Friday, September 29, 2006
Eucharist now and then
It was very strange to find myself at a diocesan clergy day at the racecourse on Wednesday…so soon after Greenbelt, really, that it felt as if the Festival must surely be carrying on somewhere, just out of sight, if I could only catch up with it.
Strange to be in the Gold Cup lounge, with several dozen tidy clergy, all showing signs of recent bathing. Stranger to look out of the window and see an empty concourse, in place of the busy crowds which surge past during the Festival, and the racecourse itself clear of the rainbowed acres of tents that lend it life and excitement for a short time each August.
Strangest of all to realise that this group, no less than the Greenbelt community, provides much my sense of connection, of “home”.
So many friends who’ve offered love, laughter and incalculable support along the way.
Once the initial disappointment (it really wasn’t Greenbelt) was past it was a good day, with some excellent talks on the Eucharist from my favourite Canon, from Fab Bish and from someone with arguably one of the best jobs in the C of E…
Much of it was stuff that I’ve heard before, that is very close to my vision of what we are about during worship…that sense of sharing in something so much greater, that stretches through space and time…the experience that Fab Bish refers to in his book as “grasping the heel of heaven”.
David Hoyle shared a pre-Reformation perspective, as he spoke of the power of an “articulate symbolism” which filled the churches on the eve of the Reformation. The painted saints that decorated the screen cutting off nave and chancel in a pre Ref church were community saints, part of the family…sharing not only the same concerns but even the same names. (the paintings of St John and St Cecilia in Ranworth Church were the gift of a long dead John and Cecily…how must they have felt when the reformers arrived and literally defaced their gifts, so that the saints now stand faceless in their place on the doorstep of heaven)
As Eamon Duffy has pointed out, there was a much greater sense of ownership in the pre Reformation church than we might expect. David observed that, whereas sixteenth century worshippers were likely to be deeply engaged in the sheer spectacle of the Mass (even if they were occasionally bewildered by the Latin), - the screen serving not as we'd assume as a fence to exclude, but as a frame to emphasise the events taking place on the altar,- our congregations are typically engaging above all with the printed text in their hand, or above their heads. They might look around them, to engage with the community , but that focussed engagement with the transforming passion of Christ played out in the Eucharistic action is something different, which it seems hard for us to recapture.
Back to the sense of our minimal expectations, perhaps? We’re too wedded to the commonplace, without looking beyond it even as we approach the miracle of the altar…Diarmid McCulloch in contrast describes the way in which the medieval and pre-Reformation Church, "had a genius for building on the capacity of Christianity to invest the everyday with sacred significance. Worship might involve the distant, all powerful God, but God could be reached little by little through the familiar, the approachable….bread, wine and candles”. (I guess that brings us back to Greenbelt, with next year's theme of "heaven in ordinary", then? )
Thinking that through, it feels as if so little has changed. We assume that we need to pare worship down to its bare essentials in order to woo the unchurched…but perhaps it’s the very banality of so much that we offer that provides the greater barrier? Wesley’s description of the Eucharist as a “converting ordinance” was much to the fore in conversation, with an underlying implication that the church has somehow lost confidence in its power. As I posted earlier, my own experience supports this. Nothing, for me, creates sacred space in quite the same way, time after time, as the gathering of God's people around God's table..To find ourselves once again brought to place of total concentration on the death and resurrection of Christ is to find ourselves on holy ground, at the foot of the cross in the company of saints and angels.