Liturgical Typeface on a Shoestring

I never imagined that I would write a post about the typefaces, fonts and ornaments that I have come to use for designing and printing the liturgies that we display or print for our people to use in worship. Honestly, I don’t think most, or even many people care what style of lettering is used – they simply wish to worship the Lord, and the featureless text (as if there were ever such a thing) is good enough to do so. And fair enough: until recently, I would have counted myself as one of them. But for the last few years, as I have had to refine a style (whether we like it or not, the fact remains that “style” exists), I’ve found myself working hard to balance beauty and budget, readability and availability, all primarily because a good printed liturgy should point us to straight to Christ, and therefore not distract us away from him by being illegible, ugly, or confusing.

As a missionary on a shoestring budget, it has not been easy to find inexpensive (read: free) digital fonts that allow for the printed aids of our worship to expand our hearts and minds to the Triune God. Nevertheless, as the end of the 2010s approaches, I have come to find that the world of open source typography has expanded so far as to offer many of the features that we need in the liturgical tradition, and much that was once inaccessible to the humble parish priest is now widely available with the click of a mouse. And friends, some of these typefaces are incredible!

So, without further ado, I want to share with you, gentle reader, my seven top liturgical typefaces, all of which can be acquired for free online.

7. Garrigós

This is not a full-up typeface: Garrigós is an ornaments font, that is, a typeface that allows for symbols and pictograms that are frequently used to annotate, border, or otherwise decorate texts. Garrigós is based on Argentine designs from the late 1700s and early 1800s. Most importantly for my purposes, Garrigós offers a wide choice of symmetrical crosses, mostly variations on the Maltese Cross (✠) that is frequently used in liturgical printing to indicate making the sign of the cross in one way or another.

The unicode Maltese cross is functional, but it lacks much grace or beauty. With the crosses afforded by Garrigós, there are beautiful options for almost any font you are working with, at almost any size or weight. There are a few fonts (like Cardo and Caelacanth below) that can supply their own crosses in a pinch, but Garrigós is top-notch in almost any circumstance.

6. Charis SIL

Charis SIL is a typeface developed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) International, a Christian ministry neck-deep in translation work around the world. Because of this niche, they have in many ways been the ones pioneering the digital and legal framework for working with open font licensing. Charis is modeled after Bitstream’s Charter, a simple, readable typeface from back in the days when digital printers weren’t so great.

Like basically all of the fonts included on this list (except for Garrigós), Charis includes the glyphs for Versicle and Response (kind of a funky looking V and R). The typeface comes in two weights (Regular and Bold), each with their corresponding italic. Charis also boasts a few fancy typographical features, like ligatures, true Small Caps, and some alternate forms.

For me, the big benefit of using Charis is that it is super legible at small sizes. If I need to save on space or paper, Charis is a font that has been designed to work when it’s tiny.

5. Gentium

This is another bunch of typefaces designed and distributed by SIL International is the Gentium Family of fonts. Probably their most well-known and popular family of fonts, Gentium now includes a “Plus” version that affords an enormous number of characters and glyphs, as well as a “Basic” version that offers only basic Latin characters, and a “Book” version which is a slightly darker version of the “Basic” version. Although the “Plus” version offers only a single roman and its italic, the “Basic” and “Book” versions are available in Regular and Bold, with italics. Other niceties include true Small Caps and some alternate forms.

Gentium shines in situations that require a legible font that is rooted in calligraphy and elegance, and yet comes across as informal. These fonts work well at small sizes, as well as large ones, and in addition to liturgical booklets, I will often use Gentium fonts to print off readings for worship. One more plus (no pun intended) is that the “Basic” and “Book” versions have been adopted by Google Fonts, and can be used on the web and downloaded freely through their platform, meaning they are often easy for our people to access these fonts for themselves if they so desire.

4. Times New Roman

I know, I know, I know: Linotype’s Times New Roman has been overdone, and I one hundred percent agree with you. But that doesn’t mean that this historic typeface and its main competitor Monotype’s Times should not still be used for liturgical printing. Rather, their ubiquity across platforms and processors, especially in the world of Microsoft and Apple, makes them uniquely positioned to give solid typographical style to liturgists around the world.

Decades ago, Times New Roman had the clean-cut feel of post-war progress, classic and yet modern all at once. If memory serves me correctly, the Book of Common Prayer (1662) was set in Times New Roman for decades, as have been countless other books, not to mention advertisements, university term papers, and business documents. It is time for many liturgists (especially we Anglicans) to rediscover the unassuming power of fonts like Times, Baskerville, and others like them. They became ubiquitous for a reason, and we could do much worse. What’s more, on our end of Central America, the Book of Common Prayer (1995) for the Church in the Province of the West Indies has been set in Times New Roman (sans ligatures, no less).

I would also add that due to the worldwide use of Times New Roman, countless clones and copycats exist many of which, such as Termes, include the ligatures and typographical features that Microsoft and Apple’s do not. And often Times-like fonts such as Doulos SIL supply an expanded set of glyphs that include liturgical symbols lacking in Times New Roman proper. We have many terrific options from which to choose.

3. Cardo

What a great font! Cardo is an open source version of Bembo, a typeface from the Italian Renaissance, and is well-known in academic circles due to its being a treasure-trove of hard-to-find characters and glyphs. It is also gorgeously angular, delicately supple, and the Italic is even better than the Roman. Cardo offers not just one set of Versicle and Response glyphs, but three, as well as the Jerusalem Cross, and the Chi Rho christogram. And all of this is combined with many advanced typographical features such as ligatures, old-style numbers, and real Small Caps. And it does not hurt that Cardo is available through Google Fonts, and can be used in Google Docs.

There is a downside to Cardo: the bold weight is not nearly as developed as the regular. Many of the OpenType features are missing, and there is no accompanying italic. Nevertheless, there are people working on that. In fact, Michael Sharpe has produced a typeface he calls fbb which expands the main Latin character set of Cardo into an improved Bold, complete with its italic.

For elegant liturgical aids, I often use a combination of Cardo and fbb, and it always turns out looking super-classy.

2. EB Garamond

In the world of open source typefaces, it does not get any better than EB Garamond. Conceived by Georg Duffner, and further developed by Octavio Pardo, EB Garamond offers more typographical features, more weights and italics, and more support than almost any other font out there, whether on the web or for print. The range of ligatures, swashes, capitals, numbers, and other features are unrivaled by other free fonts – indeed, EB Garamond approximates the possibilities of many Adobe Pro typefaces – and EB Garamond has become my daily workhorse for almost everything that I do.

Since the publication of the Book of Common Prayer (1979) using a Garamond-derived font called Sabon, all kinds of Garamond and Garamond-inspired fonts been embraced by liturgical publishers around the world, becoming the default in my generation, much like Janson, Times, and Baskerville were in the generation before. Garamond fonts in general are legible, classic, catholic, and beautiful, and these days one almost has to justify not using a Garamond when it comes to printed liturgies. And unless one is going to invest in an expensive Adobe Pro font, EB Garamond is going to be the top-of-the-line for printing liturgies (and much better than the free Monotype Garamond included with Microsoft Office).

1. Coelacanth

Coelacanth is a new typeface for me, but it offers extraordinary possibilities to a shoestring liturgical typesetter like myself. Modeled off of the classic turn-of-the-century typeface Centaur, Coelacanth aims to supply not just different weights, but different “optical sizes”, that is, separate versions of the typeface (called “fonts”) designed to be read at different sizes. Coelacanth offers six optical sizes (Display, Subheading, Regular, Caption, Subcaption, and Pearl), each in six weights (Extra Light, Light, Regular, Semibold, Bold, and Heavy), as well as a very distinctive Italic. These 37 fonts can be used and blended together to create an impressive architecture for liturgical work. And not only does this typeface family include the symbols for Versicle and Response, but there are special crosses to choose from as well.

Coelacanth evokes the feeling of Centaur and other typefaces of that period, such as those designed by Frederic Goudy (like Goudy Old Style) or Eric Gill (like Perpetua). They seem to harken back to myths and legends, to older days becoming refreshed in modernity. Though a little more difficult to read than Times New Roman, or even Garamond or Bembo, typefaces like the ones used in this richly decorated Book of Common Prayer seem to capture not only nostalgia but a sense of wonder, pairing the visual setting of the words with their meaning and performance in the liturgy.

Perhaps Coelacanth is not for every liturgical need, or every liturgist. But if the stars align and you need a liturgical typeface that evokes just enough of the past, just enough of the magical, and just enough of the mystical to be an incredible pick to be used in worship.

I hope you enjoyed this meander through the typefaces that I am using a lot these days. If you have any others to suggest, I am all ears … this list will soon go out of date!