‘Usual’ and ‘normal’ do not mean the same thing when English is used carefully.  ‘Usual’ tends to refer to use, to what is commonly done, and to what is often the case.  The meaning of ‘normal’ in contrast refers to a norm, to what is done according to a rule or law or practice that has some authority behind it.  ‘Usual’ tends to refer to what is, while ‘normal’ tends to refer to what should be.

It is normal that babies are born after their parents have become friends and then been married.  That is the proper and normal pattern.  Whether that is in point of fact the order that usually and most often occurs is another question.  Sometimes the normal is usual.  Sometimes the usual is abnormal and wrong.  When interruptions to the normal order of things become very common, then the norm itself can be threatened by that fact:  the usual can obscure the normative character of the normal.

Such obscuring and confusing can occur in liturgy as in many other spheres of life.  What becomes common and often seen and done, the usual, can be mistaken for what is right, correct, lawful, and normative.

Consider an abnormal situation involving Holy Communion.  In the late Middle Ages in England one real and important norm in regard to the Eucharist was firmly maintained:  that is that the Mass was and should be the principal liturgical observance on Sundays and major feasts.  In the same period, however, Eucharistic discipline and lay piety were such that the average layman only received communion at Mass in Eastertide and, perhaps, a very few other times of year.  It was surely normal that parishioners should receive communion often, but such communion in fact became unusual.  The usual Sunday activity of the laity was attendance at a non-communicating Mass.

After the Reformation the situation changed in some ways and not in others, but the abnormal remained usual in that the typical lay experience on Sunday did not include Holy Communion.  The norm, that baptized Churchmen present at the Eucharist should receive communion, was theoretically restored, but the non-communicating practice of the pre-Reformation Church continued.  Whatever theologians and clergy said should be the case, the conservative laity continued to receive communion with roughly the same infrequency before and after the Reformation.  The new norm (most people present should receive communion at a Eucharist) and the old norm (people would only rarely receive communion) led to a new way of observing Sunday.  The typical parish liturgy from the mid-16th to the 20th century did not include the Eucharist, but came to be a service of Mattins, a sermon, and Antecommunion.  An abnormal form of lay sacramental practice – very infrequent communions – endured in England, while the way in which the abnormality was usually expressed changed, from non-communicating Mass before the Reformation to infrequent Mass after the Reformation.  The usual was not the normal in either case, though the post-Reformation abnormality was a greater deviation from Patristic norms than the pre-Reformation abnormality.

This failure to establish the normal as the usual often in our own day flows from practical circumstances or necessity which over time obscure the authority of a normative practice.  For example, the normal way to observe Sunday in liturgical terms is with as much splendor, beauty, and solemnity as is convenient.  In the terms of the Western liturgical tradition, that means the normal observance of Sunday is with a Solemn High Mass, in which much of the liturgy is sung, the ceremonial is elaborate, and a priest, deacon, and sub-deacon are assisted by a number of altar servers.  Most Anglican Catholic parishes, however, are small, with limited musical resources, only one cleric, and only a few acolytes.  Such limits often mean that the Sunday liturgical observance is ‘a simple said service’ – or Low Mass – perhaps supplemented with hymns.  While a Solemn High Mass is normal and that for which parishes should strive, that norm tends to be unusual.  In fact the norm may become sufficiently unusual that its normative status is forgotten:  the usual comes to seem normal, people think it odd that the Lord’s Prayer and Creed are sung, and so forth.

Likewise, because parishes are often small and the clergy often have secular employment during the week, the norm of daily, or at any rate frequent, weekday celebration of the Eucharist often cannot be achieved.  Instead many congregations can only celebrate the Eucharist on Sundays and perhaps on an occasional major weekday feast.  Because the Sunday liturgy is all that most people, including many clergy, can achieve, the unusual elements that attach to Sunday celebrations, as distinguished from weekend Masses, come to seem normal.  In many parishes, for instance, the Nicene Creed is always said at the Eucharist, when in fact it is only normally said on Sundays and some major feasts.

Another example of the way the usual can obscure the normal involves kneeling.  I was taught that in general one should stand for most prayers in a Solemn Mass, apart from the Prayer of Consecration, but kneel for most prayers at a Low Mass.  But when for years at a time most people in many small congregations never attend a Solemn Mass, the distinction is forgotten.  In this case the normal kneeling practice for Low Mass, in places where it is almost invariably the use, simply obscures any other norm.

Of course norms can change over time, particularly in secondary matters and over long periods of time.  But the general distinction between the usual and the normal is worth remembering.

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