Reflections on Worship
But based upon my observation of these RC Masses, there is an area where I now feel Anglo-Catholicism has been positively served by our separation from Rome—liturgical ceremony and devotional piety. Please don’t misunderstand me. The overwhelming majority of the RC participants in the Institute struck me as devout and serious-minded about their faith, and by choosing to participate in an intensive course on Gregorian chant they had already shown themselves to have an above-average interest in traditional worship practices. And I have no reason to doubt that the priests who celebrated these Masses were godly men. (I never detected even the faintest whiff of heresy during the eleven days I was at St. Joe’s—can you imagine that if they were ECUSA priests?!) I have a high personal regard for all these fine folks. Rather, despite the fact that these classmates of mine were among the best informed and personally devout of RC laymen in the United States, I cannot help but conclude that the beauty of the Mass that the Roman Catholic Church inherited from the Middle Ages has largely been squandered in this country.
It was as if beauty had been systematically stripped from their worship (except for the chanting we were doing, which seemed almost an alien intrusion into the contemporary setting—I gather that it is rare to hear Latin Gregorian chant in American RC Masses at the parish level today). The vestments worn by the priests looked as if they had been made from polyester curtains and were tailored by the costumer for a sixties era Sci-Fi show (though I believe one of the priests celebrated in only a white cassock-alb and stole, which at least had a classical simplicity in its favor). The chalice most commonly used also looked like something out of the original Star Trek, while on other days they used a glass one that was a bit more attractive. Only a minority of the congregation kneeled at the prayer of consecration (and they were predominantly conservative college students from the Univ. of Chicago), and only a few of the RC’s present specially reverenced the elements at the elevation. During the course of the entire Mass most of the congregation crossed themselves only once or twice, typically at the very beginning and end of the liturgy. It seems clear to me that bodily displays of reverence, which are all but universal among Anglo-Catholics, have essentially disappeared among contemporary Roman Catholics in the U.S.
And it is rare to find an Anglican church building that has as little concern for beauty as the worship spaces we used last week. Most of our Masses were celebrated on an altar in the middle of a sixties-era classroom (there was a fire alarm where the crucifix should have been), which hardly assisted me in lifting up my heart to the Lord. But it is down right heart breaking to see what was done to the formerly lovely, century-old chapel at St. Joseph’s. At one time it had a dozen altars, but in the seventies they ripped them all out, leaving only vacant space in place of the high altar. Above the side area where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a simple wooden tabernacle there is now a green and yellow mural of an abstract chalice and stalk of wheat. One can only imagine the majestic environment in which worshippers there once praised the Living God.
As one former Anglo-Catholic who has recently decided to swim the Tiber told me recently, on aesthetic grounds today’s RC worship is “a vast waste land.” Based upon my experiences last week, I understand where he is coming from. So while I fervently pray for a reconciliation of the separated portions of the Western Church (and look forward to a day in the not too distant future when Rome and the East are reunited), I also pray that we Anglo-Catholics are able to retain the beautiful, prayerful traditions of worship God has entrusted to us. It looks like the Roman Catholic Church may need us around as faithful stewards of the Tradition when they finally wake up and discover what they have done to their worship practices and spaces.