Eastward position back in the news

I don’t look at Roman Catholic news very often these days, so I go from hat tips coming from Dr Willam Tighe and Fr Hunwicke. On Orientophobia: Coming out of the Liturgical Closet. Update: Who’s Afraid of Ad Orientem?

We won’t see the “chopping blocks” and the distinctive symbolism of Mass facing the people disappear from Roman Catholic churches any time in the near future, since Cardinal Sarah has been slapped down, but at least the question is being discussed. It is perhaps for the first time since the Ratzinger / Benedict XVI era.

The problem in the Roman Catholic Church is the continuation of post-Tridentine uniformity, selective uniformity of course. Of course, ad orientem celebrations in the modern rite were never forbidden. Many French abbeys of the Solesmes Congregation were doing it throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, as were the English Oratories in London and Birmingham. I was once in a small American community in Rome, housed at the Czech College, where we had ad orientem Mass in the new rite in our private chapel on the first floor. That being said, there has always been enormous pressure to make the exceptions conform to the versus populum norm.

There are many arguments for either position, but the meaning is obvious as soon as you go into a church and see the effect. I don’t think I am alone in being drawn to the Mass in which the priest is facing the symbolic east of the church (when the church is not pointing to the magnetic compass east or the morning sunrise on the 21st June of the Gregorian calendar). Mass facing the people makes me want to walk out of the church and leave them to their own devices. I’m not interested in arguing it out or getting involved in polemics and single-issues. I have never said Mass facing the people, and would feel intensely out of place if I were asked to do so. The symbolism is fundamental.

In Rome, it is all ideology masquerading as ecclesiology. There is the fear of giving in to the traditionalists and a rolling back of the ideology that has been in place essentially since the 1960’s, though it was implicit much earlier and contained in the centralist papal ideology. Ironically, those most afraid of going back to the days of Pius XII and the heavy-handed repression of heresy are the most influenced by what they fear.

In the Anglican world, one of the most significant aspects of the Reformation was the destruction of the altar and the arrangement of the priest facing the little handful of communicants across a movable wooden table placed between the choir stalls of the church. In England, north-side celebration would restrict the Eucharist to a small elite of communicants. In modern Roman Catholicism, the church has become a place for entertainment and teaching ideologies and ideas to the masses. As an alternative to the traditionalists, there are the charismatics who have progressed over the decades since the 1980’s and the contemplative monasteries.

Most of us would agree that the answer to the bitter polemics and divisions between “conservatives” and “liberals” would be to remove the barriers, take away the sanctions inflicted for diversity and daring to move on, removing the “chopping block” and using the old altar – or building an altar to replace the one that had been destroyed. There would be a spontaneous movement if the opening-up is accompanied by a sensitive pastoral attitude on the part of parish priests. Common sense is hard to come by these days, especially in large collectivities.

Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church has become the spiritual equivalent of the old Soviet Union and the present European Union. It is ruled by unaccountable technocrats. Traditionalists often sin by a lack of common sense reasoning. Not all the 1960’s reforms were bad. For example, there are loads of prefaces, many of which were revived from medieval uses and early sacramentaries. The Bidding Prayer is something very traditional. Not everything is good in the Pius V liturgy, such as the continuation of the underpinning rationale of the Low Mass being the basis, filled out with “optional extras” to make a High Mass. An attempt to reform this fault was made in the 1964 edition. Had my opinion been asked at the time (were I an adult at the time – because I was in fact a very small child), I would have recommended a rolling back of post-Tridentine rubricism and uniformity in favour of reviving local usages and supplementing them with later saints’ feasts and suchlike, and allowing them to be celebrated in the vernacular following sound and literary translations.

The eastward position is a point that sticks out like a sore thumb in the perspective of the reconciliation between Rome and the eastern Orthodox Churches. Ecumenism is love and hate, selective and manifestly hypocritical. It is a mere euphemism, a red herring that conceals the prevailing technocrat ideology that will one day collapse from its own top-heaviness. The Jesuit Pope has given impetus to the “old guard” in Rome, but this dinosaur will only last for so long. The problem is ensuring the vitality of a way of thinking that transcends the old Tweedledum and Tweedledee I have often criticised over the years.

The problem is that the dinosaur is taking a long time a-dying. I could never imagine being a Roman Catholic any more than being an anonymous factory worker in Leningrad in the early fifties. It has all become so irrelevant to me, as to the vast majority of the erstwhile Christian populations in Europe. They are not alienated from Catholicism because they have jumped on the consumer bandwagon, but because it has become nonsense to them. They have moved on or have accepted substitutes for transcendence and the spiritual. The traditionalists have only attracted a small ideologically-motivated minority, and they lack the auctoritas to continue into the future. Certainly, the same can be said of us continuing Anglicans too. We can just hang on and wait for the turning of the tide. I doubt we will see it in our lifetimes.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men (Matt v.13).

* * *

Whilst I am on the subject of contemporary Roman Catholicism, I come to the subject of the Ordinariates. I suppose my ignorance about the English one is from my own doing, since I do not bother to seek information from their various web sites and magazines. I do sometimes look at Fr Hunwicke’s blog, and sometimes wonder why more inspired material would not come with such a cultured priest. However, it appears that the American situation is different.

John Bruce in St Mary’s Hollywood: The Cold Case File has been banging the drum for a while in his opposition to anything other than run-of-the-mill diocesan Roman Catholicism such he has chosen as his spiritual home. He called me a “crank” some months ago for criticising his more outrageous claims about St Mary’s in Hollywood and the former Primate of the TAC. I have to understand the inner coherence of Mr Bruce’s writings. He may well be right about the American Ordinariate, that it has nothing to offer other than extra work for overburdened RC diocesan bishops. So it all about conformity to the “spiritual Big Brother“. But, surely, this is a question for “cradle” RC’s, those who grew up in Roman Catholic families. The present day RC Church lays no further claim to be the “one true Church” but rather seeks to ingratiate itself with the status quo of the world in which it finds itself. It is of no interest to those who originate outside it – unless of course we are motivated by wanting to belong to a particular community like a parish or whatever. The more he writes on this subject, the more his Church becomes irrelevant to most of us.

We all struggle in our little way to lead Christian lives and be in communion with a tangible community. It is the ACC in my case. Perhaps, for Mr Bruce, I should be held at gunpoint to convert to his Church or return to the mainstream Anglican Communion. I am simply grateful that he does not hold political power to put religious dissidents in jail, haul them up before inquisitions and perhaps torture them into his particular orthodoxy. He represents the absurdity of conservative Catholicism in a Church that does not give it auctoritas or legitimacy.

We should not be in any illusion or express an attitude of resentment against sour grapes. The RC Church attracts lots of people to its services. Football matches and TV shows do too. It is surely a Christian organisation that is open to all those who are attracted to that kind of worship. Plenty of people go to mega-churches. They pack into those immense halls and the neurones really react together to the same stimuli. At the same time, it is all rubbish to the majority of the population, and not always for reasons of atheism or materialism.

Few are attracted to the “transcendent” and “contemplative” type of liturgy. It is irrelevant to the humanity of the masses. Some of us hate crowds, the latest fashions and social conformity for its own sake. I almost never watch television. I find sources of news (both mainstream and “alternative”) on the internet, and I watch films on DVD or Youtube. A few of us are attracted to the symbolic world of the liturgy in which there is not only the word for the ears and the intellect, but for the whole person. The RC Church caters for such people through monasteries and small communities, but such are few and far between.

The alternatives to the mainstream western churches are Eastern Orthodoxy, for those who can adapt to it culturally, or continuing Anglicanism. Lay people can find their home in a mainstream parish that does things to their taste, which is fine for as long as the parish has the same priest.

I emphasise the point again – which certainly makes me a “crank” – that we can no longer speak of a “true Church” but rather of local communities in which the Church as sacrament of Christ subsists. Let there be diversity and freedom, so that there is something for all to relate to! This question has already been discussed at length on this blog. Were there this diversity and respect for freedom, there would be no need for dissident communities and small Churches. That only seems to make sense.

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3 Responses to Eastward position back in the news

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for your observations, not least those of personal experience! I was interested to see Fr. Hunwicke saying in one of his recent posts, “I am on record as suggesting that those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form should not be closed to the possibility of celebrating it facing the people, in a church building which is orientated so that facing the people is the same as facing East. I have myself happily celebrated the EF versus populum.” I am hoping to learn more about the (possible details) of the history of this in churches with the apse in the west. For instance, I need to study Roman maps and quidebooks, but have the impression that, e.g., in the Sixth century, people would have regularly experienced both apsidal and contra apsidal ad orientem in Rome in moving from one stational church to another. How did they do it? What would it have been like?

    Can you recommend any reading about the English Reformation ‘north end’ celebration (or whatever they would have called it)? Were some peoples’ (Cranmer’s?) Patristic reading somehow feeding into this? (I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook of Sabine Baring-Gould’s ‘Only a Ghost! by Irenaeus the Deacon’ (1870) at LibriVox.org, but find a lot of the liturgical-controvrsial details opaque and bewildering!)

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