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July 22, 2018: Our Sanctus Bells
by Father Jadon

For most of the first half of this year our adult formation efforts were focused on conversations about our liturgy. Over 40 parishioners participated in some way, and others read the book Beyond Smells and Bells that companioned our efforts. The primary goal was to explore where our worship traditions come from and how the different parts of our liturgy support one another. An equally important goal was to hear about how our experience of all this does or does not match what we believe, our theology.  As we made our way, I noted a consensus emerging around several current practices that deserve deeper conversation and several aspects that could benefit from more immediate evolution. The way we ring bells at the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer falls in the latter category, and beginning this Sunday we will begin trying a slight shift that will, I hope, help bring this particular practice into better alignment with our pursuit of  “traditional worship, progressive thinking.”

The use of an altar bell or bells (a.k.a. sanctus bells) seems to date back to the 13th century, but as the Roman Church began to standardize liturgical practice, directions about the use of them were still not included (in the 1570 Roman Missal, for example).  While bells became common and beloved accoutrements of the Mass, their use was not formally directed in the Roman Missal until 1962. Though there is no mention of this practice in any of our own prayer books, it became a very meaningful practice for many Anglican congregations by way of the liturgical reform movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Nevertheless, history reminds us that usage has varied widely and has evolved along with many other aspects of our Eucharistic celebration (e.g. the texts we use, which direction the priest faces, the participation of the laity, etc.). I am committed to the use of an altar bell (or “gong,” in our case) as a symbol of the resonance of any one Eucharistic celebration with every other celebration: past, present, and yet to come (when you ring one bell, others naturally resonate). The sanctus bell also helps awaken and enliven more/different senses. And its use signals and unites us with the Anglo-Catholic tradition that All Souls has come to embrace in some ways.

Beginning this Sunday we will ring the bell at both services as we say or sing the beginning of the Sanctus, instead of inserting the bell before the Sanctus at sung celebrations. This unifies our practice while allowing the words of the people (“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord…”) to flow continuously as part of the prayer the priest is leading, without pause or “interruption.” 

We will also add the ringing of the bell to the end of the Eucharistic prayer, just after the people sing or say the “Great Amen,” to mark what is, in modern theology, the point at which we understand the elements of bread and wine to be fully consecrated “holy food for holy people.” It makes sense to draw attention to this most important of moments.

Whether you were part of the “Living our Liturgy” conversations or not, I hope these slight evolutions will, if anything, enhance your service of the Lord in worship.  If you have concerns after trying them for several weeks, please do talk with me.  

Last Published: July 20, 2018 2:44 PM
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