Michael Fisher on worshipping outside the comfort zone
As the holiday season approaches, many readers of New Directions will find themselves on unfamiliar ground and looking for somewhere to worship while away from home. Invaluable as it is, the ND Parish Directory doesn’t provide for every location and every eventuality; so it can sometimes be a case of ‘pot luck’ as to what one might find. Parts of Wales and Scotland – without PEVs and without such assurances as the Five Guiding Principles – may present particular difficulties, and hearing mass at the local Roman Catholic church might well be the answer. It can, however, be a useful learning experience to stray out of one’s comfort zone from time to time – without, of course, compromising essential sacramental integrity.
This latter consideration can throw up some challenging situations. A church I once visited – not very far from Walsingham – had many of the outward signs of catholic tradition, was beautifully maintained and decorated, and had plenty of information about services and other activities. One thing, however, was conspicuously missing. There was no indication, either on the church notice-board or in the magazine, of the identity of the incumbent. As I continued my search I spotted her, half-hidden in a display of photographs of parish events! Had I gone along to worship the following morning I would have been in for a big surprise, and not a little embarrassment. I wonder what the need was for such covertness.
For similar reasons, I have come to be suspicious of church noticeboards that give only the initials of the incumbent rather than their full Christian name. I’m also wary of the growing number of noticeboards that advertise Sunday services as ‘Morning Worship 10 a.m.’ and ‘Evening Worship 6.30 p.m.’. I would be similarly suspicious of a restaurant sign that said ‘Food 12.30 p.m. – 2 p.m.’ without displaying a bill of fare. In either case, I want to know what’s on offer.
I have various recollections of straying outside the comfort zone. On Low Sunday I attended an early Eucharist in a church in Wales, which I had never visited before. The celebrant, vested in an alb and lop-sided stole, read the Gospel from the lectern while standing on one foot and with a hand in his pocket; but this was followed by such a brilliant and sensitive exposition of the Gospel for the Day (Christ’s appearance to Thomas) that I almost forgot the preceding lack of decorum. Yet when it came to the Eucharistic Prayer – said facing the people – the celebrant’s arms remained firmly by his side. He omitted all the prescribed manual acts: he did not take the paten or the chalice into his hands, or lay his hands on the elements as the rubrics direct, following the Lord’s own example. This naturally raised the question as to what his beliefs about the Eucharist might be; and I still wonder.
Noticeboards, even when they give the precise details of services, can sometimes be misleading. At another Welsh church, what was advertised as ‘Holy Communion’ turned out to be an extempore Praise Service with some lively hymns, the nearest thing to a ‘hell-fire’ sermon that I have ever heard, and Communion tacked on as an extra. Officiating at the north end of the altar, the celebrant recited the Eucharistic Prayer as a narrative, deftly changing the Lord’s words into the third person: ‘He took the bread and said that this was his body,’ and ‘He took the cup and said that this was his blood.’ Not even Thomas Cranmer at his most Zwinglian dared so to alter the words of Holy Scripture.
Meanwhile, an early service at a large Victorian church on the south coast of England also proved to be a ‘north-ender’. The fact that the Table was set altar-wise against the east wall, with all the customary furnishings including a reredos and frontal, made one realise just how absurd celebrating at the north ‘end’ actually appears, and that it is not at all what Cranmer intended. Nevertheless, it was straightforward 1662, plain and dignified, with nothing added and nothing taken out. That is a rare treat these days.
The biggest surprise of all was, while visiting family in South Wales, to find the Archbishop of Wales himself standing in at a remote village church while the incumbent was on holiday. I was given to understand that holiday cover is something that Dr Morgan regularly undertakes during the summer months; and very commendable too, I thought. The liturgy – a said Eucharist with hymns – was, as one would expect, impeccably rendered; but with one exception. The Archbishop had neglected to bring a chasuble and stole, believing that the church in question would have vestments of its own. It didn’t, and so he officiated in alb and mitre. Though one might in such circumstances readily excuse the Archbishop’s vestimentary shortcomings, it is less easy to condone the deliberate actions of those within his Province who, by omission and mutilation, turn the Eucharistic Rite into something rather different from that which we have ‘received from the Lord himself.’ (1 Cor. 11.23)
The Revd Michael Fisher is a retired priest in the diocese of Lichfield.
There are, of course, orthodox parishes in the Church in Wales whose priests celebrate mass with full Catholic privileges. Editor.