Digby Anderson considers the pitfalls of worshipping away from home

Today there is widespread ignorance about the church, but who, among the many and varied ignoramuses, knows least? Probably the full-time parish clergy. I’ll explain why in a moment but consider first a few experiences of the church.

Hands across the Atlantic
The first, one of my favourites, is of the snowbirds and a church of the stigmata. ‘Snowbirds’ are elderly, retired Americans from the Mid-West. Their proper home is cold in the winter so they migrate to the warm southern states for a few months. There they constitute winter communities. Like many Americans they are regular churchgoers. One of the churches where they constitute a majority, in the winter, is the church of the stigmata. As you enter the church and sit at the rear, you see the most unexpected and unpleasant sight. The oldies sit, on pews, rather as teenagers used to do in cinemas, the male with one arm stretched along the back of the pew round the shoulders of his lady, who responds by resting her head on the shoulder of her gentleman.

Throughout the mass, they sit and nuzzle and occasionally cuddle. If there is something in the mass that moves the gentleman, he will softly squeeze the upper arm of his companion and she will intensify the nuzzle whimpering softly. No doubt, when there is lots of squeezing, she will leave the church with feint stigmata on the upper arms. This is but one example of the disgusting sentimentality which suffuses the whole service. Indeed it reaches its climax after the dismissal. Visitors would do well then to go to one of the statues and remain a while, quite a while, in prayer: Holy Michael Archangel, defend this thy servant N. Grant him/her to pass safely from this temple, unmolested by the threatening welcome of the army of greeters, now gathered at the west door. Grant that he/she have the strength not to be rude to them and gain his/her carriage in peace.

Closer to home
Back in Europe, I recall a church where the mass was unremarkable. Just as one was congratulating oneself on having found somewhere comparatively sane, suddenly at the communion, the church was filled with the noise of a cassette playing entirely secular music on South American Andean (nose) flutes and harps. In France, they have dentists, men in white albs with microphones, their volume higher than that of the celebrants who conduct the childish responses, waving their arms. Everyone knows of churches where services are ruined by clergy and laity putting “meaning” into their reading or even worse, trying to sound like (Welsh) actors, and worst of all, affecting the fashionable Australian rising intonation. Then emboldened by the missal instruction for homilies, there are priests who have five at each mass; one to introduce the mass, one before the readings, one after the readings, one introducing the intercessions and one before the Pater Noster: ‘and now, my dear sisters and brothers, mindful of those suffering in Syria, all those whom we have discriminated against, all pitiful victims of the bedroom tax and all (here a general repeat of the intercessions) let us pray in the words Jesus, himself, as a baby a victim of housing discrimination) gave us…’ I could go on, about the ghastly daubing by children, the recorder music, indeed general infantilisation, dancing before the Lord or both the dancing and the children thus (this one from South-West France) children in peasant outfits dancing in a chain round the altar. Enough.

At grass roots
Many readers will have tales of their own. But there is one set of people who do not see and hear these ghastly things: full-time parish clergy. Precisely because they are in their own churches dutifully conducting their own services, they rarely get into other churches to see what passes for religion there on Sundays apart from the rare two-week holiday. Thus a priest friend who has recently retired from full-time ministry and moved to a new town, phoned me in a dreadful state. The gist? I have been trying to find a local church to go to on Sundays, Anglican or Roman. They are all awful but awful in so many different ways. He was surprised. He had not known what goes on in the Church. Full Time clergy, and laity committed to one church, when asked about the state of the Church, tend to answer in terms of encyclicals, reports, synod motions, in terms of high ecclesiology. They bemoan the irregular state of the CofE by which they mean its policies on women or homosexuals or whatever. They are right. These do describe the state the church is in – but only in one sense. They do not describe what churches actually do, the state of the main service at St Everywhere’s.

Style over substance?
Now there are those who think the goings on in actual churches are mere trivia, accidents. The substance, of the mass, remains the same despite such accidents. Yet perhaps there comes a point when the accidents, the gestures, words, liturgical disorder, become so far from the substance they are supposed to express that one has to wonder if the substance is totally unaffected. To adopt the Thomist distinction, these accidents threaten the effect of the sacrament if not its validity. Leave the theology for another day. The point here and now is that good priests’ duties have the unintended consequence of keeping them ignorant about what is going on in the Church. That may be a mercy but it is also regrettable. How can they think about the Church if they are so ignorant? More, and longer holidays are certainly in order. ND