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A sinner’s meditation on the Gloria

12 Oct 09 | Re: Much-misunderstood liturgical element

Yesterday at church they incorporated some elements of 18th-century worship into the service, including using a traditional setting for the Gloria (a common setting that is still used every week at many churches). I had always thought of the Gloria as a song of joyful worship, so I was surprised that the setting used was a very dignified, sombre, minor key affair. Was that appropriate? Here is the text of the Gloria (from

Glory be to God on high,
and in earth peace, good will towards men.
We praise thee, we bless thee,
we worship thee, we glorify thee,
we give thanks to thee for thy great glory.
O Lord God, heavenly King,
God the Father Almighty.

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesu Christ:
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.

For thou only art holy;
thou only art the Lord;
thou only, O Christ,
with the Holy Ghost,
art the Most High in the glory of God the Father.

It does start by praising God, but you will notice that it quickly moves on to a plea for forgiveness: it is predominantly a prayer of humility, where the greatness of God makes the speaker seem lowly by comparison, instead of bathing him in reflected glory. As such, it is a close companion to the Prayer of Humble Access, while the three “have mercy”s also recall the Agnus Dei - neither of those are songs of joy, and I submit that the Gloria isn’t either.

This realisation changes my perception of the service as a whole. In the new Common Worship service, the Gloria follows the Confession and Absolution; I used to see that as marking the rather abrupt end of the ‘penitence’ bit of the service, and the start of the worship bit. Now I see it as a corollary to the Absolution - an extra plea for forgiveness wrapped up in measured praise.

So why, when I say these words every week, has it taken me so long to spot their penitent, humble side? Partly it’s the title, but of course the title isn’t meant to be descriptive - it’s just the first word of the prayer in Latin, a convention applied to every prayer and Psalm from Pater Noster to Nunc Dimitis to Quasi Modo. Mostly, I blame ministers who introduce the Gloria with words like “Thankful that we are forgiven, we stand to give praise to God!” These are misleading enough on their own, but when you combine them with the tendency to set the words to jaunty modern tunes you can see how the ‘have mercy’ element can get missed. There’s one version to the tune of At the Name of Jesus that reminds me of nothing so much as the One Song to the Tune of Another round on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

I’ve also heard the Gloria introduced as “The Song of the Angels”, but this is just plain wrong. Yes, the first lines are taken from the Angels’ song to the shepherds in Luke, but the rest of it simply doesn’t fit that description. Does “Thou that takest away the sins of the world / Have mercy upon us” sound like something an angel would sing? The real Song of the Angels is the Sanctus; it comes later in the service and it goes “Holy, holy, holy Lord / God of Hosts / Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory / Glory be to Thee / O Lord most high”. Much more appropriate.

So, action points:

Posted by FRANCISCO DE QUEVEDO at 18:30

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