Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Synod 2017: Hitting the Ritual Notes

I was asked the be the deacon for the Synod High Mass for our 25th Diocesan Synod this year. Last year, I was the subdeacon. I am always very nervous of such duties: I always have been. I remember serving my first Mass in the ACC and nearly dropping the thurible. I think the singe marks are still on the footpace carpet along with encrusted wax that my subsequent arguments with candles have produced over the few years when I was priest in charge. Yet, in the CofE, I was a "candleboy", chorister, sidesman, and Reader and quite used to the business of performing ritual and ceremonial duties. Why should I have been so nervous in serving in the ACC?

On the issue of ritual in my former parish in the CofE, the only message that I got was, "it doesn't really matter. Make it up as you go along." To my shame, I did, though, as my understanding of the Catholic Faith grew, my liturgical actions had a very definite Roman flavour, as opposed to the all-singing-all-dancing-Rector-and-Churchwarden Show that it became. In joining the ACC, I found that ritual and ceremony do matter, and matter a great deal - that's why I was nervous and why I still get nervous.

Why should this be? Why should it matter that, as a priest, I wipe my fingers on the corporal before I utter the words of Our Blessed Lord at the Last Supper? Why should it matter that, as a deacon, I move with the priest and subdeacon from the centre of the altar to the epistle-side for the collects?

It matters not as a point of salvation, nor does digression from the ritual invalidate the sacrament, but such actions are there to assist the people in their work. Too often, High Mass is criticised because the laity have "nothing to do" but watch other people do all the work. This is not true at all. The laity have an immense task to do at Mass, but a task that refreshes rather than saps energy. If a layperson thinks they have nothing to do at Mass then they ain't doing it right!

One thing that I have really had to learn to do, as a priest, is pray much harder when I participate in Mass in any capacity. The words in the Missal aren't meant to be said - they are meant to be prayed! The same goes for the ceremonies - the liturgical actions - they are all prayers in themselves; they are all means by which the Mystery of Earth being plugged into Heaven through the Sacrifice of the Cross is enacted. The laity too are utterly vital when it comes to their work - the liturgy - for this is the Church performing its task of presenting a fallen and silly world to its Creator to raise it up and show it its dignity. If a layperson is doing nothing, then they are missing out.

Of course, we can get bogged down in the minutiae of Ritual Notes. The book Ritual Notes is a wonderful resource which explains how the rituals of the Church go and are performed. It gives a means of regulation by which the Mass can be offered with all its rituals well done. However, there are circumstances in which the ritual and ceremonies cannot be performed as fully as the book dictates. As long as everyone recognises its limitations and their own limitations, the overriding intentions of giving oneself over to God in the Divine Liturgy, of making that sacrifice on behalf of the World, of recognising simultaneously one's fallenness and means of salvation, all of these make the Mass, however meagre its circumstances, a glorious Mystery and source of joy and gladness.

Ritual Notes helps us to cultivate a sense of excellence in our worship and of committing the best of ourselves to God. Of course, one can get frightened by it, but that doesn't mean that we should avoid it. Indeed, we will all make mistakes as we learn it. There's nothing to fear from that provided that we have the right intention. The key is to have a go rather than wimp out. No Christian has any grounds to chastise another for making an error in their liturgy provided that liturgy is taken seriously. St Benedict seems harsh when he says
When anyone has made a mistake while reciting a Psalm, a responsory, an antiphon or a lesson, if he does not humble himself there before all by making a satisfaction, let him undergo a greater punishment because he would not correct by humility what he did wrong through carelessness.

But boys for such faults shall be whipped. (Cap. xlv)
Yet, if we care about our liturgy, then we will naturally apologise and seek to rectify our error, at the next opportunity if not at the very moment. We must not settle for second best. Mistakes get made - all we need to do is try not to make them again or treat them as nothing. Of course, whipping a boy for not serving well at Mass these days is certainly extreme: he will need to understand that if he cannot take Mass seriously, then he will not be allowed the privilege again.

This is the mistake that the anti-liturgists make. They say that because liturgy doesn't really matter, one can get on with one's Christian living. This is why their brand of Christianity becomes a mere social activism with nothing of the spiritual reality and comforts that come from working at seeking to excel in our worship of God. The phrase lex orandi, lex credendi is visibly true. This is why the Liberal Agenda is causing the members of the Church to fall away through its inherent insincerity.

I am thankful that I was taught to say Mass by an extremely competent priest, though I still make many mistakes. I am also glad that I had the privilege of serving the Synod Mass on Saturday with the Bishop and Fr Chadwick who are both ordained subdeacons which made things so much easier as we could predict each others' movements. We did receive compliments on the way we performed our duties, but this was not really due to us but to God's blessing of our actions, just as He blesses a preacher with His words. All I can say is that I am glad I read up on what I was supposed to do, and that my prayers were answered in superabundance. It is a truly a blessing that everyone can receive if we take our worship, our liturgy, ceremony and ritual, with all gravity but with the anticipation of joy. If a newly ordained clergyman is nervous, that is good, but there is no need to fear but rather use those nerves to
cultivate care in action and word. He will be supported by the love of the congregation behind him as well as the love of God before him.

All who were there at Synod said they felt a particular joy, and that's a testament to the blessing that God gives to those who seek to be truly faithful to Him. May we all keep that faith going and growing!

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