Archive for May, 2014

On Sunday we attended the first communion mass for the daughter of a friend, in an RC church in one of Milton Keynes’ 77 neighbourhoods.  Like every other Roman Catholic mass we have attended recently, this one took place in a modern building designed in Brutalist style – plate glass everywhere, light-coloured conference centre-type wooden furnishings, exposed beams, painted concrete – lifting up a single enormous skylight bathing the whole interior in natural light.

All the usual depressing details of the decorative mis-en-scène of the church today are present: Stations of the Cross in sub-Gill semi-cartoon format, Sunday school murals and, suspended above the free-standing altar, a modernistic but faceless (!) depiction of the Risen Christ.  The music is all evangelical songbook ditties – folksy tunes you can’t get out of your head, banal words, guitar accompaniment.  The flow of the service, too, as I have seen elsewhere, seems all too provisional, improvisational, laid back: unexpectedly, disturbingly unserious.

It’s not helped by being subject to numerous sotto voce asides from the priest himself.  Their purpose seems to be to reassure all those present that what we are collectively involved with here is a temporary suspension of normal behaviour in order to accommodate the outlandish, scarcely credible demands of the eucharistic liturgy before we can return to normal daily life.  Its effect is that of a let’s-get-this-over-with lack of any profundity of thought or intensity of experience.

Except for the communion in both kinds (when did that happen?), the questionable aspects of modern Catholic worship – at least, from an Anglican perspective – are on full display.  Confusion in the sanctuary; gabbling of the text; the constant feeling of routine.

Queuing to receive communion, one after the other down the line, is oxymoronic; we should be in it all together, instead of participating in an individual, semi-automatic box-tick proceeding.  Where is the majesty, the quiet engagement, the sense of bringing the burden of our sins to rest upon the altar?  Where is the quality in this routine enactment?  Where is the mystery? Where is the feeling of God Shared?

What goes on in church, especially at the altar rail, is supposed to elevate us, or bring us up short.  If the Roman church itself fails in this duty, what is the point?

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As an institution, the Church of England can sometimes seem rather like retail banking: as soon as you get to cultivate a good relationship with the local rep, they get moved on.  No doubt it is all for the best.  There must be quite a few parish priests who would make good bishops. Better that the institution should benefit from their qualities across a slew of parishes than restricting them to just one or two.  So it is with distinctly mixed feelings that the congregation ‘losing’ a beloved pastor knows that the diocese to which he (or she) is being transferred is thereby receiving a singular stroke of fortune.

So it was in the 1990s, when the parish of St George’s Parktown, Johannesburg came to realise that their ‘man of God’, and the very model of a vicar,Gerard Sharp, was being considered for the succession to Duncan Buchanan, Bishop of Johannesburg.  In the event, it didn’t happen.  There came a Sunday when Gerard addressed us on the matter, disclosing the fact that he was against his name going forward; he would rather stay with us.  God, how we stood and clapped.  Tha applause went on and on, and he was clearly moved by it.

Now, some 20 years later, there is a rumour in Hanslope that our outstanding vicar, Fr Gary Ecclestone SSC, is ‘coming under pressure’ to accept some important benefice elsewhere.  He has said that he has no plans to move on; we know he loves the two parishes in his cure and we love him.  He wants to stay.

But I can’t help feeling that as soon as the idea is made known, it generates a momentum of its own.  It is a proposal which sotto voce  persists and is not going to go away soon.  It will happen.  The best get moved on so that others may be blessed as we have been blessed.  Please God, not yet.

And Gerard Sharp?  Well he’s now Dean of Johannesburg.  We miss him.


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