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Some Anglicans 'cross themselves' at various points of an Anglican church service. It is common practice for Roman Catholics. Is there in standard Roman Catholic or Anglican catachesis / instruction any guidance as to a 'correct' motion when crossing yourself:

  • left-to-right or right-to-left, for example?
  • the horizontal motion first, or the vertical?

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For Catholics, it's using the right hand, forehead-chest-left shoulder-right shoulder.

The Sign of the Cross (from the Fountain of Catholic Knowledge, OFFICE OF CATHOLIC PUBLICATIONS, Imprimatur, 1877; and from THE CATECHIST, by the Very Rev. Canon Howe, Imprimatur, 1898)

MAKING THE SIGN OF THE CROSS

The Sign of the Cross is a sacramental if we make it with the right hand by touching the forehead (showing our belief in the Cross), the breast (showing our love of the Cross), and the shoulders (showing our readiness to bear the Cross). Sometimes a triple Cross is made with the thumb for example at the reading of the Gospel. It is made on the forehead, on the heart, and on the lips in order to show our readiness to profess the Cross.

See also the Baltimore Catechism (1064).

Q. 1064. How do we make the sign of the cross?

A. We make the sign of the cross by putting the right hand to the forehead, then on the breast, and then to the left and right shoulders, saying, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen."

It is worth noting that the sign of the cross (for a Catholic) is a sacramental1.

That isn't how it was always done

The above sequence is comparatively new. The previous tradition had lasted for over a thousand years.

The early Church Fathers attested to the use of the sign of the cross. Tertullian ((De corona, 30, ~ A.D 250) described the commonness of the sign of the cross: “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross”

As described by Pope Innocent III2 it includes an explanation as to what each motion signifies. This is how the Greek Orthodox still do it: head, breast, right shoulder, left shoulder.

D.D. Emmons offers an explanation

For more than 1,200 years most Catholics made the Sign of the Cross in a like manner — that is, people in the Eastern and Western Church touched their forehead, their breast, and their shoulders, going right to left, with three fingers. Before he became pope, Innocent III wrote in The Sacred Mystery of the Altar, “The Sign of the Cross is made with three fingers, because it is imprinted under invocation of the Trinity… so that it descends from the upper part to the lower, and crosses over from the right hand to the left because Christ came down from the heaven to the Earth and crossed over from the Jews to the Gentiles.”

By the end of the Middle Ages, however, Western Catholics were making the Sign of the Cross using the hand in place of the fingers and touching the left shoulder first. Among the sources documenting this method and the rationale is a 15th-century devotion used by the nuns of the Brigittine Monastery of Sion in Isleworth, England, which stated that one should begin with the head and move downward, then to the left side, and then to the right. The devotion supported this form, saying that Jesus came down from the Father (forehead), was born as man (breast), suffered on the Cross (left shoulder), and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father (right shoulder). This method became the standard in the Western Church. It is not clear why the changes took place or why they did not also take root in the Eastern Church, which continues using three fingers to make the Sign of the Cross and from right to left.

Anglicans are "a Western Church"

The Anglican confession uses the same form as the Catholics (see the origin of this practice, per Emmons). (The source is a current website article written by an Anglican Pastor, Greg Goebel3).

How do I make the sign?

The hand and finger traces Christ’s cross upon one’s head, heart (center of chest), left shoulder and right shoulder. In the East it is right, then left shoulder. In some traditions, the finger is kissed after making the sign, or returned to the heart. When a priest or bishop is blessing the people, he makes the sign as if signing them. This means that rather than signing himself, he moves from their left to their right.


1The characteristics of sacramentals

1668 Sacramentals are instituted for the sanctification of certain ministries of the Church, certain states of life, a great variety of circumstances in Christian life, and the use of many things helpful to man. ... They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls Baptism).

1670 Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.

2 (Innocentius III, De sacro altaris mysterio, II, xlv in Patrologia Latina 217, 825C--D.)

3 "Greg {Goebel} is the founder of Anglican Pastor and serves as editor and one of the writers. He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America."

  • Great answer covering all bases. Please accept my green tick of thanks! :-) – EleventhDoctor Jan 28 '17 at 20:33
  • @EleventhDoctor Good question, I knew the Greeks did it different as my brother married a gal from the Greek Orthodox tradition. But I had to dig a bit to find when the traditions parted. That surprised me a bit. – KorvinStarmast Jan 28 '17 at 22:10
  • I do it with my left hand, being left-handed, and no one has ever corrected me. It would feel strange and difficult to make the sign of the cross with my right. – Matt Gutting Jan 29 '17 at 4:27
  • @MattGutting This is a place where "intentions" (what's in your heart) trump "correct form" issues, for example if someone is missing the right hand or it is injured. I'd not worry about it. It's not a dogma. – KorvinStarmast Jan 29 '17 at 13:41
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    I agree that it is not critical to do a sign in a specific way (as @MattGutting says). But I appreciate this answer because I value the beautiful insights into the meaning that the sign has for those who have thought carefully about it. – Peter Kirkpatrick Jan 29 '17 at 23:33

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