Whether to Bless a Ring or its Wearer

The 1928 Book of Common Prayer for the United States, like all the traditional editions of the Book of Common Prayer, has the man put a ring on the woman’s hand. Unlike all its ancestor BCP editions, including the 1662, the 1928 explicitly adds the detail that the priest may say, before delivering the ring to the man,

Bless, O Lord, this Ring, that he who gives it and she who wears it may abide in thy peace, and continue in thy favour, unto their life’s end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thus it was also done at the marriage, in 2011, of Catherine Elizabeth Middleton to William of Wales.

But I think the notion of blessing the ring may invite superstition about the ring. To do nothing at that point, however, is silly: by custom, and by rubric in the 1662, the man and the woman who have taken their vows loose their hands; and then the Man lays the ring upon the office book. The priest, taking the ring, delivers it back to the man, to put it upon the fourth finger of the woman’s left hand. The ado of having the man lay the ring upon the office book, only to receive it back straightaway at the hands of the priest, would be a frivolous ornament unless it meant something. ‘Presumably,’ says Vernon Staley, this cæremony is ‘in order that it [the ring] may be blest by the priest, according to ancient usage’; or at least, says Samuel Hart, ‘that the act may have his sanction’. The cæremony, then, must be given its proper due in order to be meaningful.

I imagine that some priests may, as in other churches, have prayed silently and perhaps made the sign of the Cross over the ring; but this use of custom, or in the Church of England this way of obeying the rubric, is liable to superstitious abuse. The proliferation of blessings for things rather than persons may, of course, be cheered by some who decry the Reformation’s ‘stripping of the altars’ and seek a reënchantment of the world. I, however, am not keen on a vague view of a ‘sacramental world’ that relies on the sacerdotal mediation of anyone but Christ. It is common enough that Christians ask the Lord vaguely to bless this and that, as if blessing were almost a material to be dispensed, rather than that God himself graciously sustained all things. What the 1928 suggests is specific, but perhaps still it were better avoided.

Instead of undertaking to bless the ring, I suggest, the priest should take the ring to the altar and lay it thereupon, saying (instead of ‘Bless, O Lord, this Ring’ &c.),

Grant, O Lord, that he who gives this Ring and she who wears it may abide in thy peace, and continue in thy favour, unto their life’s end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As Francis Carolus Eeles notes, ‘In the Greek Church the ring is not blessed – merely laid upon the Holy Table. (Compare the old way of blessing the episcopal pallium at Rome by laying it on the tombs of S. Peter and S. Paul while a nocturn of mattins was said; the sword of the Holy Roman Emperor was originally blessed in much the same way.)’ By laying the ring upon the altar, the priest is seen to offer the ring to God, as he is accustomed to do with money and other material offerings in the Church. His prayer then may be either audible or silent, whichever he thinks best for the congregation’s devotion. The altered prayer I suggest, of the form ‘Grant that’ &c., is more in line with models given by Bishop Andrewes for the consecrations of churches and of altar plate, as well as the prayer concerning the sword in the coronation of the British monarch. Whether the priest pray aloud or silently, offering the ring upon the altar will amplify the meaning of what may otherwise appear a fussy cæremony of placing the ring upon the office book.

Lue-Yee Tsang

Lue-Yee Tsang studied theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and also writes at Cogito, Credo, Petam. A second-generation Chinese exile in America, he is interested in working with Chinese and non-Chinese Christians to equip the Church in China for domestic and world mission by providing it with important patristic, mediæval scholastic, and early Protestant works.

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