Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Place of Awe-full Liturgy

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.


Fr William R. Young said...

The "queue" at Communion can still be a procession even when there are rails to kneel or stand at. Since the Pope began to offer communicants the opportunity to kneel to receive, we have put in temporary kneelers on the altar step. At the head of the procession, communicants fan out to find a place. Most kneel, many still prefer to stand. Either way, it is all much more relaxed for everyone. People are free to receive in the hand or directly on the tongue as they choose. It is also easier on me to be able to move along the "rail" rather than risk getting cramp from standing motionless in one position for too long.
The people have asked for the communion plate to be restored, which we are doing. One often sees reasons why it should never have been allowed to fall into disuse.
One proplem is the large numbers of people who wish to receive a "blessing": sometimes a whole pass along the rail is taken up with just blessings.
Provided an atmosphere of order is consistently favoured - and receiving Holy Communion kneeling at the rails helps this - a certain amount of apparent disorder can make it easier to see ourselves as a family at Mass.
Once in a kneeling position, the natural position at Communion, many do find themselves choosing to receive directly on the tongue. But even if they still receive in the hand, especially if they are kneeling, it can be reverent, and people behind cannot see any unfortunate fingering of the Host (- that is entirely my privilege!) Why O why O why were those who choose to receive in the hand told to use their fingers at all?! If one is kneeling, has received in the hand, and bows ones head to take the Sacrament directly into ones mouth, making sure to gather the crumbs with the tongue afterwards, it is very edifying. And as you say, Father, the communicants have time, whether they stand or kneel.

Terry said...

An excellent post, Father! Thank you.

Tom said...

Fr Young mentions the laudable request from some of his people for the Communion plate to be restored.

I don't have the document to hand, but doesn't the 2003 GIRM mandate the Communion plate, even though the document from the bishops' conference omits reference to it?

When the 2003 GIRM came into effect, our then PP restored the plate - only for it to be unceremoniously removed by his successor!

Steven said...

I remeber saying to a mutual friend of ours soon after his conversion and just after Corpus Christi Mass without procession "It's a good job it's true because it certainly isn't pretty".

Sussex Catholic said...

Without turning this into a full-on "Reform of the Reform" debate might it be possible to crystallise for priests some "quick wins" they could do straight away to improve matters beyond sticking with the rubrics? Some of them you have mentioned, my particular hit list would be (in a sort of chronological order):

1. Wear ALL the vestments designated for the Roman rite and do not leave out some or use albs that double or treble up. Vest over the cassock or habit not directly over street clothes and say the vesting prayers.

2. Pray the entirety of the Mass including the Propers.

3. Ignore the rubrics "or similar words" wherever possible. Stick to the text and recite it with eyes downcast don't sell it.

4. Face the people when you address them, face liturgical east when you address God (or at least across the Sanctuary if standing at the chair). Keep the so called "Presidential chair" at the Epistle side of the Sanctuary facing across it and not in the centre facing forward)

5. Use the Intercessions from the Breviary as the Prayer of the Faithful. This unites this action to the whole church and avoids the risk of prayers such as "Please let my holiday photos come out ok".

6. Face liturgical east when praying at the altar (even if it be a people's altar) and adorn the altar with 6 candlesticks and a large central crucifix with a visually evocative Corpus).

7. Say the Offertory Prayers silently.

8. Recite the Eucharistic Prayer as though one were praying it interiorally rather than declaiming it.

9. Make use of the Communion rail or predieu and the Communion plate for Holy Communion.

10. Make announcements at the start of the homily rather than in between the Postcommunion and Blessing.

11. Unvest and make thanksgiving before "pressing the flesh" and backslapping congregants at the door.

I am sure other people have their own particular ones but even some of these would I am sure make a big difference to replacing awful with "awe-full".

the owl of the remove said...

Good for you, Father, excellent post, as usual!

joe mc said...

Thanks, Father. I was deeply attracted to Anglo - Catholicism at university - here was a church where the ancient liturgy and music of my Church was done and cherished; however, it was precisely the lack of koininonia that never let me 'join up', as it were. (Sorry, if this story scandalises those of firmer faith) In the end, Anglo-Catholicism felt like one Anglican option among many; that one could go down the road to St X's where what was done was officially seen as just as valid, even though the theology was Zwinglian. It's precisely that need for the real communion of which you speak which has kept me Catholic.

Michael McDonough said...


"Another factor is that which is sometimes expressed as lex orandi = lex credendi."

While I appreciate approvingly all of your views about RC liturgy here, I think your statement above deserves real deep reflection on all our parts. I think the "=" is the problem. It is my understanding that "lex orandi" and "lex credendi" are more like parameters that should be tending in the same direction, rather than equations: sort of like pulse, and blood pressure. The sense that there are automatic causal relationships is, I fear, too naive. It truly reflects your point about Newman's distinction between "notional" and "real" belief.

The "=" can include all sorts of misconceptions, "urban legends", about why certain details occur in the liturgy, which people then adopt as "shibboleths" about "true Catholicism".