Friday, 27 May 2011

Reordering realities

The news that the Archbishop of Liverpool has been persuaded not to host Methodist Ordinations in his Cathedral Church is interesting. The original faux pas is hardly surprising given Archbishop Kelly's "creative" take on liturgy and the extraordinary blindness towards visual symbolism manifested by so many clergy over the last forty or so years.

It was with something approaching delight that I attended much of the Holy Week liturgy in Liverpool this year celebrated by one of the auxiliary bishops who was content to "say the black and do the red". In contrast to last year when the Archbishop had presided, we saw the return of the New Fire at the Easter Vigil, the Exsultet sung by an ordained minister and the bishop presiding from the Cathedra during the readings rather than going in for an ostentatious display of how, "just like us" the archbishop and his ministers were listening to them from seats placed in front of the people in the front row and then his racing across to the ambo to deliver the benefit of his thoughts on the last or subsequent reading. (Decorum! Please!)

This might appear to some as nit-picking. Please bear with me.

Visual symbolism is important. Although it may at times appear as inconsequential as a background- mere "wallpaper"- it can convey meaning more powerfully than words and with profound consequences. Two stories come to mind.

A friend once told me of his experience of watching Andy Warhol's film "Sleep". If I remember correctly, all that happens is that a man enters, gets into bed and falls asleep against a window background of a New York night-time skyline with lights flickering and sometimes being switched on or off. For an age all that is seen is the gentle rise and fall of the man's breathing. According to my friend's report, at about 2 a.m., in this night time screening, the man turned over. The effect of this simple movement upon the audience was, I am told, like an earthquake! Indeed I can believe it. The meaning of a visual event, it seems to me, draws much of its power from the expectations set up by whatever has preceded it.

Another story and another friend. Not a Catholic, he told me of how, when he was about seven years old the church his family attended burned down. From then on God had ceased to seem real to him. I think we could say that he was scandalised by that event. It is his story that comes to mind whem I reflect upon the reordering of churches that followed in the wake of Vatican 2. Or, rather, upon the psychological impact that reordering had upon the People of God.

One of the first things one was taught to do upon entering a church was, having blessed oneself with holy water, to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle before taking one's place. This response was further reinforced when those on the sanctuary passed before the Blessed Sacrament and, similarly, genuflected. Suddenly, in the mid sixties things began to change. Frequently, the tabernacle was moved from its central position but perhaps more often with the altar re-sited forwards the celebrant would be interposed with his back to the tabernacle- the same going for servers and other ministers.

Now this position was not entirely new for the sacred ministers. In administering the sacraments
- a priest giving Communion or a Bishop confirming or ordaining- the minister would have had his back towards the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle even before the changes. What was new was that this obtained throughout the whole of the mass. It was clearly different and I would suggest that there can have been few Catholics for whom this did not, at some deep level, register as a psychological earthquake. No, we were told, this did not mean a lessening of respect for the Blessed Sacrament. No?

As the wag said, "You could have fooled me." Suddenly symbols were being either inverted or discarded. To invert or discard a longstanding symbol is not a negligible act. It reflects upon those realities thus symbolised.


  1. Good post. I am reminded of a quotation I heard years ago, I think from an Australian poet, though I have never been able to trace it and kick myself for not writing the chap's name down at the time. Anyway, he said: 'That which we omit, we teach will not be missed.' In that light the impact of so many changes since the 60s is more apparent.

  2. Thanks, Ben Trovato. I think it is of a piece, so to speak, with your post "Catholic Instincts".

  3. Hi, Patricius, hope you are well. Loved the post but am increasingly convinced that the assumptions we have about 'reverent gestures' not being able to coincide with bad theology, are not perhaps correct. This is because I sometimes go to an indult site where the lace fairly drips from the air, and the choir is world famous, but as soon as mass is over it is as if a switch were thrown. And, then, the bad theology is apparent during the sermons.

    If reverent liturgy meant heresy were banished, there'd never have been a high church liturgy.

    So it seems more true now--when those who gave us the changes of Vatican II have discovered the traditional liturgy as a source of enrichment--than ever that we absolutely must deal with the teachings of the council.

  4. Jan Baker. Thanks for your comment. I agree that "reverent gestures" do not guarantee good theology. For instance, I have long been puzzled by people genuflecting before altars where the Blessed Sacramentis not present. Similarly it is not the use of lace vestments that determines an old rite or Extraordinary Form mass. Style should not trump substance.

    I am not sure I understand your point about the 2nd Vatican Council.