Cathedral Blog

Search all blog posts

The Responses

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Thursday, October 25, 2018

I sang my first public solo at the age of three to a crowd of excited children and even more excited parents at our playgroup Christmas show. It was a rendition of that classic nursery rhyme: ‘Being a spider is absolutely great/I’ve got more legs than anyone/‘cos I’ve got eight’ (Deeply ironic given my long-held arachnophobia).

Singing in public is not something that I am unaccustomed to and that initial public performance has been followed over the years by concerts, recitals, and too many services to even count. Nonetheless, my first opportunity to officiate at Evensong in the Cathedral was marked by a fairly equal mix of joy at the privilege and stomach-wrenching dread at the thought that I might ruin the Preces & Responses.

O Lord, open thou our lips
And our mouth shall show forth Thy praise  …

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Praise ye the Lord
The Lord’s name be praised.

These words come from the monastic offices which took place throughout the day. In particular, they have their origins in the service of Mattins (the first service of the new day) and Vespers (which takes place at dusk, when the lamps are lit: the beginning of the day according to Jewish custom).

The first line ‘O Lord, open thou our lips…’ was particularly powerful in its context of the first service of the day: traditionally, silence was kept from after Compline (the final service before sleep) until the service of Mattins, and so the plea for God to open our lips had a certain literal significance.

In the context of Choral Evensong at the Cathedral, despite not breaking our silence, these opening responses still function to mark out a beginning: the beginning of our formal worship. They frame that worship, mark it out from the worship that we are making with our everyday lives, and remind us afresh of the one in whose presence we stand.

The Responses are all about praise and they encapsulate the tension between fear and awe which should be blazing at the heart of our worship.

The best things in life are the ones that force us to live in this place of intersection between awe and fear: the heart-wrenching-ness of falling in love, of caring for another person with such intensity that it seems to consume you. True challenge: expanding our minds, testing our bravery, pushing ourselves ‘out of our comfort zone’. These are the best things, the things which are the most valuable experiences, the things which create value and meaning in our lives. And this is the category in which worship belongs.

But formal worship is something we seem to easily take for granted. Our engagement in worship can have something of the same quality as queuing for the bus. Our hearts are not in it; our attitude one of passivity instead of engagement. We go through the motions, we daydream or get distracted, and we recite by rote the words that once filled us with awe. Or perhaps they never did.

But they should.

Because 'our God is a consuming fire' (Hebrews 12:29, NRSV); Praise ye the Lord!

The glorious Majesty of the Lord shall endure for ever * the Lord shall rejoice in his works.
The earth shall tremble at the look of him * if he do but touch the hills, they shall smoke.
I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live * I will praise my God while I have my being.

(Psalm 104: 31-33, BCP Psalter, Coverdale/1662)

We cannot praise God simply by going through the motions because God’s ‘mighty acts’ are not an everyday kind of occurrence; they do not exist within our normal frame of reference. In comparison to the God that we are praising we are tiny. Loved more preciously than we can ever imagine, but infinitesimally small.

There is a vulnerability in this; an excuse for fear amidst the awe. ‘The earth shall tremble at the look of him’ the psalmist writes, and given what God is capable of it is no wonder.

Coming into the presence of that kind of glorious majesty should be scary. It’s a mark of how awesome it truly is. We are vulnerable in worship because we are but a speck of dust in a vast and splendid universe, standing in the presence of the One who created all things. Praise is about owning that vulnerability. So that we can rejoice in the majesty of our God. So that by comparison with our smallness we can begin to comprehend, just a little, the awesomeness of the one we are worshipping.

Here is the paradox. We ask God to open our lips in praise, but in order to ask we must already have begun to grasp God’s greatness: why else would we consider God’s praise worth our time?

And if praise is about recognition of God’s infinite greatness by comparison with our own finitude, then we are always praising when we embrace the truth of our limits: our mortality, our weakness, our tendency to close down what could instead be opened up. We are even praising when we stand fiddling nervously before Evensong, afraid of failing, afraid of falling short.

Fear is uncomfortable and we try to fight it. But without inhabiting those places of vulnerability we cannot have any encounter with God, and frankly we can’t even have honest encounter with each other.

And so I have come to accept that my joy/dread reaction to officiating is rather an appropriate one. We are vulnerable in praise before the One whose glory is even beyond our comprehension, and amazingly, astonishingly, we are welcomed and loved: befriended by the very One whose praise we convey.

I’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating. The best things in life are the ones which force us to live in this place of intersection between awe and fear: love, challenge, worship…

Seems to me like it might be worth the butterflies.


Our blog posts are written by a range of writers and reflect their personal views. Publication should not necessarily be read as endorsement by the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church.