Whence Came that Cross?

When Anglicans and Catholics attend Mass at each other’s churches, there are always some moments of awkwardness or slight conclusion. Unless one has a lot of practice, the Anglican is likely to waltz right on through to non-Scriptural, “for the kingdom, the power, and the glory” after “deliver us from evil” in the Our Father (always a grin-inducing irony that Catholics are more Scriptural in this instance that most Protestants; or maybe Protestants just find the Didache to be authoritative!). Similarly, Catholics are probably thrown for a loop when, after the intercessions, the deacon or priest bids the people to confess their sins.

But some of the differences are also at the level of pious ceremony. Some Anglicans will reverence the Sacrament and the altar with a genuflection or bow when they leave their pew to come forward for Communion (and maybe even when they return to their pew). The Catholic, practice, however, is not to reverence when leaving their seats to receive, but instead to reverence just before they receive the Sacred Body and Blood.

Another difference that will be stand out to high church Anglicans when at a Catholic church is that the sign of the cross is not used by the priest of the faithful when praying for the dead (whether during the intercessions or in the Eucharistic Prayer itself). This is something that has piqued my interest and after some searching of ceremonial, I still have not come up with a satisfactory answer. One answer I heard to the “why” question was that it is because of the cross that we can pray in hope for the faithful departed. But that, of course, could apply to a vast swath of the content of our prayers and would mean that we would be crossing ourselves every two seconds. I’ve heard the same explanation given for why some Anglicans cross themselves in the Creed in the second to last line (at “the resurrection of the body” in the Apostles’ Creed or “We look for the resurrection of the dead” in the Nicene Creed). But this practice is almost certainly the result of the overzealous who, anticipating the sign of the cross made by some at the conclusion of the Creed (like at the conclusion of the Gloria in excelsis and the Eucharistic prayer), retrofitted the practice with a pious but probably mistaken explanation.

My working theory on the origin of the practice by high church Anglicans of crossing themselves when praying for the dead is related to the principle behind the practice of making the holy Sign at the end of the Creed (which, I believe, is relatively recent anyway). A Western liturgical principal is that the Sign is made at the beginning and end of divine service: hence at the opening versicle of the Office and again at the conclusion. The Offices, particularly those before the Council, almost always had a prayer for the departed at the conclusion of the Office (though it is difficult to generalize since there were lots of variations in breviaries published at different time and for various religious orders). Nonetheless, my hunch is that pious Anglo-Catholics, especially the ritualists, as they adopted more and more ceremonial from the Latin rite, mistook the sign of the cross at the prayer for the dead at the Office’s conclusion as being connected to the prayer for the dead, and not because it is the conclusion of the rite. Add to this the concern and desire amongst Anglo-Catholics to indicate that they really are Catholics and that they believe in purgatory and prayers for the dead, would want to punctuate this practice by emphasizing it with the use of the Sacred Sign. That’s my theory. And if I’m mistaken, I’d love to know the real story.

[As an aside, when batting this around with my colleague, Fr. Alex Pryor, he proposed a very likely source for another peculiarly Anglican practice: making the Sign at the opening words of the Benedictus qui venit after the Sanctus. I’ve heard the explanation that this was a medieval practice that arose because, when Mass settings of the Sanctus were quite long and the Canon was said silently while it was sung, the elevations often came around the time that the Benedictus was beginning. But this assumes that was was a wide-spread Latin-rite practice, which doesn’t seem to be the case. My colleague’s theory, however, is that the Benedictus was interpreted as a Dominical canticle, like at the opening words of the Benedictus Dominus Deus at Matins, Magnificat at Evensong, and Nunc Dimittis at Compline. This seems quite logical to me. And, if you add again the Anglo-Catholic impetus to indicate that they are really Catholic, the Sign could also be a way of interpreted in the Benedictus qui venit in a rather literal way: the One who comes in the Name of the Lord is about to come now in sacramental form on the Altar.]



  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking article. Your final phrase, “… the One who comes in the Name of the Lord is about to come now in sacramental form on the Altar.” may be further explained: In sung Masses prior to the reforms of Vatican II, the Benedictus was separated from the Sanctus, and only sung AFTER the elevation. Literally, the Lord had come.

  2. Now if you can only explain the Anglican (or at least Episcopalian) practice of reading the Gospel from the center aisle. I know the rationale (Gospel proclaimed in the midst of the people), but as far as I know this was never a custom in the Latin Rite and seems to have emerged among Anglicans only in the 20th century.

    1. My impression (from how I’ve heard it explained to me) was that they thought they were “recovering” an Orthodox/Eastern practice, without realizing it’s not at all a rubrical norm in that practice.

      1. I have heard this explanation too, and read it in late Ritualist sources.
        (Off the top of my head, Percy Dearmer, I believe, mentioned it.)

  3. Out of curiosity:
    How familiar is the author with preconcilliar Roman Catholic (and specifically English Roman Catholic) pious practice? My assumption has long been that many of these things were typical practices among RCs, who left them behind in the wake of the reformed Mass.

  4. Interestingly, in the latest LCMS Lutheran Service Book has us making the Sign of the Cross in both Creeds in the same place, the last phrase.

    I spent a number of years in the Society of the Holy Trinity, an Order for Lutheran clergy that is pan-Lutheran. I witnessed all sorts of practices that I had never seen before. Our polity allows every parish pastor to be his own pope, so it is not surprising that we are more diverse than I expected.

    The Sign of the Cross was also made at the “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” in the Sanctus is something I had never seen before also. I suspect that there is a lot of cross-pollination (sorry) between Anglo-Catholics and high Church Lutherans; less so between such Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

    I witnessed the Gospel Processions early in my ministry with crucifer, torches, and acolyte to carry the Gospel Book. In the parish I currently serve as their Vacancy Pastor, I frequently read the Gospel from the center aisle without acolytes, because there are none.

  5. A look into a Roman missal from before Vatican II can help you Matt. There are usually little + signs at the place where the sign of the Cross would be made. These include but were not limited to: at the start of the Mass, at the Adjutorium nostrum during the prayers at the foot of the altar, at the absolution after the Confiteor, at the start of the introit, at the end of the Gloria, Credo, and at the start of the Benedictus. Not mention numerous times during the Canon itself by the priest, at the embolism after the Pater Noster, and at the sacerdotal blessing at the end (and small signs of the Cross at both the Gospel readings). And in the Offices: at the opening veriscles and responses, at the canticles (Mag, Nunc, and Bene) and at the Benedicamus and Fidelium animae at the end of the Offices. I can also add that my grand-parents, all Roman Catholics from Eastern Europe, frequently made the sign of the Cross when mentioning departed family members or friends. I think that it was their way of remembering and praying for those dead.
    Matt, most of these reverences made during Mass/Offices were only made by the (RC) priest and not the people, but when the Catholic revival happened in the Anglican Church, the congregation was taught to make these reverences along with the (Anglican) priest. I think that you need to study the history of your own Church’s practice prior to fify years ago and that may aleviate your worries about another Church’s current practice. I’m not sure what PT’s purpose was in publishing this article. Edification? Education? A Lenten Laugh?

    1. I am a bit irritated by the use of the past tense – there are (young and growing) Catholic communities today using the Pre-Vatican-II liturgy. One can disagree with us, but simply pretending that we do not exist will hardly help.

      Maybe you will have at some point the opportunity to attend an Old-Rite Mass or watch a video of one, in order to see the current practice (naturally, lay people can do it as they like, but it seems to be most common that they make the signs of the cross that accompany texts that are said aloud in Low Mass, and to make signs of the cross at the same places in Sung Mass, although some of these texts are then recited quietly). There are differences between local uses – the Dominicans leave out some of these Signs of the Cross but have them instead at the beginning and end of the Gospel.

      1. The expression ‘an Old-Rite Mass’ is not accurate and not helpful. What you describe is an older form of the Roman rite of Mass.

      2. A comment to the reply of Gerard Flynn: I fully agree that the phrase ‘Old-Rite Mass’ is not very precise since there are many ancient forms of Mass. However, I believe that in practice everyone assumes that it means the same thing as the legally correct but more cumbersome phrase ‘Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite’ (although it can sometimes also refer to e.g. the old Dominican Use). Furthermore, the short names ‘Old Rite’ / ‘New Rite’ are pretty common, at least in England. So, why should one not use them?

  6. Another difference I’ve wondered about, Episcopalians often cross themselves with five points, ending at the sternum, or at the heart, while Catholics do just four, up down, left, right. I do it the Anglican way, though no one ever taught me, or told me why. I’ve always been courteous as to when, why, and how this difference arose.

  7. Several people mention that some of these Anglo-Catholic practices may stem from a desire to prove that they are really ‘Catholic’ (I assume this means deference to the Petrine Church). This may be a bit off topic, but I’m wondering (especially with the large number of Anglicans at PT), what’s the conventional attitude among Anglo-Catholics towards the Personal Ordinariates? On the surface this would appear to be the perfect mix of actual communion with Rome and Anglican traditional worship, though this is likely an oversimplification. As a Roman Riter with a fascination with all things Anglican, I’m genuinely curious.

  8. Reply to BK
    Because of the essential difference between them whereby the use of the latter is by virtue of its being the Roman rite, whereas the use of all others, as earlier and former forms of the same, is by way of concession to those who have difficulty receiving the reforms of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

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