When we come to sanctuary practice, I am far less tolerant than I am on the subject of music. Some while ago I mentioned that I considered that too much attention being paid to ultra-correct performance of the rubrics was not entirely desireable: I opined that rubrics are God’s table manners, and not the meal itself. That being said, and I still would hold to that opinion, I think that the other extreme is far more reprehensible. I cannot bear sloppiness, carelessness, indifference on the sanctuary; the rubrics are there to be observed, and even if they are ‘only’ table manners, then they are God’s table manners, and not to make some attempt to observe them is worse than rudeness. On occasion, when I fear that I am going to be distressed by the carelessness of the celebration, I have chickened out of attending, or assisted from the nave.
The way we celebrate is not simply about self-expression, as some would have it. It is actually about communion, koinonia; an expression of my communion with Catholics in Tokyo, Sarawak, Anchorage, Sao Paolo, Sydney and even Neasden. I offer not merely the worship of the Adur Valley, but the prayer of the Church, and am inserted into the mystery of heavenly worship by my celebration (mutatis mutandis) in the same manner as, for instance, Pope Benedict XVI. By my submission to the rites, I also express koinonia with those of other rites who celebrate authentically according to those rites and do not substitute self-expression for Church-expression.
I rather suspect that some Ordinariate churches might find this one a little difficult. Most Anglo-Catholic churches, in my experience, do things differently to their neighbour. In one church you might find the Roman rite celebrated very similarly to the way I do it. But in another, it might be Common Worship with one particular set of selections, in another it might be English Missal; abroad, you may well find the Book of Common Prayer in one form or another; and this is all before the particular manner of performance of the rubrics. There are, of course, some standards; it seems to be almost universal for the Gospel to be read half way down the nave, facing west (I am now about to be indundated with accounts of churches where this is not done!), and the intercessions to be lengthy, and read by a layperson standing in the nave aisle facing east. There are general traditions, if I can put it like that, but immutable rubrics are few, unless freely chosen by a particular celebrant and parish. Even the estimable Fr Hunwicke has chosen the set of rubrics to which he carefully and laudably adheres. This, rather congregational, part of the patrimony, I think, will need to change, for the purposes of Communion.
Another factor is that which is sometimes expressed as lex orandi = lex credendi. You can see what someone believes by watching him pray the Mass (as well as the texts he uses), and the way the Mass is prayed will form the beliefs of those who assist at it. Here, I think, we need to be careful, because there is belief and then there is opinion; the two are not the same. Newman differentiated between notional and real belief. One can assent to something as being generally true without it making much difference to one’s life. Somebody may say that he believes in the real presence, but if he keeps the Lord in a cigar box on a library shelf — a real instance, by the way, this being the practice in a house of RC sisters that I have visited — then I think I may be excused for doubting whether that person believes at all that here is the body, blood soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, or merely has an opinion on the subject. They might say that they believed, and be quite cross if one suggested that they do not, but do they really do so? An opinion can easily be changed, because it costs little; a belief can send the believer to death in its defence. Belief is contagious; opinion merely interesting. And belief or opinion will show itself in the way we pray; mere opinion will tend to either dead, ritualistic performance, or else sloppy and careless emptiness.
A key component in all this is an atmosphere of holiness. I don’t mean incense and mood music (though perhaps these can help), but a focus on what one is doing; a concentration on the sacred action, and a remembrance that the real celebrant of the Mass is Christ, not Father Bloggs. This should obviate that appalling thing, the host-celebrant, who conducts a service as if it were a game show and he the compére. Our job is not to give people an entertaining hour or so, but to focus them beyond, to the eternal things; to seek the things that are above.
Some Anglo-Catholics find the irreverent atmosphere sometimes to be found in our churches truly objectionable. I know what they mean; partly this is because of demographics. Anglo-Catholic churches tend to have almost entirely adult congregations—not exclusively, I know. We tend to have a lot of families, and children naturally make things more chaotic. In controlling small children, one has to rely on the effectiveness of the parenting, though there are things one can do. I have found that it helps to spend quite a lot of time with the children preparing for First Holy Communion. I attend every preparation session, and spend some fifteen minutes each time simply teaching the children (8 year olds in our case) how to behave in church, and explaining the bits and pieces in a church and what they see at Mass. In our parish we have vast numbers of small children (Deo gratias!), and they really behave very well, because the smaller ones have learnt off their older brothers and sisters who have made their first Communions. And, slowly, even their parents are beginning to get the message.
In our tradition, of course, our altar servers tend to be mostly children and youths, with one or two adults to steer them. This, too, is a great help in preparing them to understand the liturgy and see it as something important to their lives. Those of you who are priests will often have encountered old men, many lapsed for years, who are brought back to the sacraments by the memory that ‘I used to be an altar boy’. If one has too many adults serving, there is not the same opportunity for the young to gain experience, and feel themselves to be of value, by performing the more interesting jobs. The Church is one of the first places that gives them roles of real responsibility and values them as true contributors to something genuinely important. In the past, I suppose, the Anglican tradition would have used choirs for this purpose, but it is a rare choir now that has a child top line, let alone a boy top line.
Roman Catholics also tend to behave in a rather more relaxed way in church than do Anglo-Catholics. I don’t know why this should be, but you will see it in an even more pronounced way in the Mediterranean countries. Maybe (and I’m guessing) it is because we don’t feel we have to make a point of our beliefs and practices; we haven’t had to fight for them in the same way—the worst we might expect is an eejit given to clown Masses, and I have never seen that in the UK. A little more decorum would be nice, of course, and I would certainly appreciate some more quiet before Mass, but the slight air of chaos on a Sunday morning says ‘family’ to me.
I have served in churches where Mass is celebrated facing east, and where Mass is celebrated facing west. I prefer ad orientem celebration (and believe that it better expresses the meaning of the liturgy), but I do not think it impossible to celebrate well ad populum. To make the crucifix one’s focus, and to set it on the altar as Pope Benedict recommends is a great help. It also helps not to look directly at the people except when one is directly addressing them. Building an atmosphere of prayer is a longer task.
One thing I would love to change is the Communion queue. Some ‘liturgists’ are now even making a virtue of it, calling it the ‘Communion Procession’. Well, I suppose they may as well try and see some virtue in it, but I cannot get it. Communion along the sanctuary step gives people a chance to compose themselves, and a chance to receive Communion without immediately being required to move along and make way for someone else. The priest can distribute more quickly, without irreverence, and—an important thing, this—if there is a rail, elderly people receiving on the tongue can brace themselves against it, so that the priest is not having to make a tricky shot placing the Host safely onto the tongue of somebody unsteady on his feet, wobbling around.
This post isn't really a long reasoned argument; it's just a series of thoughts as I try to explain just why it might be that some Anglo-Catholics find our worship not quite as they might prefer it to be. In the end, it is because it is the worship of those who worship there. At times I, too, wonder at the resilience of the People of God, who continue to meet our Lord and grow in his grace in the most unpropitious circumstances. But finally, perhaps, it might remind us of that Jew in Boccaccio's story who, resolving to be baptized, determined to pay a visit to Rome first. His local priest was convinced that, once he saw the chaos and bad-living of that city, he would change his mind in short order. But on his return, the Jew professed himself completely convinced, because, he said, nothing so corrupt and dreadful could possibly have survived even ten years, let along centuries unless the Church were indeed the vessel of God's promise. We are, indeed, the earthen vessels that carry this great treasure, and it is a most powerful demonstration of God's grace that even something so awful as some of our liturgy unquestionably is can still convert thousands, as was demonstrated by the crowds in our cathedrals last Sunday for the Rite of Election.