The Greater and Lesser Doxology

On August 30, Covenant College had the first chapel of the 2019-2020 school year. Chapel commenced as normal with an opening time of worship, a message from Chaplain Lowe, and a closing benediction. While for many years chapel would end in a singing of the Doxology, this year the announcement was made that instead of singing the Doxology, we would be singing the Gloria Patri. 

Photos by Eden Anyabwile

Photos by Eden Anyabwile

There was much confusion that spread across the Covenant community. Many students were unfamiliar with this new hymn and questioned if they would ever learn to appreciate the Gloria Patri as much as the beloved Doxology.

But what’s the big difference between the two hymns? At first glance, both hymns simply speak of giving praise and glory to the Trinity. But when you take a closer look, the Doxology speaks of all forms of creation giving praise to the Trinity, while the Gloria Patri strictly focuses on how all glory should be bestowed to the Trinity from now until eternity.

During the time of the early church, there were not many creeds that embodied the beliefs of the church. However, in response, the local churches composed creeds according to their faith and understandings. Similar to the Doxology, the Gloria Patri was used as a “cut-off” for psalms or hymns, as a sign that the liturgy was complete. While not as known as the Doxology, the Gloria Patri is also known as the “Lesser Doxology,” in order to distinguish it from the Gloria in excelsis, the “Greater Doxology.”

A modern telling of the origin of the Doxology is that it was written by the Anglican Bishop Thomas Ken. He wrote a series of hymns during his time at the Winchester College for the purpose of edifying the lives of the students. In 1695, Ken wrote a series of three hymns that the students could sing at different parts of the day. He urged the students to “be sure to sing the Morning and Evening Hymn in your chamber devoutly.” The closing of the three hymns ended in the same stanza that we are familiar with singing today. Despite a minor change made in 1709, the lyrics have remained consistent since the hymns were originally published.

In contrast, the Gloria Patri origin story is blurrier. However, there have been scholars that contribute it to Paul’s writing and his invocation of the Trinity: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Corinthians 13:13). 

The mystery of the Trinity has existed since the dawn of creation. Nicholas Ayo wrote a book entitled “Gloria Patri: The History and Theology of the Lesser Doxology.” Ayo goes into extensive detail about the history of the hymn, but in short the statement, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, [world without end]. Amen. Amen;” has Trinitarian baptismal formula influences, as well as Arian influences from disputes surrounding the divinity of Jesus.

These hymns seek to remind us of the mystery and majesty of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In them we are able to share in the same hymnal prayer sung by believers before us. So, while it may take some time to adjust to the new change, we can be encouraged that the change was made out of respect for our mutual faith in the Trinity. 

Photos by Eden Anyabwile

Photos by Eden Anyabwile

Chaplain Lowe said that when he was growing up, the church was not a part of his upbringing. But he remembers that once he started going to church as a young adult, he heard these hymns and felt a connection to this deeply established church history, as well to theology as a whole. He doesn’t favor one hymn over the other, but rather views both as fundamentally important to the church. His hope for the Covenant community is that we can enjoy this new shift in hymns as an extension to our faith and further understanding of the Trinity and the church as a whole.