INSTITUTIONALIZING DISSENT

Although the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion have undertaken the reform of the liturgy in very different ways over the last 50 years or so, we now face similar problems of disaffection with the new.

While Rome is encouraging (if I hear it correctly) the co-existence of old rites alongside the new, Anglicans have long been familiar with a Sunday pattern of services which maintains parallel tracks of liturgical practice, both traditional and contemporary, side by side. Cody Unterseher describes this pattern on his posting ‘Living with Diversity’, and it may be instructive to take a closer look at the early celebration in Anglican practice. Might this offer a way forward of relevance to others?

In the Anglican context ‘the 8 o’clock’ early Mass every Sunday is deeply entrenched and fiercely defended.  Following the production of new Eucharistic rites in 1979 (USA) and 1980 and 2000 (UK), the 8 o’clock has in most places become a gathering of those who want to pretend that reform never happened. In perpetuating this anachronism we have succeeded in institutionalising dissent.

The attractions of the 8 o’clock are predictable. Its archaic language perpetuates the notion that God is one step removed from everyday life, kept safely in his antique Tudor box; you can sit where you like, at a guaranteed safe distance from your neighbour; you can kneel (or more accurately crouch) with no fear of being asked to stand to pray, or to form a circle; there is no danger of having to acknowledge the presence of other Christians, let alone touch them; there is a very good chance that you will avoid a homily (even though Cranmer mandated this); there is no requirement to sing or look cheerful; and there is no danger at all of being required to socialize after the service, or  being asked to do anything – to sign up, to volunteer, to take part.

Teresa Berger in her posting ‘The Journey is One’ reminds us that each particular journey we make is part of the journey of life, the journey home to God. The Sunday liturgy of the gathered assembly is, at its best, a powerful reminder, and indeed facilitator, of that journey in which we walk as fellow pilgrims.

The persistence of the phenomenon of the 8 o’clock is indicative of a mindset which has not just rejected modern liturgical language or form, but has decided to step aside from that journey.  The love of archaic language is a small sign of a bigger picture – of an attitude of heart and mind that wants no truck with today, either in the Church or in the world. It seeks reassurance not adventure.

Ironically, the 8 o’clock early celebration was originally intended for the benefit of the most devout and  committed, providing them with the only regular opportunity to receive holy communion, because up to the early 20th century the main service of the day in most parishes was either (non-eucharistic) sung Morning Prayer, or a non-communicating High Mass.

The 8 o’clock was there for the keenest members of the faith community who, having made their communion, would usually return for the later service(s) also. Only with the advent of the Parish Communion Movement in the 1930s was a people’s communicating Mass  gradually established as the main service of the day in the vast majority of English parishes, as also in North America.

The original purpose of the 8 o’clock was thereby made redundant, and yet it continued. Such is the way of humankind.  With the coming of new liturgical forms from the 1960s onwards, those who had no wish to be caught up in any ‘new fangled’ major gathering of the assembly, with all the interaction that entailed, seized upon the 8 o’clock and made it a safe haven protected from the seas of change. The phrase ‘making  my communion’ gave the game away; this was no participation in the rites of the Church but a private deal with God.

From being an opportunity for giving something extra, the 8 o’clock became an occasion for avoiding the demands of what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. Indeed the discontinuance of the 8 o’clock has, in my experience, been a first necessary step in the task of renewing parish life, launching the community on a sometimes painful but always fruitful process of determining afresh the nature of our life together and the shape of our worship and our path ahead.

Although the 8 o’clock is of course a peculiarly Anglican phenomenon, it seems that Rome also is moving in the same direction of a duality of rites, and no doubt in due course a variety of provisions will be made to cater for those who wish to be involved only distantly with the on-going journey and exploration of the Church.

Whatever our strategies for keeping on board, however loosely, those who stand aside from the mainstream, the question remains: do such measures represent  a permissible freedom, a generous sign of comprehensiveness, or an avoidance of the holy task of wrestling with our differences and coming to a common mind? Is allowing two kinds of rite – one traditional one contemporary in language – to continue side by side in the same book, in the same parish, a justifiable and honourable path of unity-in-diversity, or a cop-out, an exercise in self indulgence?

Perhaps it is not too late for others to learn from our mistakes?