Dreary Mass

Interesting article by Damian Thompson – ‘Draw your favourite part of the Mass’, said the RE teacher. Big mistake.

We priests seem to take it for granted that the laity are as much “into” liturgy as we priests are. Apart from a few men who are former seminarians or altar servers, or who have made of liturgy a “hobby” most laity cannot relate to the liturgy.

I find it interesting that Damian Thompson says that he has “a strange feeling that my aversion to Sunday morning services would have been just as strong if I’d grown up with the Old Rite“. Many lay people feel that liturgy just isn’t their “thing” or that taking an interest in it would be like passengers on a ship going up onto the bridge or down to the engine room.

I try to recall my own feelings about religion as a teenager. Of course, my perspective is affected by the fact that I was in another “engine room”, that of organs and choirs, but one that is more “lay” than the sanctuary. As a boy, I remember feeling more at home at Mattins and Evensong than the Communion Service. The new style altars facing the people and the modern language reinforced the feeling of alienation from that strange service that involved going up to get a piece of something that looked and tasted like cardboard and a sip from the chalice of something that tasted good and gave a warm feeling in the throat.

Obviously something made me want to become a priest rather than do a music degree or join the Navy. It seems to have been church music for me and the beauty of church buildings, and then a kind of liturgy that “melted” into the church as a complete spiritual experience. Like looking at a painting at the art gallery from a distance before examining the artist’s brush strokes, the lay person feels that the “spell” might get broken if he gets too near. High gothic churches and distant altars do the trick! Many religiously inclined people talk of the “mystery” of the Mass and keep their distance.

Monks and priests are right in it. If I didn’t celebrate Mass or say the Office, I don’t know how often I would go to church given the distance to town on Sunday mornings and the desolation of many generations in our country churches! If I were a devout layman, I would probably trek out to the Abbey of Saint Wandrille where they use Latin and Gregorian chant. Whether you’re at a “mystical” distance or the priest “doing it”, how does the Church cater for those who are somewhere between the back of the church or in the priest’s shoes?

In times before clerics began to insist on congregational participation, either at the time of the Reformation or in our own times, lay people had their own devotions and helps for their spiritual lives. They had books of hours, rosaries and other forms of prayer. The Church allowed a degree of “Christian paganism” as a more liturgical expression was perhaps too demanding for some.

Protestantism, both in the “old” style and modern Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, gutted liturgical services into what would be essentially a collective lay devotion involving free improvised vocal prayers.

What is the place of liturgy in the Church? Only priests, monks and a certain “type” of urban young (and not so young) man seem to be interested in traditional rites. What makes the traditional Byzantine Liturgy more of interest to Orthodox lay people than the western Latin rite for Anglicans and Roman Catholics? Are the Orthodox also becoming alienated? Is it merely because they have television and other electronic gadgets to spend their money on? I use a computer, drive a car and have a mobile phone – but that doesn’t make me an atheist!

I hope there will be some comments on this posting, because it would be good to have some input from lay people who believe in God and pray, but who feel alienated from the liturgy. Obviously, Protestant-minded people would say that the liturgy encourages “Christian paganism” and idolatry, and that iconoclasm, whitewashed preaching barns and dreary sermons are the way . Perhaps those with a more moderate or “mystical” mindset might be able to give valuable insight.

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8 Responses to Dreary Mass

  1. Michael Frost says:

    I’d always like to think that some of the keys to “good” liturgy initially include a faithful confessing congregation being led by the Spirit and attempting to bring the Gospel to the people. And more practically a pastor who is focused on his congregation and vice versa. With both attempting to “do” the “best” liturgy they can.

    For the pastor, that means a good sermon that touches the hearts of the worshippers. For the congregation, that means active participation. For all, it means good music done well. Joyful appropriate music and congregational singing can often revitalize and always stimulates. I wish more parishes focused on doing fewer hymns better, esp. on Trinity Sundays, with hymns everyone knows, loves and sings, rather than worrying about making sure we sing some obscure hymn nobody, including the organist, knows because the rubrics say it is appropriate for the 17th Sunday After Trinity! A few boring unknown unenergetic hymns can many a liturgy ruin! Of course, this is primarily for Sundays and Holy Days.

    And all parishees should promote attendance at low liturgy during the week. This short and to-the-point liturgy can be most refreshing. Here the focus is on the quiet simple words and actions of the liturgy. A time for meditation and reflection.

    • I have never been present at Anglican liturgies in the USA. You talk of active participation, but is this your idea or a reality in the parishes? I have seen Youtube videos showing some good hymn singing, and that’s great. In the Anglican parish where you go, do many people go to Mass on weekdays, or is this just an ideal to promote? I’m not being facetious, just trying to get to the bottom of things.

      • Michael Frost says:

        In both my former AWRV parish and the local ACA where I do most of my worship today, music and singing are very important. Even those of us, myself included, who don’t know much about music attempt to sing as best we can. This is one of the biggest areas of “participation” in the Sunday liturgy. [I make a point of letting the organist or the person responsible for picking hymns to know my favorites (e.g., PECUSA 1940 Hymnal #s like 276 & 279). And I’m not usually shy to point out afterwards any hymn which went over like a lead Zeppelin (pun intended).]

        The local ACA parish is small, older, and aging. But they are quite “loyal” about church attendance. About 14-18 on Sunday, including myself and the Presbyterian organist (neither of whom go to communion). Amazingly, they get about 10-12 on their Wednesday evening low mass (including an RC who only comes then). Most large churches could usually only hope to get that kind of participation rate for a weekday service. They get high participation rates at their spring and fall yard clean ups too.

  2. Stephen K says:

    Father, Michael, here is my own perspective on things, if I may. Firstly, I think our attitudes to things like liturgy, prayer and piety are the product of our experiences and reflect our feelings, and are not indications of any objective purity or “correctness”. What is the earliest source for our “taste” in religion? In my case it comes down to colour and music. Like you, Father, I have often been in choirs, and in recent years playing the organ. Music has been the principal spiritual medium for me. It so happens that my earliest taste in hymns came from Faber hymns and hymns by Australian composer Richard Connolly. A little later I embraced classic Anglican hymns when I met them at an Anglo-Catholic church in my city. Around the same time I began to immerse myself in plainchant and the simpler polyphony. 42 years ago I bought a record called “Chants and Motets” by the monks of St John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, and if the house burns down, that’s the record I’ll save.

    But I’m not an ideologue about this. On Sunday I watched two episodes of “Songs of Praise” (BBC). The second featured the parish of All Saints in Peckham, London where they sing rousing, groovy, uptempo harmonic songs led by an electric guitar ensemble and female singer and I immediately picked up singing with a couple of the songs, loving the words, loving the worship in them and the congregation. To me they were simply singing modern hip equivalents of litanies and I’d be quite happy to go along and join them in what is simply ‘worship-in-song’.

    Another formative experience was as a Benedictine postulant singing Gelineau psalms at office.

    There are some things that resonate and others that do not. The point is though that for me it is the music and the light of stained glass windows that take me immediately, non-intellectually but sensibly, into the realm of the numinous and the consciousness of God. They are means; it is the thought about God that is the end, and then, one step further, how I love my neighbour. I have to admit though, that the Mass itself – and I served Latin Masses so often that I can recite much of the ordinary by heart even after decades – is probably dispensable as a religious liturgy to me. I put this down partly to its complicated composition (i.e. tries to do too many things) as well as the childhood experience of thinking Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was the pinnacle of worship and my later immersion in chanted or recited divine office of hours. These things satisfy me – religiously – much more than the Mass. Curiously, I think today, notwithstanding my predilection for plainchant and polyphony, Russian as well as Byrd and Tallis and so on, I prefer a simple modern (NO) Missa recitata than any of the traditional forms. I love Latin and Greek as languages, and often read works in them, but I seriously prefer English for religious service, finding the notion of Latin and attempts to restore it at least these days unnecessarily obscurantist.

    I think this reflects a thread of asceticism in my spiritual instincts. I accept I’m a religious mix that many people could not live with and that I am inclined to apophaticism/agnosticism on the cognitive level, but to syncretist belief on the wordless dimension. Anyway, just some lay thoughts I’m happy to share.

    • Michael Frost says:

      Stephen K, While we’re focusing a bit heavily on music, I also think good preaching is an integral part of a good Sunday liturgy. It is something that is sadly too often overlooked. I’ve sat in many an Anglican service over the past 30 years where the preacher tried to impress us with his historical or linguistic erudition about some text but completely forgot to relate the text to the lives of the worshippers sitting in the pews. Boredome ensues and the laity can’t wait to move on. That really harms the liturgy. Whether the sermon is 5 minutes or 35 minutes, a good preacher tries to relate his words to the Gospel and his parishioners, in words they can understand and relate to their own lives.

      • Stephen K says:

        Yes, I understand that. I think the “liturgy of the Word” is terribly important in the scheme. All parts of our being are important in religion. I lament either (a) my misfortune in not experiencing much insightful relevant and intelligent commentary from the lectern or pulpit or (b) the poverty of insight, relevance or intelligence from behind the lectern or pulpit(!). Nearly all of my encounter and meditation on the scriptures or spiritual writings comes from my own reading of books. This is partly what I had in mind when I said the Mass tries to do too many things. Actually, this may not be the best way to express it: it may be more a case of ministers not spending enough quality time and attention to its constituent elements, and the Readings and Homily too often come across as an interruption to the flow or an opportunity for egotism. The question I bet many people go away with is ‘why are we reading all this?’ or ‘what is that all about?, I’m none the wiser.’

      • ed pacht says:

        One thing seldom noticed these days is that, though it is indeed profitable to study the Scriptures on ones own, they were not written for such a purpose. The Scriptures were composed to be read aloud in a common assembly and, at least to some extent, to call into being the commonality of that assembly. The reading and exposition of the sacred writings was the purpose, the core and substance of the synagogue worship, and consequently of a major part of Christian worship. I would go so far as to say that without the written and proclaimed word the liturgy would (even though perhaps ‘valid’) be largely ineffectual in the spiritual life of Christians, at least as crippled as the weeks on end that Protestants experience without the sacrament. What Michael and Stephen have to say is right on the reading and proclamation of the written Word need to receive as much devout care and preparation as the eating and drinking of the Incarnate Word — both aspects of worship are intended to feed the soul, and to do so with God Himself. Anything less is a travesty.

      • Michael Frost says:

        ed, Couldn’t agree more! You probably like the PNCC’s 8th sacrament. I certainly do. 🙂

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