The art of celebrating is a theme that was constantly on the lips of Pope Benedict XVI and addressed to the priests of the Roman Catholic Church. In our Church of Anglican tradition, the state of the question is different, but there are points of comparison. We usually use the Anglican Missal or one of the approved versions of the Prayer Book, and we have been influenced by the Tractarians and Ritualists of Victorian England.
Nevertheless, celebrating the Eucharist and leading the Office is an art. There are various aspects, as the liturgy is not theatre or something merely aesthetic. The most important dimension is that celebrating the liturgy is truly a prayer and a relationship with God. The priest truly leaves the profane world behind and enters a different world where all mortal flesh keeps silence and with fear and trembling stands. The priest is both a preacher and listener of God’s Word.
Saint Benedict tells his monks to make their minds concord with the words they utter – Mens concordet voci. We all have distractions as we say the Office or Mass, especially when we know the text by heart and have been priests for a number of years. Routine sets in, and I’m just as much a victim of it as anyone else. We find the words in the liturgy, and it is for us to enter into them and become one with the Christ we celebrate and render present through the Priesthood we received from him.
It is important that those studying for the priesthood should not only have practical instruction in the ceremonies, but also understand the structure and rationale of the liturgy – why things are done the way they are done. To interiorise the texts of the Mass and the Office, it is helpful to read through it all the day before, not only to prepare a homily, but also to assimilate the words and their spiritual meaning. In this way, a priest is no longer himself but part of the “we” of the Church, and thus fully in communion with Christ. The liturgy is no longer my property but something “lent” to me for the good of God’s people.
Our priestly spirituality is at the very base of whether the liturgy we celebrate is sensed as something mysterious and sacred by the faithful. They can tell by intuition, a sense that transcends both reason and emotion. Sursum corda – Lift up your hearts! This is truly what happens as we enter the sancta sanctorum of the Eucharistic Prayer.
Thus we are not encouraged to make a show or theatrical performance of the liturgy. We are not actors, but it is our spirituality that makes the liturgy beautiful. We often read the Sacred Scriptures as poetic and dramatic words, but unless we go deeper into our lectio divina, we can never expect truly to hear the voice of God. It is the same thing with the liturgy.
Secondly, when our priorities are in place, the liturgy – especially the English Missal or the old Sarum Use – is quite complex. It is like learning to sail a boat. There is first of all the understanding of the sea and the weather. If we go wrong, we cannot blame nature but our own technique – don’t blame the wind but make sure your sails are properly set. Like sailing, coordinating the rudder and the mainsheet, the trim of the sails, the lateral and longitudinal balance, the liturgy is also something complex that has to be learned. Deacons preparing for the priesthood have their books of ceremonies and know the High Mass inside out. They have functioned as thurifer, acolyte, MC and subdeacon. They accompany the priest at the altar, and if that priest is doing it properly, the deacon will learn. Though I was myself trained in a residential seminary using the Tridentine rite, I have come to favour the “apprenticeship” method of training priests. They get their theology in a good university faculty – and then they learn from a good experienced priest. That’s how lads learned their trades in the old days and had pride in a good job well done. So we aim for excellence and the very best for God. Of course God has no need of liturgy, but he does know when our prayers are sincere and heartfelt.
I also include in the category of the ars celebrandi all the practical aspects around the liturgy. This is a real opportunity for full participation of the laity, both men and women in the liturgy. Of course, men and boys can serve at Mass, there is the organist and choir, the churchwarden and vergers who all have their vital roles. There are also roles outside the actual church services. In particular, someone has to design and furnish our churches. This is something we do ourselves because we haven’t the money to pay someone else to do it. Most men have done a little DIY and perhaps have done woodwork at school. A worthy altar can be made of plywood and commercial mouldings and a slap of paint. I’ll write an article about it, and someone skilled in cabinet making can make something even more beautiful. We also need to have a sense of taste and proportion, avoiding oversized statues or pews designed for large buildings. For the ladies (and many men who know how to sew too), vestments are not difficult to make using suitable curtain fabrics and braid that can be bought from haberdashery or furnishing shops. But, you need patterns and a method. I will try to find methods and share my own experience, so that anyone anywhere can run up a new set of vestments.
These are the first three elements by which I would like to set the spirit of this Church blog, and I am sure this is going to snowball as others come in with new creative ideas. Like my confrère in England and on this blog, I am excited by the prospects of doing something really constructive and new.