An Introduction to Anglican Choral Eucharist

Eucharist

The Eucharist is a central part of Christian worship and is celebrated most Sundays at Anglican churches and much more frequently (often daily) in larger places of worship, such as cathedrals.

The term ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek for ‘thanksgiving’. Other terms commonly used are ‘Holy Communion’, ‘Mass’ and ‘The Lord’s Supper’. The meaning and significance of the Eucharist has been the topic of centuries of theological discussion and Christians interpret its celebration in many different ways. The Eucharist recalls the Last Supper, during which Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples, connecting these elements with his approaching death and calling upon his followers to continue the practice of sharing a sacramental meal as a way of remembering his death and resurrection. Many Christians also see the Eucharist as a foretaste of a heavenly banquet prepared for all Christ’s followers.

In the Anglican Church there are a number of recognised forms of the service of Eucharist. Some are in the traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer, others use more contemporary language. Depending on the form chosen and on the time of year, you will hear different words spoken, but the central part of the service, the sharing and bread and wine, will be very similar across all services.

Three Parts

Most Sunday celebrations of the Eucharist will include opportunity for active participation by the congregation, in the form of both singing and speaking. The service is divided into three parts:

the Gathering, which includes a greeting, various prayers and (usually) the Gloria;

the Liturgy of the Word, which includes readings from the Bible, a sermon, the Creed and prayers of intercession;

and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, which includes the Eucharistic Prayer and the distribution of the elements of bread and wine.

The Music

Running throughout Choral Eucharist is music usually known as the ‘Mass Setting’ (or sometimes the ‘Communion Service’). ‘Mass settings’ are choral settings of the texts common to all Eucharist services, different parts of which occur in all three sections of the service. The movements are usually known by their Latin names, even if they are sung in the vernacular: the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

A service at Norwich Cathedral

The texts of these parts of the Mass are the same in both Anglican and Roman Catholic services, which means that directors of music can choose settings from repertoire written for both traditions. Attend Eucharist at a Church of England Cathedral and you may hear Anglican settings by English composers such as Stanford, Darke or Howells or Roman Catholic settings by William Byrd, Mozart or Schubert. The main difference will be that the Roman Catholic settings are usually in Latin, while the Anglican settings are usually in English.

Not all choral foundations sing all the parts of the Mass at every service. For example, the Gloria is not usually sung in Lent and Advent, while the Kyrie is, and vice versa at other times within the Church’s year. The Creed is also often spoken rather than sung, but the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei are usually sung at most choral services all year round.

At some choral foundations, the priests also choose to chant parts of the Eucharistic prayer to plainsong. The music for this has its origins in the ‘Sarum Rite’, the liturgy used by most cathedrals and churches in England before the Reformation.

Other musical elements within the service may include hymns, an introit, a responsorial psalm, a Gospel acclamation, an anthem and an organ voluntary.

A cathedral congregation singing

Hymns

Hymns are usually sung by the choir and congregation together. The choir will usually sing some verses in four-part harmony while the congregation usually sings the melody, which is often printed in a service sheet alongside the words.

Introit and Anthem

The introit and the anthem are both short choral works whose texts often reflect the readings of the day or the current time within Church’s calendar (e.g. Advent, Easter or Pentecost). The introit occurs at the beginning of the service, while the anthem is usually sung during the distribution of the bread and wine.

Blackburn Cathedral Choir singing

Responsorial Psalms

Responsorial psalms are similar to the psalms sung at Matins and Evensong, in that they are usually sung to Anglican chant, but sections of the psalm are interspersed with a refrain, in which the congregation participates. Anglican Chant is usually in four-part harmony. Most of the text of the psalm is sung to the chanting notes, with the last syllables of each verse being fitted to the notes concluding each section of music. Chants often comprise two sections, with alternate verses being sung to each.

Gospel Acclamation

Gospel acclamations are choral settings of a short text sung before the Gospel reading, often while the Gospel is solemnly carried to a central point within the place of worship, where it is read from the midst of the congregation. When the Gospel procession returns, the organist may play a short improvisation, which is often loud and celebratory.

Organ Music

The organist will usually play a voluntary after the dismissal at the end of the service. Any piece of appropriate music can be played as a voluntary and organists choose from the vast repertoire for the instrument. The music used will range from the Renaissance and early Baroque to contemporary works by living composers.

The organ of Chelmsford Cathedral

Attend Choral Eucharist

Most cathedrals offer a service of Choral Eucharist every Sunday during the choir’s term and on weekdays at other significant times in the Church year (e.g. Ash Wednesday, Ascension Day, All Souls’ Day). Service times will be advertised on the cathedrals’ websites. During choir holidays Eucharist is sometimes sung by visiting choirs.

Parish churches with a choir will also offer a Choral Eucharist most Sundays.

Many cathedrals and some churches livestream Eucharist on YouTube. Information about these services can be found on the cathedrals’ websites.

Choral Eucharist is sometimes featured during Sunday Worship broadcast weekly on BBC Radio 4.