heading “High or Solemn Celebration”…

  3. My parish has one Sunday service, and it is a Low Mass with hymns. The Gloria is sung, as are the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. Your discussion makes sense to me, though I don’t find it odd to sing those parts of the Mass and have the rest be said — it seems fairly common among a lot of low/broad churches to do so.

  4. What about singing ability? For example, my singing ability is not great, but I have practiced and gotten better (I think) at singing the sursum corda and the proper prefaces (which I always practice prior to singing them). But if I were to decide to sing all the rest (prayers, collects, gospel, etc.) I would be out of my league. The amount of time it would take me to point and practice all that would preclude the rest of my weekly ministry!

    So, does that then argue for me not to sing the parts of the service that I currently sing? It might. But, if I did that, it would be a fairly radical departure from the tradition of the parish. This is an interesting discussion with a lot of facets. I think the distinctions you point out are right, but to me atonal self, they assume a level of facility with singing. As AKMA used to say, it’s more complicated than that.

  5. I think it’s perfectly fine to sing the Sursum Corda up to and through the Sanctus. It might be the only way people will ever get to hear what chant actually has sounded like historically. And I think actually yes : ” here starts a uniquely important section of the service” is part of it, too.

  6. What bls said.

    Naturally, my preference is to sing absolutely everything that can be sung, but except for my occasional crashing of a certain Anglo-Catholic parish we both know, I never serve anywhere that’s remotely close to that preference. And I would hate to lose the singing of the beginning and end of the Eucharistic Prayer just because I don’t get to sing the Opening Acclamation and such.

    OTOH, I’ve certainly been known to make myself tedious about the bad we’re-starting-a-whole-new-service feel of putting on the chasuble only at the offertory, as is the practice at the parish where I ordinarily serve, so that part of your argument certainly gives me pause — hence my immediate liking of bls’s “uniquely important section” language.

    OTOOH, when I celebrated at our Cathedral a couple weeks ago, it was a consistent low mass as you define that — tons of hymns and choral music, but no singing of any of the liturgical texts — and I will admit that its thoroughbredness did have a certain logic and appeal to it.

    It may be just as well that I’m not in charge of anyone’s liturgy, and not likely to be so any time soon.

  7. I too understand “Solemn” and “High” as being redundant – consonant with the Ritual Reason Why – and indeed know some who consider “Solemn High Mass” a vulgarism for that reason. The distinction in RN9 is between a “Missa Cantata” (smokeless) and a “Simple High Mass” (or “High Mass w/o D and SD”) – a little unwieldy but perhaps helpful for your purposes here. This also matches the North American pre-Conciliar Roman Catholic parsing of High Mass as a category consisting of Solemn and Sung High. Thus, I don’t have a problem with the use of High for the principal celebration with incense and the fullest human resources of the parish (whether just priest and servers or also deacon/concelebrants), much as I support the retention of the three Scared Monsters where feasible.

  8. I’ve felt for quite a while now that we should bring back the Minor Orders, not to expand clericalism but to honor the liturgical ministries of the laity.

  9. I’m usually our Subdeacon when we do Solemn High Masses.

    You wouldn’t usher in a subdeacon at the Offertory to switch a Sung Mass to a High Mass in the middle of a service. You wouldn’t sing the mass through the creed, then start speaking everything. So why speak until the Sursum corda and only then begin to sing?

    Yes, indeed!

  10. I do understand where you’re coming from here… My personal recommendation (to be taken with a large grain of salt, of course!) would be to sing as much as feasible and to make hearty use of the permission to monotone. My own priest isn’t a great singer but he muddles through pretty well.

    I’d think you could monotone the collects through most of the year (relieving yourself of the need to point) and work on them for the higher feasts. And singing the collects is part of your parish tradition—your predecessor is one of the first priests I knew once I switched to the Episcopal Church who did a consistently sung service!

  11. Unique, yes, but so’s the proclamation of the Gospel. One of the important things that the Tradition has insisted upon is both halves. The Word and the Sacraments shouldn’t be decisively separated. To me the musical transition says: this is important, the other stuff wasn’t.

  12. In my experience, there is a lot of mix and match between these categories in TEC. These categories certainly have historical and Western catholic roots, but I wonder, Do they best serve us [given that we do draw from the fullness of the catholic breadth, including our Orthodox kin, for which such terms are foreign] today as categories for understanding our tradition? Low, Sung, High must also contain within themselves the connotations they have inherited due to our own Anglican complexity. And because of those connotations, I think them to difficult to impose upon many of our liturgies in a straightforward way, and so, either other categories are necessary, or subcategories within this framework. For example, whether we like it or not “Low” also takes on connotations of our Low Church/Evangelical and sometimes Liberal/Broad orientations. A liturgy can be Low and catholic or not. A liturgy can be High and not catholic within the definitions provided here.

    Another example,

    On average, given these definitions, my parish is a hybrid of Low and High. The issue is that our priest in charge isn’t with us every Sunday, and when he isn’t, we move from High to Low. Many of our associate priests don’t chant. Nevertheless, our deacon does, and she does chant her parts at all times. What is retained in both events: the full panoply of leaders at the Altar-Table including priest/deacon/subdeacon and incense at the appropriate points in the service. Our priest in charge is Anglo-Catholic taught, many of our associate priests are not, and so, sometimes gestures and postures are less fulsome when he isn’t with us. In the mean time, we have a rich Marian devotion and a clearly reformed-catholic public identity with an historical heritage connected to the SSJE.

    On average, I prefer a Solemn High Mass ad orientem with self-examined communing [this latter, communing, could go absent in many of our Catholic parishes in the 19th and 20th century, as Massey Shepherd notes]. However, there is also something elegant and contemplative about an early morning Said Mass well done–a term I prefer over Low Mass. And what of our long-standing tradition of Morning Prayer with Ante-Communion? Again:

    While I know that the term Low Mass has historical roots in catholic tradition, it also has connotations of practice in Anglican traditions, especially with flavors from our Evangelical wing and sometimes our Liberal wing that shift its meaning not in word, but in posture and gesture. And these, as I know Derek would argue, are vital to the fullness of a catholic Holy Communion event. Low Mass implies for me not only musical matters, leadership matters, or incense, but matters of posture and gesture that may be at odds with a catholic presentation. For example, standing with one’s arms at the side while presiding. Or not caring overly much about the import of bowings, prostrations, of the Elevation at the Alleluia or a Shewing Forth of Christ’s Body and Blood…

    And why is it we get focused singularly on matters/personnel at the Altar-Table and on the Mass? A catholic Service of Holy Communion, suggests for me gestural and postural participation of the laity in particular matters. For example, appropriate reverence of Christ’s Presence on entering the sanctuary by pause, bow, or kneel. In preparing to receive. In receiving. In leaving. In regard to treatment of iconography–if present [it is in my parish]. In use of the Baptismal water on entering and leaving. At the Sanctus. At the Words of Institution… Are bells rung during the WofI or at the Epiclesis? How are we training up those who walk through our doors by our own doing during the happening? Or our children? One of the most profound experiences I have ever had was at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy and watching a three-year old enter, bow, and kiss the icon for the day.

    What would it mean to begin categorizing the Office in similar ways?

    And within the variance of catholic expressions, there are those more Romeward and those more Eastward. There are parishes with a rigid ethos and others that are more relaxed. flexible.

  13. Perhaps my drive for clarification on “Solemn” and “High” is a subconscious thing around my own status. At the moment, as we get our server corp built up, I’m alternately the subdeacon or the thurifer. When I subdeacon that means our other trained person has to hop the altar rails as he alternates from choir member in the chancel to thurifer in the sanctuary!

  14. Well, you’re right about that. But the reading of the Gospel has its own “sit up and take notice” action: there’s a procession to the center of the nave, where the deacon opens a book, holds it up, and proclaims: “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” Sometimes there’s music before and after this event, too. It’s a Very Big Deal, pretty obviously.

    These things don’t have to be alike; they can each have their own particular flavor. The flavor of the singing of the Sursum Corda, to me, is to remind people that this is important – and by means of using the old chant, that people have been doing this for a very, very long time.

    But, obviously, other people disagree! (I’m not sure the “subdeacon” illustration will make any sense at all to most folks, BTW! That’s for the most really specialized to AC parishes.)

  15. (I’m in no way against the SC being said, BTW; I agree it’s a nice way to do the service.

    I’m just saying that parishes who sing it, even when they’re singing no other part of the “Sung Mass,” have a reasonable argument for doing so. And, of course, as somebody mentioned here: singing the whole mass is quite a lot to think about, maybe in particular if you’re not that confident in your singing voice.

    YMMV, of course – but that’s how I see it….)

  16. (Can I remind you, too, that the entire service is called “The Mass” or “The Holy Eucharist”? IOW, that the very name we use for service itself actually picks out one part as “more important” than the other?

    Argue with that, if you can! ;-) )

  17. In response to bls and others,

    I think what I’m expressing here is my dislike of anything that appears “piece-meal” in the liturgy. To me, a liturgy is an integrated whole that has been put together from the proper sources (i.e., BCP and supplementary materials) with forethought. Forethought is important because it signals a care and reverence for what we do together. From my perspective, forethought is something most often noticed in its absence rather than its presence. Liturgy should flow naturally. I rarely notice when it *does* flow because it’s supposed to; rather, I notice when it *doesn’t* flow and wonder if the proper care has been taken.

    The alternation between singing and speaking (as well as the alternation between traditional and contemporary language!) makes me notice discontinuity within the liturgy, and thus raises the specter in my mind of a lack of forethought and thus the discourtesy to the worshiping community of a haphazard production.

    There may well be communities and occasions where liturgical discontinuities are planned in advance or have a solid thought-out rationale behind them, but—having the experiences I’ve had on both side of the altar rail—they’re more likely to evoke a negative reaction to me than a neutral or positive one.

  18. You do raise an important language issue here, Christopher. In Anglican circles there is a natural tendency to see “Low” and “High” as party labels rather than degrees of solemnity. I could see a two-category distinction between “Said” and “Sung” as being more neutral. Let me think on that…

  19. But Derek: there’s a lot of music (usually) in the “principal Sunday service” to begin with. So what, exactly, is the difference between the celebrant singing the Sursum Corda and the choir (and/or congregation) singing a setting of the Gloria or Sanctus? I don’t see at all how the first is a “discontinuity” and the second “flows naturally” if you’re talking about “alternation between singing and speaking.” Hymns are also alternation between singing and speaking.

    Some parishes sing Psalms, too; sometimes Anglo-Catholic parishes read the Epistle, sometimes it’s sung. The Old Testament is always read, not sung. What’s wrong with this being said and that being sung? I just don’t get the point here, because this happens all the time during the service. The sung Sursum Corda has just been preceded, often, by a sung Offertory and the offering of the oblations accompanied by music or a song. So how can it be considered a “discontinuity” to continue to sing at that point?

  20. The difference is the ways the roles are broken out. The Ordinary of the Mass is the congregation’s part. It’s fine for them to sing the hymns and their parts while the priest/altar party speak theirs. The issue I have with it is that the clergy is speaking some of their parts and saying some of them. I’d rather see them speak it all or sing it all—be consistent.

    The OT isn’t always read; it can be sung too. The issue is that usually a non-vested layperson does the OT lesson and most of them don’t know how to sing it (or point it).

    And again it matters who is doing which part. The Offertory is the choir’s part (one of the Minor Propers) although many places use a congregation hymn. For the clergy to take up their part in song then is discontinuous if they haven’t been singing their part before the Offertory.

  21. All I can say is: St. Thomas Fifth Avenue does exactly what you’re speaking against here – and they do the most reverent and beautiful liturgy I’ve ever experienced. (With subdeacons and all!) There are ways and ways to do these things.

    I’ve seen the service done this way very well elsewhere, too, so it’s not just that building or choir or something else. The fineness of the service – the most lovely I still think about 7 years later, and on All Saints’ Day – had much more to do with the textual themes on the day via the readings and choices of music (both hymns and choir pieces). I think any hard-and-fast rule about “parts” doesn’t really work in non-AC parishes, either – for reasons you yourself note above. While I do like AC worship, I have lots of respect for parishes that can do great stuff in their own way.

    But, de gustibus non est disputandum, and I know you can’t easily change a liturgist’s mind! So I will say no more….

    ;-)

  22. (I think we ought to take another look at “High and Dry” liturgy, matter of fact. Sometimes I like that stuff even better than AC….)

  23. Derek, is it weird that at SHM at my parish the Subdeacon reads – not sings – the Epistle? Id it weird that at the only other AC parish In the state the Subdeacon sings it, but the says “”here endeth the reading” or whatever in a regular speaking voice?

  24. On the first, I would think that it depends on what the Deacon does. Our deacon doesn’t sing much and if he doesn’t sing the Gospel, I don’t sing the Epistle. If he were to sing it though, I would too. On the second, yes, that’s weird.

  25. You’re right, there are ways and ways of doing things. As I said, according to the prayer-book’s rules, literally any combination of saying and singing things is legal. I don’t mind if people disagree with me—hopefully, though, at the end of all of this whatever you decide will be a more informed decision.

    Thanks to the various responses, I’m thinking that it might even be a good idea to rewrite the post to fold in some of the things we’ve been discussing in the comments.

  26. I think I lean more in the English Use direction a la Dearmer—a fulsome ceremonial, but one that takes our current theology and practicalities into account in the way that a strict Fortescue ceremonial doesn’t.

  27. Actually, thinking about it some more: “parts” doesn’t even work in AC worship, depending on the parish. The choir might sing a composed mass, taking over the congregation’s part in singing the ordinary.

  28. Dearmer I know, and Fortescue I know, but what does “high and dry” mean in the liturgical context?

  29. “High and dry” is formal Protestant worship; at least, this is how I understand the term. As far as I know, it’s peculiar to Anglicanism. Perhaps “English Cathedral-style worship” is they way people pick out this style these days? This is what St. Thomas 5th has been for a long time, until the current Anglo-Catholic rector got there. I’d say the worship there now is a blend of both.)

    H&D has none of the Anglo-Catholic ceremonial; no incense, no subdeacons, perhaps no chasuble (or however you spell that damn word!). (Not quite sure what happens at the altar, but I’m thinking no elaborate gestures there, either.) Just basic Prayer-Book worship, but with a formal choreography. I think Derek’s pointing to Dearmer for this – but I’ve never read him.

    (I think our friend from “Sed Angli” might have more to say about this….)

  30. High and Dry as a technical term often refers to High Church worship before the elaboration of ornament and ceremonial brought in by the Oxford Movement or, more precisely, the Cambridge Camden Movement.

    I honestly don’t know of what texts to point to as exemplars of this tradition. I’d love some suggestions if anyone has any…

  31. I’m familiar with it. The 1902 edition is a compilation of the earlier volumes. I haven’t read through the whole thing but it’s on the short list for my project.

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