Pet hates: overexplaining symbols

Some texts, in my view, simply don’t work – even if they seem to be used all the time. Perhaps other people don’t have my problems with it, but one such text is that used at the fraction – the breaking of the bread – in Common Worship.

Breaking the Bread. Image via PxFuel under Creative Commons 0.0

Here is the text:

We break this bread
to share in the body of Christ.
Though we are many, we are one body,
because we all share in one bread.

I have three problems with it. It is bland. It spells out the symbolism in a way which appears on the surface to narrow it down to the gathered congregation, rather than broadening it to the whole church. It has an element of smugness about it, that would be easier to tolerate if our congregations were more diverse and less monochrome than they typically are.

Given the choices allowed by Common Worship, it’s surprising that so few options occur at this point. There appear to be only two alternatives provided in the whole breadth of official provision. The first, the more poetic and prayerful of the two, is suggested especially in the Christmas season; the second, and rather more prosaic (despite being a direct biblical quotation), is a general alternative also suggested particularly for Lent and Passiontide.

We break the bread of life,
and that life is the light of the world
God here among us,
light in the midst of us,
bring us to light and life
.

Every time we eat this bread
and drink this cup,
we proclaim the Lord’s death
until he comes.

The first thing to be said is that any specific form of wording – despite common practice – is only required by the rubric (Note 20 in the Order 1 Notes) on Sundays and Principal Holy Days. For most weekday masses the Bread may be broken while saying the Lamb of God, or in silence.

The second thing to note is that, if the rubric were strictly to be obeyed, the Liturgical Commission and the House of Bishops have already broken it by allowing the first alternative above (“We break the bread of life …”) in Common Worship: Times and Seasons. That they have done so suggests a certain degree of official resiling from the narrow frame of the rubric.

The third point I would make is that, almost certainly, the attention given to the breaking of the bread comes from a mistaken and overfond attachment to Dom Gregory Dix’s theories about the Shape of the Liturgy. In that influential, but now dated book, Dix bequeathed to the liturgical revisers of the late twentieth century an overemphasis on a fourfold (or sevenfold if one separates out the cup) shape to the eucharistic action: take, bless, break, give. With such a shape, it became very important to draw attention to the action of breaking.

I would suggest, however, that there are really only two fundamental actions, rather than four: giving thanks (or blessing, or offering according to theological persuasion), and sharing, and the other actions are subsidiary to those. We take in order to present to God with thanksgiving, and we break in order to share. There’s nothing wrong with providing words for those actions, but it’s hard to see they need this level of prescription. After all, if the presider can be trusted to compose a preface for the eucharistic prayer, surely they have the ability to come up with appropriate words for the fraction.

So, I take my cue from the House of Bishops overriding the rubric, and, as ever, appeal to Canon B5(i) (“The minister who is to conduct the service may in his discretion make and use variations which are not of substantial importance in any form of service authorised by Canon B 1 according to particular circumstances). It certainly seems to me legitimate to provide alternative words that have a broader frame of less self-congratulatory reference than the limited official provision.

Here’s a starter for 10:

We break the bread of life,
participation in Christ’s body once broken.
We share the cup of salvation,
communion in Christ’s life once given.

I confess, though, that, on the whole, I would rather default to performing the fraction while the Agnus Dei is being said or sung.