I do much church visiting, but mostly in an official capacity.  What does not happen very often is that I visit a church as an anonymous worshipper.  In the last six or seven years I have when on holidays abroad heard Mass in Roman Catholic churches in France, Portugal, and Ecuador.  When English is not used the experience is less jarring for me than in my own country.  In France, Portugal, and Ecuador the buildings are usually full of interest.  And if there is great silliness in the sermon or inadequacy in the vernacular translations used, I can ignore that easily when the language in use is French, Spanish, Portuguese, or anything but English.

When at the beach in North Carolina things are a little more difficult.  The closest Continuing Anglican congregations are two or more hours away (in Newport News and Virginia Beach, VA, or New Bern, NC).  There are, however, two neo-Anglican (ACNA) congregations within half an hour.  These two are, oddly, within easy walking distance of each other, which suggests that there is an interesting story, probably involving conflict, which I do not need to know about.  Over the years I have attended each of these two congregations once.  The larger group has on its website an off-putting quotation from the current Archbishop of Canterbury:  not an attractive come-on for non-union Anglicans such as ACNA members, who usually see Justin Welby as part of the problem.  The much smaller other group, which has its own quarters (as opposed to a YMCA room), I thought I would try again this year:  but my e-mail inquiry to the e-mail address on their website went unanswered.

Instead I went to the local Roman Catholic parish, also about 30 minutes away.  The parish has a lovely, modern building, with an ocean view behind the altar.  Mask-wearing was universal and there was a cantor but no congregational hymns or missals, all no doubt in accordance with diocesan requirements.  The congregation seemed actively engaged and interested.  The liturgy was that of the Novus Ordo, not outrageously fiddled with by the elderly priest.  The proper was that for All Saints’ Day.  I did wonder very much at the use of the Apostles’ Creed for the only Sunday morning Mass in a parish.  Is the Nicene Creed optional on great feasts? 

The only thing that was actually, plainly wrong was the priest’s sermonic assertion, in regard to sainthood, that is ‘didn’t matter’ if one was Catholic or Protestant or Buddhist or Hindu or Jewish or Muslim – all could become saints.  As I understand it a ‘saint’ in New Testament terms is a Christian, a baptized person.  By that definition it does very much matter if one is or is not Catholic.  Likewise, in terms of the doctrine of the preacher’s Church, the only known saints are also baptized Christians.  If the priest meant to inculcate a kind of universalism, he did so in an inept way.  It is one thing to say, ‘It may well be that in God’s mercy even people outside the visible boundaries of the Church may be saved.’  It is quite another thing to suggest that it does not matter if one is or is not a Christian or a Catholic.  But sermons without notes often lend themselves to silly utterances, so one lets that matter pass (though with mention) as a matter of probable confusion or misspeaking rather than heresy.

The more serious problem with the Mass, in my mind, was its subjectivity in general, and its emphasis on the personality of the celebrant in particular.  The Mass began at 9 a.m. on the dot – and good for them for their promptness.  The first several minutes were devoted to announcements by a laywoman about parish events, the day, All Souls’ day on Monday, and similar matters.  Again, good for them for handling such business outside the Mass proper.  The proanaphora and sermon ended at 9:35.  Of that 35 first minutes, more than half was not the recitation of the normative Mass and lessons and prayers, but chattiness:  the initial announcements, an initial welcome and mini-sermon from the priest after his entrance, the sermon, and even extemporized commentary on the prayer (or collect, as Anglicans would call it).  From all the chitchat it was clear that it was All Saints’, clear that we were in a Roman Catholic Church (one mention of Pope Francis, two or three mentions of the local bishop, two mentions of our Lord’s Immaculate Mother), and clear that we should be praying for the blessed dead the next day – all good things in a Roman parish.  We also had several references to the great Salesian saints, the priest’s own ordination, his health, and many indications of his personality, sense of humor, and quirks.  These things were not bad.  The priest might or might not be your cup of tea or mine.  But mostly I found it all intrusive.  I was an outsider there to hear Mass, in a parish of a Church that understands itself to be universal.  Why all the particularity and personality and individualism? 

I am myself as a celebrant conscious that I wear a uniform and use a fixed liturgy precisely to remove myself, my personality, and my individuality as much as possible from the occasion.  I hope to be a rather transparent window that allows members of the congregation to worship without being impeded by – well, by my personality, sense of humor (or lack thereof), and quirks.  It used to be said that Catholic churches were about the Church and Protestant churches were about the guy.  If that was once the case, in functional terms it absolutely is not true now.  The nice people, attractive church building, and probably thoroughly typical priest with whom I worshipped yesterday were very much focused on the guy who looked at us and spoke to us across the table. 

And about the ‘table’.  There was a box on the altar labelled ‘All Souls’.  In one of his chats the priest told us we were to put the names of those who had died in the past year in that box ‘on the counter.  I mean, on the table.  I mean, really, on this holy altar.’  Of course it was a holy altar.  But it really felt more like a table.  Or a counter, behind which, as Andrew Lytle once said of priests using free-standing altars, it appears that a seraphic bartender is taking orders for drinks.  And there’s the problem.  The bartender may be a delightful person.  But that’s not why we go to Mass….

5 thoughts on “Holiday church visiting

  1. A couple of months ago, an uncle of mine passed away down in Kentucky, so I drove down for the requiem at the local RC parish. I found the extraneous and improvisatory commentary throughout the liturgy utterly distracting. Most of it was didactic in nature: The celebrant felt the need, for instance, to explain briefly what the pall represents as he spread it over the casket. Before censing the bier, he provided a trite disquisition on the meaning of incense in the liturgy.

    Some of it gave the liturgy the feel of a variety show. After every choral piece, he offered a brief comment tying the “message” of the song to the next part of the liturgy. There were, of course, the inevitable jokey asides intended, presumably, to show that burying the dead needn’t be too dour and stuffy an affair.

    The latter “variety show” aspect I’ve sadly come to expect at almost every RC liturgy I happen to attend (especially, it seems, if the celebrant is over age 45), but the didacticism always jars me. It bespeaks the weakness of the Novus Ordo that its celebrants lack any confidence in the liturgy’s inherent capacity to convey meaning through its own structure, symbols, and “script” without having a verbose running gloss from the celebrant. There is no sense that a symbol—like any good joke—loses a great deal of its power when its reduced to an explanatory paraphrase.

    Despite all the modern handwringing about clericalism, the implicit belief that the laity are simply too stupid to understand what’s going on in the liturgy without having someone with an M.Div. explain it to them might be the most clericalist assumption of them all. It saddens me for our lay brethren in the Roman Communion, many of whom probably would just like to back to the days of hearing Mass without also hearing from father.

    Also, thank for the Lytle remark. One of the great regrets of my life is that I was untimely born and was not at Sewanee when he was still about.


    1. Yes, on all points. Instead of ‘With this ring I thee wed’ (1662, 1928), in the marriage rite in the English ‘Alternate Services Book’ (1980), the priest has the couple (or the man in a one ring wedding) say, ‘I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage…’. The Episcopalians since 1979 say, ‘I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow’. I believe it was C.H. Sisson who said that if one has to say ‘this is a sign’, then it is an unsuccessful sign: which is also your point.
      Mr. Lytle attended Mass at S. Stephen’s when he visited Marion and Dot Montgomery. He was a pleasure to listen to, both in a formal lecture and in the Montgomery living room with a bourbon. He was even more scathing about the religious left and modernist liturgy when speaking privately.


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