Concluding hymns and ‘processions’

The congregational hymn accompanying a quasi-processional departure of the ministers at the conclusion of the Eucharistic liturgy has become so common that it might seem perverse to question the practice. Until recently I have thought that the closing hymn, if unrubrical, was nevertheless harmless, and I never thought a great deal about the ceremonial of the departure itself. I am increasingly convinced, however, especially this Lent, that this now familiar custom has undesirable consequences and might well be reconsidered.

Let us first examine the relevant rubrics in the 1979 Prayer Book. The last place within the Eucharistic rite itself where hymnody (or a psalm or anthem) is mentioned is during Communion:

During the ministration of Communion, hymns, psalms, or anthems may be sung.

The Additional Directions also provide that

A hymn may be sung before or after the postcommunion prayer.

It seems relatively clear that the latter direction – that is, not ‘during the ministration of Communion’ but ‘before... the postcommunion prayer’ – indicates a hymn during or after the ablutions. This would appropriately be a hymn of devotion to Christ’s Presence in, or thanksgiving for the benefits procured by, the Sacrament, probably a quiet piece and perhaps sung kneeling. Indeed, the rather elastic and appropriately devotional moment at the end of Communion seems the single most appropriate place in the entire Mass for the singing of a congregational hymn, and there are several suitable choices in the Hymnal 1982.

A hymn ‘after the postcommunion prayer’ also might well be sung kneeling if the people kneel during the Postcommunion;* or if, as would be appropriate, such a piece were a slightly more robust hymn of thanksgiving, and of course if the people have stood for the Postcommmunion, it might be sung standing. In any case, this is the last point at which a hymn may rubrically be sung at the Eucharist, and the Mass ends with the blessing (required in Rite I, optional in Rite II) and/or dismissal (optional in Rite I, required in Rite II), in accordance with the classical Roman shape which Anglican use once again shares. (It is notable that, though there are several explicitly postcommunion hymns in the Hymnal 1982, there are relatively few selections in that book that commend themselves for an exit ‘procession’.)

Two things, however, have conspired to create the custom familiar today.

First, bcp1892 and bcp1928 contained a blanket permission for the singing of a hymn before or after any service (perhaps following the Elizabethan injunction that a ‘hymne or such like songe’ could be sung before or after Morning or Evening Prayer).

Second, the increasing conflation during the twentieth century of the ordinary entrance of the ministers with a liturgical procession properly so called seemed to demand its mirror image, a departure of the ministers given some of the same trappings (processional cross, singing), even though the sung material did not conform to the traditional and logical processional forms of litany and/or responsorial psalms and hymns, and more fundamentally, the ‘procession’ lacked either a circuitous and stational, or a peregrinatory, route, which is to say that it had no particular goal or purpose. The custom has perhaps been reïnforced by the presence of two services in bcp1979 that specifically do mention a departure, which may (even in the context of the Eucharist) be accompanied by the singing of a hymn, psalm, or anthem: the pastoral offices for marriage and burial. It should be noted, however, that both of these services are in themselves somewhat incomplete, and imagine (one explicitly, one implicitly) a specific movement to another part of the much longer arc of the proceedings – the burial office to the burial itself, the wedding to further festivities and ultimately to the bedchamber† – whereas the ordinary Mass is ritually complete within itself and neither requires nor admits of a procession afterward.
(A third influence might be added, perhaps reflecting but surely also perpetuating the custom in question: the recommendations for postcommunion hymns given in various planning resources, including Hatchett’s, many of which hymns are set to boisterous tunes in the Hymnal 1982, whatever the merits of the texts.)

The first, if relatively minor, negative result of this state of affairs is that the deacon or priest appointed to give the dismissal either must linger awkwardly at the head of the nave – either self-consciously singing at the people, or self-consciously not doing so – while the rest of the ministers have left, or else she must give the dismissal from the west end, which, if sung over a public-address system, emanates as it were from nowhere and no one.

The second, and more serious, result of the custom in question is that the people are rallied to the point of uproar, especially when, as is practically universal, the ‘dismissal hymn’ is set or executed in a bombastic manner. The chaos that ensues as the people immediately explode into casual conversation, usually in clamorous competition with an organ postlude, furthered by the traffic jam occasioned by the celebrant’s and/or preacher’s self-stationing in the doorway, is an unseemly end to an event that should have left people relatively unable to speak for a time, and is injurious to anyone who might wish to linger in prayer and contemplation. This is even more incongruous in Lent, when the Mass has likely ended with a solemn super populum and by all rights ought all the more to encourage reflection.

A return to the rubrics regarding hymnody (and careful choice of music), coupled with a simple departure of the ministers to the vestry or other convenient place after the dismissal (with or without organ music, and by no means necessarily at full volume); reverent behavior modeled by sacristans and any other ‘officials’ who stay behind; provision for and encouragement of Eucharistic adoration or other devotions; and the setting aside of a separate space such as the parish hall for greetings, conversation, refreshment, and parish notices would, I argue, be a much more fitting conclusion to the celebration of the Mass. The reservation of processional practices for true processions would have the added benefit of heightening the sense of solemnity on the occasions when processions are called for (including the regular, but true, procession before the Mass).

*  The posture of the people during the Postcommunion, or for that matter before or after receiving, is not specified, though if the last direction given, to ‘kneel or stand’ [Rite I] / ‘stand or kneel’ [Rite II] after the Sanctus, still applies at this point, sitting is not an option.

†  in other times and places a rather more public place blessed by the priest and gathered round by friends and family.