Sunday, June 6, 2010

Communing the Choir

Disclaimer: What follows is my own opinion. I have not polled the choir on how choir members take communion, and I have no idea how they might feel about what I am going to say.
With that out of the way, let me say simply that I think that having the choir take communion at the high-altar rail at the 10:30 service is a bad idea.

In times past, choir members and acolytes exited the chancel after the invitation following the fraction, filling the rail at the crossing and receiving communion before the congregation. Everyone then returned to the chancel through the side doors. The choir sat down and could begin singing communion music, usually hymns, while other worshipers were being served.

Now, the usual procedure is for the choir and acolytes to commune at the high-altar rail, after which choir members return to their seats and prepare to sing the appointed communion music. Presumably, this routine is justified by the argument that it saves time.

But it often doesn’t. No priest or chalice bearer heads to the back of the chancel before other priests and chalice bearers have moved to the lower altar rail to begin serving the congregation. Once the servers go into the sanctuary, a kneeler has to be moved and the gate to the sanctuary closed before elements can be distributed. Then begins the Chinese fire drill, as choir members move to the altar rail helter skelter, often holding back or cutting in line to stand or kneel next to a spouse. The chaos continues as the lines going to the rail and returning from it collide. Eventually, everyone returns to his or her seat. Only then can the communion hymn singing begin. Today, for example, there were two communion hymns listed in the bulletin. Only the first one was sung, and the singing began only after everyone in the congregation had returned to his or her seat. In other words, the one hymn we did sing delayed the postcommunion prayer.

Most of my objections to our current way of doing things are pragmatic. While the elements are being prepared for distribution, the choir now just sits around. Were they communing at the lower altar rail, they could be distributing themselves at the rail during this period. Moreover, any rearrangements in the queue motivated by a desire to be next to one’s spouse could happen in the hallway, largely out of sight of the congregation. This allows the choir to return to the chancel quickly and to begin singing during most of the time the congregation is receiving communion.

According to today’s bulletin, “Healing Prayers and Anointing are offered for you or a loved one at the high altar.” Removing the choir from the high-altar rail also frees up that space for anyone who wants to avail him- or herself of the invitation in the bulletin. As it is now, the crowd at the high-altar rail discourages those wanting a special blessing or else keeps them at the rail while everyone is reciting the postcommunion prayer.

I have a more personal and less pragmatic reason for wanting to take communion along with the congregation. It is all too easy for choir members to feel isolated from other worshipers, to feel more like performers than participants. Taking communion in our own chancel ghetto, rather than in space shared by other worshipers, increases that sense of alienation.

Anyway, I would like to think that the congregation enjoys the hymn-singing during communion. Communing choir and acolytes at the lower altar rail allows for more of that. I have fond memories of my earliest experiences at St. Paul’s before we put in a freestanding altar. Communicants had to pass the choir seated on either side of the chancel to reach the altar rail. Hearing that four-part singing to the right and left while walking to the rail was glorious!

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