Friday, 7 December 2007

Conversi Ad Dominum?

I do not wish for this blog to become a single issue blog and I realise that there has been some talk of Eastward facing Mass here recently but I thought that I might add my twopence worth. It was reading the Forward In Faith monthly magazine, New Directions, which is kindly sent to me free of charge (you see, don't say ordinands get no perks, although the free Church Times subscription almmost outweighs it) and the follow up from Fr Cooke of St Marks Chadderton to a previous letter which got me thinking about this issue. He was responding to a previous letter from (Fr? Mr?) Peter Mullen defending the 'ad dominum' , eastwards facing position. In it he makes two particular comments which, I believe, are erroneous. Firstly he defends nave altars (and this is a very sloppy term which we all use, an altar is an altar whether it stands in the nave or not, and the vast majority of Altars, regardless of position, refer geographically to the Nave anyhow, as we shall see. Better to say 'westward facing, or 'conversi ad populo',) by describing them as having being in use in the late middle ages, with many abbeys having a Choir Altar for the monks and a nave Altar for the people (out of interest, you can see this arrangement at Ampleforth Abbey).

This is technically incorrect as the community was split in two parts, 'Choir' Monks who would sit in Choir, and lay monks who would sit in the Nave, they were not built for 'the people' in the terms which were employed here. However, we have to have a proper understanding of Medieval monastic architecture before we make any assumptions. The Abbey Church was built as a 'map' almost of the life of Christ, one entered by 'Galilee' and progressed to Heaven through the natural Perpendicular architectural forms of pillars and arches. Only the Choir Monks could enter past the Calvary gate into the Chapel of Reservation, where the journey naturally ended, where the High Altar and Choir stalls were. In front of the Rood screen, or Calvary, was, indeed, another altar, for the use of the people's and the lay brothers Mass, but it is very clear from all sources that this Altar was used for Eastward facing celebration, especially considering what lay behind. Conversi ad Dominum indeed.

It is worth noting that the monastries have always been at the forefront of liturgical experimentation and we do well to note the Liturgical Movement which from the 1850's to the 1960's contributed greatly to our modern understanding of what the Sacrifice of the Mass means to us. One of the great innovations of the Liturgical Movement was the push for freestanding altars, which I think is admirable. Free standing altars allow the whole of the People of God equal access, unencumbered by rood screens or other theological folly (note that an Anglo Saxon dialect translation of Rood is Wisdom, as well as Cross, although now we live in a better educated age, there is no need to hide the Holy Mysteries from us with misplaced ecclesiastical wisdom - although the medieval action of standing with ones hands in the air at the consecration has much to commend it) and they can be censed all around, in line with scripture and natural precedent for sanctifying and marking out Holy Ground. They can also, of course, be used versus populum as well, as I fully understand those who support such a stance. I am no liturgical pedant and I do feel that there is much to support this orientation and I suppose that I will, God willing, spend much of my early ministry facing this way. It is impossible to change too much too soon, especially in an age which has such a short attention span!

The second mistake that I believe Fr Cooke makes lies (apart from referring to Conversing with the Lord as having ones back to the people, which makes light of an action which does not deserve such treatment) in inferring that the altars in the ancient Basilicas are to inform us as to which way to face now. This is a misunderstanding which Dr Mullen also shares although in the opposite way. As Pius XII declared in Mediator Dei, early liturgies are not to be seen as necessarily informing us as to how to celebrate now. We should not see the worship in early Christian Basilicas as a pattern of our own, although if we do, then we should certainly promote the cultus of relics, as they were an integral and vital part of that, in fact I have argued elsewhere that the literal moving of dead bodies of the Saints within the city walls and the acceptance of this by the authorities (many of whom also wished to be interred nearby) is the single defining moment of the acceptance and growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In the same way, we would not take the writings of Paul as the only way to 'plant' Churches, or to grow a Christian community, after all, he worked without much knowledge of Jewish Scripture or any of what we now call the Gospels - he worked solely from personal revelation, which we must see as part, not all, of our tradition. He would, however, be familiar with a Passover, when the assembly would sit on the same side of the table, facing East as, in fact, Jesus would have done in the upper room with His Apostles. It is one of the great lies of the liturgical renewers of the 1960s that Jesus would have sat around a table with His Apostles, as a visit to any Jewish Ultra Orthodox house now will show.

I do not deny that the Church needed reforming. I find photographs of the Papal Court grotesque, I dislike lace anywhere and I personally aim for a noble simplicity in worship. The Missal published by the Second Vatican Council, now called the Interim Missal (although meant as anything but) which was replaced by the Missa Normativa (or Novus Ordo) aimed for the same. The altar was, indeed, presumed to be free standing, although all the people of God were presumed to face towards the Lord. There was no call in the Novus Ordo for celebration versus populo although this is what we now have in most churches and I am not decrying it, but, respectfully, I would like to point out that I believe it to be theologically second best, and that is not what we should be offering to Our Risen Lord, who one day will come from the East, to bring us all home.

It is worth, in a modern Church, on a 'nave' Altar, during the Missa Normativa, to turn to the East for the Eucharistic Prayer. The sense of the numinous is palpable.