Michael Fisher offers reflections for Corpus Christi
Bryn Seion chapel stands at the lower end of the main street in Pencoed, the town in south Wales close to where my daughter and her family live. Bryn Seion—the hill of Sion. Many non-conformist chapels carry the names of holy places in the Old Testament, such as Bethel, Horeb and Penuel, places where the veil between heaven and earth was temporarily suspended, heaven broke through, and mankind was given a glimpse of the glories that lie beyond our present world. None was more holy than ‘Bryn Seion,’ the holy hill on which Jerusalem was built, where the ark of the covenant finally came to rest, a place first made holy by the priest-king Melchizedek who welcomed the patriarch Abraham and blessed him: ‘Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine, and he was the priest of the Most High God.’ (Gen 14.18). But unlike the temple in Jerusalem, Bryn Seion chapel is no architectural gem. It’s a plain brick box with some stone cladding, and inside there are none of the familiar things that many of us may take for granted: no cross or crucifix, no candles, no statues, no stained glass. All there is by way of ornament is a Biblical text stencilled on the back wall: Sancteiddrwydd â weddai i’th dŷ, O Arglwydd, byth—words from Psalm 93: ‘Holiness adorns your house, O Lord, for ever.’ So even in this plainest of buildings there is still the notion of sacred space, of a God who chooses to locate himself in buildings set apart for worship.
But should we be so surprised? If we look into the origins of Methodism, that group of Oxford men who in the 1730s formed what was rather disparagingly nicknamed ‘The Holy Club,’ what do we find? Among their disciplined routine of prayer and personal devotion that earned them the label ‘Methodist’ there was greater respect for, and greater recourse to, the sacrament of Holy Communion, and they argued for a weekly celebration of the Eucharist in their parish churches at a time when the Church of England was in spiritual decline, and just four celebrations a year was about the norm. Neither John nor Charles Wesley would have dreamed of dressing up in an alb, stole or chasuble, but their writings—and especially their hymns—reflect a view of the Eucharist which is unmistakably a Catholic one:
‘With solemn faith we offer up.
And spread before thy glorious eyes
That only ground of all our hope,
That all-sufficient sacrifice,
Which brings thy grace on sinners down,
And perfects all our souls in one.’
So Charles Wesley wrote in the 1730s. The Roman-Catholic catechism, written in the 1990s, puts it less poetically, but it expresses pretty much the same thing:
‘The sacrifice Christ offered once for all upon the Cross remains ever present. As often as the Sacrifice of the Cross by which “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed” is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.’
Regardless of the Wesleys’ good intentions, Methodism broke away from the church, and developed as a separate body. A missionary task force it undoubtedly was amongst the urban poor of the rapidly-growing industrial towns, but the liturgy of the Eucharist was not central to the task, and one wonders if this may have been a factor in the movement’s subsequent fragmentation and decline.‘Do this in remembrance of me’ is a part of the mandatum from which Maundy Thursday, takes its name, and I think it’s no coincidence that when the Church—or any part of it—has obeyed this command by setting the Eucharist at the heart of its life and mission it has flourished, and when it has neglected or ignored the command to ‘do this’, it has sooner or later gone into decline.
If the Methodists lost sight of the liturgy, there is for catholic Anglicans the opposite danger of becoming so engrossed in liturgical choreography and navel-gazing that the other part of the Lord’s mandatum—the foot-washing—gets overlooked. We do well to remember that it was amongst England’s unchurched industrial masses that the Anglo-Catholic movement scored its most notable successes: whether in the east end of London, the docklands of Portsmouth, the coal-and-iron communities of the Black Country, or the bottle-kilns of Stoke-on-Trent. So the altars of our parish churches were restored and rebuilt, and the Eucharist became once more central to their life and their mission to take Christ into the homes of the poor, metaphorically washing their feet in his name. And that is what we, in the Anglican Catholic tradition, still have to offer to the world outside, where there is so much spiritual hunger, and where people are desperately seeking a dimension to their lives which neither money, possessions, football nor Celebrity Love Island are able to provide because none of these things have the mark of permanence or eternity upon them. But the lamp burns before the tabernacle to signal the living presence of Christ and his saving sacrifice on the cross, just as the lamps burned before the Holy of Holies on the hill of Sion in those far-off days of types and shadows. Here bread and wine are brought forth, as they were by Melchizedek, priest-king of Jerusalem, but they are now invested with the assurance and promise of Christ: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’ Those who take part in outdoor processions at Corpus Christi do two things: they witness to the faith by which they live, and they follow Christ as he leads them through the church doors and out into the communities they are called upon to serve.
The Eucharist was given for the building up of the church. It strengthens us in our bond with Christ, and with one another as members of his body on earth. It is also a great act of mission and evangelism, bringing people—whether confirmed or not, and regardless of age or circumstance—to the very heart of our faith as nothing else ever can; the saving death of Christ, the memorial of all that he ever did, and setting before the eyes of God the only perfect offering, the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. Among those harrowing scenes of the recent fire at Notre Dame cathedral, one in particular remains in my mind. Amongst all the devastation and chaos, two things stood unmovable: the high altar and its great cross standing solid and firm at the heart of it. There’s a message there for all of us, isn’t there?
In those darker moments of my own life, when I’m conscious of having messed up, offended or neglected or misjudged someone; when I have questioned the effectiveness of my ministry, or even what on earth I’m doing in the priesthood at all; or been overwhelmed by things that are going on out there which seem to deny all I say I believe in; it’s in those darker moments that I seem to hear a voice telling me, ‘see yourself in the only context that makes sense.’ And I see myself simply as a priest at the altar: offering the bread of life and the cup of salvation, carrying out the Lord’s command—‘do this…’—in the company of the faithful, and doing it as much for those who for whatever reason are not there as for those who are—for a lady anxiously awaiting cancer treatment, for the couple I’m going to marry next Saturday, for a neighbour whose wife has just died and for another who refused a Christian funeral for a relative because he had ‘no time for such stuff and nonsense.’
Whenever we gather for Mass, be it amid the splendours of one of the great churches of the Catholic Revival ‘with all the trimmings’ or humbly and quietly at eight o’clock in a remote village church, we come to our ‘Bryn Seion’ where the veil between this world and the heavenly one is temporarily suspended. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: ‘What you come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a first-born son, and a citizen of heaven.’ (Heb. 12.22–23).
(Note: Bryn Seion chapel has recently been sold, converted into a private dwelling, and is currently on the market for £325,000!)
Michael Fisher writes on ecclesiological issues.