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Of Canons and Hymns

By Daniel Martins

During my education at a decidedly non-liturgical Christian liberal arts college in the early 1970s, because I was a music major, I was required to learn the vocabulary associated with the various parts of the historic Western eucharistic liturgy. This included the distinction between the “ordinary” and the “propers” — the former being fixed elements and the latter varying according to season or occasion. The propers were components like the introit, gradual, sequence, offertory, Communion, and postcommunion. I discovered later that, in Anglo-Catholic parlance, these items are referred to as the “minor propers,” the “major propers” being the collect and appointed Scripture readings for the day.

In the Anglican tradition, minor propers are not formally prescribed but are left to the discretion of those in charge of planning worship in each local community. Some parishes still use traditionally prescribed texts for the minor propers, as found in volumes like the English Missal or the American Missal, and some even directly borrow texts extant in the Roman Missal, as permitted in the rubrics of the prayer book. In the experience of the great majority of Episcopalians and other Anglicans, however, while the expression “minor propers” is not familiar, the hymns fulfill the same function.

It is certainly safe to say that clergy and musicians who select hymns do so with varying assumptions, aims, and degrees of care. I have not done any sort of exhaustive statistical study, but my strong impression, from getting around as I have, is that even without any overriding authority in place, certain hymns tend to be widely used on certain occasions. Certainly “O come, all ye faithful” enjoys a pride of place as the entrance hymn on Christmas Eve, and “Jesus Christ is risen today” on Easter morning. Sometimes the scriptural texts that appear in the lectionary are spoken of as a “canon within the canon.” Could it be that there is, or ought to be, also a sort of “canon within the canon” among the hymns that are authorized for use? If so, I would like to nominate George Hugh Bourne’s text “Lord enthroned in heavenly splendor” (#307 in Hymnal 1982), particularly appropriate in late Paschaltide.

Bourne penned these lines while serving as headmaster a boarding school in Devon between 1866 and 1874. It is one of seven texts written as postcommunion hymns for use in the school chapel. Here we find a compact mystagogical catechesis on the meaning of the Eucharist in the context of the entire Paschal mystery.

Lord enthroned in heavenly splendor,
first begotten from the dead.
Thou alone our strong defender,
liftest up thy people’s head.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Jesus, true and living bread.

We begin, as it were, with the end, with imagery (“enthroned in heavenly splendor”) generously mined from the Revelation to St. John, especially chapters 5, 19, and 22. The ascription “first begotten from the dead” echoes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 (“firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”). God — and, for Christians by inferential extension, Jesus — being the “defender” of those who trust in him is all over the psalms, as well as the prophets; it is easier to look for a place where that notion is not present than to enumerate those where it is. It is also worth a glance at the Collect for Peace in Morning Prayer, laden with a succession of terms evoking the work of a “strong defender”: “Defend us from the assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries.” Each stanza concludes with a tag line following Alleluia — in this case, “true and living bread,” which is redolent of the “bread of life” discourse in John’s Gospel, chapter 6.

Here our humblest homage pay we,
here in loving reverence bow;
here for faith’s discernment pray we,
lest we fail to know thee now.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou art here, we ask not how.

Here we have a paean to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is not automatically evident to all. Even some Christians fail to discern it as a matter of formal (dis)belief. But when we do discern it, the realization drives us to our knees. Even so, that discernment can sometimes be fleeting, so we pray for the gift of faith, that we may continually see Jesus with us in the Blessed Sacrament. We easily empathize with the sentiment St. Thomas Aquinas expresses in “Humbly I adore thee” (#304): “Taste and touch and vision to discern thee fail; faith that comes by hearing [Rom. 10:17] pierces through the veil.” The tagline is quintessentially Anglican — we believe Jesus present in the sacrament, but we have no binding “canonical” theological language or explanation to describe it. “His were the words that spake it; that I believe and take it” (words attributed variously to both Queen Elizabeth I and John Donne).

Though the lowliest form doth veil thee
as of old in Bethlehem,
here as there thine angels hail thee,
branch and flower of Jesse’s stem.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
We in worship join with them.

We know that the experience of the sacraments cannot be detached from the doctrine of the Incarnation. Their very meaning and coherence is rooted in the sanctification of matter that happened when God took human flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So the third verse takes us back to the stable and manger, where Jesus was first worshiped by angels, the same angels (presumably) who join in the heavenly worship described in Revelation, and who join us invisibly (most of the time) in every celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus is styled the “son of Jesse,” father of the prototypical messiah David, Jesus’ royal ancestor. This builds on a foundation laid in Isaiah 11 with a metaphorical reference to the “root of Jesse.” Jesus is the “branch and flower” of that root. In the Eucharist, we participate in that angelic worship.

Paschal Lamb, thine offering finished
once for all when thou wast slain,
in its fullness undiminished
shall forevermore remain.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Cleansing us from every stain.

Paschal Lamb — this is arguably the root metaphor of the Church’s Easter celebration, and certainly of every celebration of the Eucharist (“Christ our Passover [pascha] is sacrificed for us”). Yet we do not repeat the Paschal sacrifice at each Eucharist. Rather, we participate in it, transcending both time and space to re-present the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, which is no longer merely “then and there,” but, in the eucharistic action, “here and now” whenever the Church gathers to “do this” in obedience to her Lord’s command.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is emphatic that what happened on the cross is “once, for all” (see chapters 9 and 10 in particular). Cranmer picked up this notion when he composed his eucharistic prayer, in words that wash over the ears of English-speaking Anglican Christians with great familiarity: “who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, satisfaction, and oblation for the sins of the whole world.”

Hence, we find “thine offering finished once for all when thou wast slain” in Bourne’s text. That sacrifice, in which we participate sacramentally, continues to avail for us, as Jesus our High Priest continues to intercede for us (again, see Hebrews, chapter 4 this time, as well as Romans 8:34). Consequently, “its fullness undiminished,” the self-offering of Christ, despite being finished once for all, “shall forevermore remain,” with a result of “cleansing us from every stain.” Perhaps we do well to take note here that the removal of a stain is never just casual work.

Life-imparting heavenly manna,
smitten rock with streaming side,
heaven and earth with loud hosanna
worship thee the Lamb who died.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Risen, ascended, glorified.

In the final verse, we encounter a veritable cornucopia of scriptural imagery. Holy Communion is likened to “heavenly manna,” which is “life-imparting,” as it conveys the very deathless life of God himself. The “smitten rock with streaming side” evokes, first, Moses striking the rock in the wilderness at Meribah, from whence life-sustaining water flowed, and then the water and blood that flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross after being lanced by the centurion. In this context, we might also take note of the mysterious and mystical reflection on the significance of water and blood that we find in the first epistle of John (1 John 5:6). In such a transcendent context, “heaven and earth” worship “the Lamb who died,” who, now, in the completion of his Paschal work, is “risen, ascended, glorified.”

I would not go so far as to say this hymn should be universally canonical for Anglicans. Cultural context matters a great deal in the work of crafting coherent liturgy. But I would strongly suggest that this hymn merits top consideration among those who drink broadly from the English cultural and linguistic stream. It gives voice to both the transcendent and immanent dimensions of the Eucharist, and is therefore the spiritual equivalent, perhaps, of a “complete protein.” It deserves to be thought of as one of the “minor propers” for this time of year.

In the Hymnal 1982, Bourne’s text is set to the rousing and virile Welsh tune Bryn Calfaria. In England it is more closely associated with St. Helen. There is also St. Osmund by the Canadian Healey Willan, whose service music is well-known to many Episcopalians.


  1. I’m very grateful for this post, for highlighting the text of a hymn I’ve sung many times but not thought about much. It strikes me that this is but one of a string of great mid to late 19th century English hymns that capture the spirit of that century’s revival of church life: scriptural, sacramental, devotional. I hope we will see more such explications!


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