Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The First Person

This last weekend, I celebrated Mass for a small but enthusiastic parish in Sussex while their priest (ordained the day before I was born) was taking a well-earned post-Jubilee break. Before the Mass, I was informed by the musical directrix that it was to be a 'Folk Mass' that Sunday. Not really my cup of tea, as any reader of this blog will quickly understand. But the whole thing went with a swing; the singing was enthusiastic and there was a very positive atmosphere in the little church. I enjoyed my visit.
Some of the hymns sung have been going round in my head since. So many of the things sung in the folk-idiom use the words of the Lord in the first person; 'come, follow me…' 'I am the bread of life'. Of course these things are quotations from or paraphrases of the words of our Lord in the Gospel, which the priest or deacon reads in the first person, but I don't really feel comfortable with what feels to be taking a liberty with our Lord's words. I don't feel happy singing that I am the bread of life.

Anybody who has even a cursory familiarity with the Church's history will be aware that the phenomenon sometimes called Pentecostalism recurs from time to time. St Paul notes speaking in tongues, for instance, though he gets a bit unsure about it, perhaps later, when he insists that there must always be an interpretation. After that, the phenomenon acquired a dodgy reputation under a Phrygian called Montanus who with his two charming young lady assistants believed themselves to be 'channelling' the Holy Spirit, and would indeed speak in the first person—not quoting scripture, though—adding to it, as it were. Now here we come to another aspect of this pentecostal phenomenon: quasi-authoritative private revelation. The leaders of these groups believe themselves to be in some way divinely appointed to teach and lead. They speak with an infallibility that the Pope could only dream of and their pronouncements must be treated as divine revelation. For the most part these pronouncements are harmless 'I have a word from the Lord: I love you with an endless love' for instance, but they can also be used against individuals 'The Lord says that Mary-Lou Whaletrouser is a disturbing influence in the community, and we should all lovingly treat her like dirt until she repents'. And in some cases these leaders behave as an alternative magisterium teaching doctrine which might be at variance with official teaching (I have experienced this), but which is required to be accepted by the community as the ipsissima verba Domini.

Mgr Ronald Knox's remarkable book Enthusiasm tells the tale of this strange phenomenon in Christianity throughout the ages; it's a bit of a tough read, but very illuminating.

I should, naturally, say that the little parish where I said Mass on Sunday has none of these weird characteristics: they were charming and devout. It was just the 'first person' nature of some of the hymns that got me thinking.

And it's why I feel uncomfortable about using the Lord's words directly like that.


Ben Whitworth said...

[Going off at a tangent:] Mary-Lou Whaletrouser sounds like one of the names from 'Round the Horne'. My favourite was the Reverend Ignatius Nibelung Goosecreature.

I haven't read 'Enthusiasm', but I'm reading 'The Knox Brothers' by their niece Penelope Fitzgerald, which is filling me with desire to read both (a) the complete works of Ronnie; and (b) the complete works of Penelope Fitzgerald.

I have been enjoying splendid liturgies in Ireland, at the Fota International Liturgical Conference in Cork City; naturally you were in my prayers there.

Justin said...

But we do that when singing plainchant as well e.g. the plainchant introit for Easter Sunday - I have risen: I am with you once more; you placed your hand on me to keep me safe, or for Christmas midnight - The Lord said to me: You are my son, it is I who have begotten you this day.

Pastor in Monte said...

That is, of course, correct, and I can think of other instances. But hymnody does seem to work on other principles.
What I might have added is that sometimes hymns actually put words into God's mouth:
I the Lord of sea and sky
I have heard my people's cry,
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save.

pelerin said...

'I the Lord of sea and sky' etc Oh dear! Every time I see mention of a banal hymn on the internet I find myself humming it and realise that I have sung it in the past. 'Follow me Follow me' is another which once reminded of, find it difficult to get it out of my head. And don't mention the 'Clapping Gloria' which I am ashamed to say I once sung with great gusto.

I don't think Great Gusto was in Round the Horne but my favourite was Rambling Sid Rumpold!

Andrew said...

I still shudder at the thought of all those years of folk songs at masses at St Anne's, Sean. lord of the Dance, Blowing in the wind etc - and I apologize in advance if mention of this gives you ear worm!