Visiting English Churches

Char and I are in Oxford, England. Yesterday evening we went to a Vigil service at a tiny but very ancient Anglo-Catholic Church. This morning we attended a larger Anglo-Catholic church for morning worship. Then this evening we went to Evensong at a huge 900 year old Anglican Cathedral.

It may take a couple of days to clear the incense out of my sinuses but other than that the experience with the first two churches was enjoyable. I can’t say it was easy to worship in that extremely liturgical situation but it was fascinating to observe.

The music this evening at the Cathedral was wonderful and, though it was still a liturgical service, it was easier to let my mind turn to the Lord.  None the less, the primary fascination I felt in all three churches was in thinking about the theological and psychological implications of liturgical worship.

In the Cathedral, I could only see about 40 feet in any direction. It was a very large sanctuary in terms of square footage but the cruciform shape and the large columns blocked the view in every direction. One thing is clear: both the architecture and the liturgy are meant to draw people out of themselves and out of their daily realities. People are dwarfed by the buildings and their worship is practically done for them.

There is an ancient Roman Catholic idea — still very obvious in these English churches — that the priest is a double vicar: He stands before the people in the place of Christ and, turning his back to the people, stands before the Lord in the place of the people. Nothing in the three services we visited hinted that there is any sense in which the whole congregation is the Body of Christ.

So part of me says I have nothing to learn from such churches. Yet, I cannot deny that the liturgy does tie us in with the long flow of Christian history. It is not designed to slavishly follow popular fads but reflects the line of Christians who have gone before us. That is valuable. And I certainly cannot deny that aesthetics is far more important in these churches than in modern American Evangelical churches. The little ditties we sing ad nauseum have little musical value and the buildings in which we worship would never inspire anyone to turn thoughts toward God.

So methinks I’d better not throw stones at the worship of others. If it is truly worship for them even though I can’t quite see how, then that is my problem, not theirs.

In a week or so we’ll be in Rome. I wonder if they have any liturgical churches there? We’ll be in Mother Church (St. Peter’s Basilica) and probably about a dozen more. These churches get thousands of visitors daily. I’ve been pastor of two Evangelical churches and I cannot recall a single person ever stopping by either of them just to marvel at the architecture.

It is easier for me to envision a person-centered ministry in a plain building with minimal liturgy, so I’ll stick with plain. But I know I am missing a lot. That’s okay: On the other side of the grave there will not be one single joy I miss out on. Sounds good enough for me!


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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6 Responses to Visiting English Churches

  1. cathy says:

    I am afraid some of the nuances of Anglo Catholicism have got a bit lost here. I am not an expert on anything, but as I understand it the priest does not become a ‘double priest’, and the congregation being in the fullest possible sense the Body of Christ is the whole point of every Mass.

    The Mass to an A/C is not a re-enactment, a memorial or a remembrance. It is us entering eternity and taking part in the very first Mass, that of the Last Supper, every single time. God is outside time, and events in which he participates are also outside time. There are not multiple Masses; there is only one Mass.
    What happens with the priest is that he partakes of the essence of Christ for the duration of the Mass; as Christ lifts the Bread and Wine, so the priest lifts the bread and wine, and in doing this there are not two separate people but one person; Christ in the person of the priest.
    Similarly, when we eat the Body and Blood, we partake of the same reality of Christ actually present, and by eating his Body and Blood it becomes part of us, we become part of him.
    I am afraid my poor attempt to explain this may not make much sense to those who do not share our spirituality, but this is a very real experience, and it connects us very directly with Our Lord and with the whole company of heaven.
    When a priest puts on liturgical vestments it is a sign that he no longer asserts his own presence; he steps aside and allows Christ to be present instead. There are not two priests; there is only one High Priest, at every Mass, and every Mass is the Last Supper, prefiguring the Lord’s death on the cross for our sins, and his Resurrection.
    I hope this helps.

    • mthayes42 says:

      Thank you, Cathy! You may not be an expert but you’re obviously more acquainted with A-C than I am, so I appreciate your careful response. Now I’m going to have to go back to the books and do more study. I still do not understand the meaning of the priest turning his back to the congregation. I have always thought (from my Protestant perspective) that at that moment the priest represents the people before the Lord. Thank you so much for challenging my assumption. Sometimes we (i.e, I) don’t know enough even to know that we (i.e., I) don’t know enough.

      • cathy says:

        The direction of the priest is a problem for many priests as well. Not all A/C priests face East (ie away from the people); some prefer to face the congregation, as you rightly say.

        The priest focusses the prayers of the people together and brings them to God, and so traditionally he faces God, rather than the congregation. This is a very ancient practice, followed by all apostolic churches, but many are changing towards an east facing congregation and a west facing priest. This is only for the prayers of consecration of the Mass; for much of the rest of the service he does indeed face the congregation.

        Lots of people think being A/C is just about objecting to women priests, but a lot of A/Cs have no problem with that at all. It is more about liturgy as a bridge between heaven and earth, and a very real experience of Christ’s presence with us.

        I had better not go on too much; I am sure you get the general idea. 🙂

  2. mthayes42 says:

    Yes, Cathy, I get the general idea but that doesn’t mean you should stop writing too soon. The 800 year old A/C church we first visited had in fact moved from “ordinary” Church of England to A/C because of the ordination of women, though I know that is not true in all cases.

    As a Protestant with very little experience with elaborate liturgy, it was difficult to know what everything meant. I’m sure with experience and conversations I would learn more and therefore more easily appreciate all that went on.

    The other striking thing for me was that in both churches — the Vigil in the tiny church and the Sunday morning service in a different church with about a hundred people — the sermon was of very minor importance. In the Saturday evening service, it was about 5 minutes of suggestion that we should be thankful for the harvest. In the Sunday morning service, with the speaker being an Oxford professor, it was about 8-10 minutes about St. Francis of Assissi. In both services, I missed having a time to dwell on Scripture.

  3. Liturgy is an acquired taste for me also. That said, the recitation and remembrance of truth after truth powerfully impacts me!

    • mthayes42 says:

      Good to hear from you again. I like your tag: PrayThroughHistory. I very much understand and appreciate the importance of liturgy for you. Not having been raised in any church and not having a personality that can hear the same things over and over without becoming numb to them, I find myself being pretty “low church.” That is just a matter of taste and personality. I have sometimes been deeply touched by fresh, new symbolic acts in worship. On the other hand, I have also been moved at times by some liturgical worship that reminds me that I am privileged to take my place in the centuries-old chain of God’s people in worship and adoration of our Lord.

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