Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Looking East

Tobias Haller has republished his excellent essay commending ad orientum celebration of the eucharist as a norm. I add my concurrence with some observations of my own.

As I've had call to mention from time to time, the one really rock-solid achievement of the 1979 BCP revision has been in establishing a new structure to the eucharistic liturgy which has thus far stood firm in spite of all other proposals for revision. Other than those problem people who omit the confession (I know who you are, you do know you'll have to get caught up on Judgement Day) I have never been anywhere nor read any proposed rite where the 1979 order is deviated from (I know those wacky liturgists at St. Gregory of Nyssa get pretty far from the 1979 text, but even their order is pretty close to it), except at a few missal parishes and a couple of special commemorative services using pre-1928 rites. And I think there is a good and obvious reason for that: 1979's rhythm just works, very well.

But when this rhythm is considered in the church building, it seems to me that it favors a particular space, and favors using it in a particular way. And that space is the classic tripartite Gothic hall-church, with the pulpit and lectern perched at either side of the steps up into the choir. Consider how the focus shifts around: when the readings start, the eye is upon the lectern, then shifts to the gospel reading (which is pulled forward, the one time the choir's focus is into the nave) and then to the pulpit for the sermon. And then everyone turns towards the altar in profession of the creed. The prayers and confession (both, in those early days, likely to be done kneeling) turn the focus inward, and then the everything turns toward the altar again as the communion proper begins.

In a more "modern" versus populum celebration these days, this rhythm is likely to be disturbed. Moving the choir eliminates the visual cue of having them turn to face the altar, though of course the back gallery form common to Georgian buildings never allowed this. (One imagines, though, that Georgian liturgical patterns were the farthest things from their Dix-influenced minds.) The tyranny of the microphone (and I have to say that few Episcopal churches are so large as to demand their use) has led to increasing use of the lectern as a place from which to lead parts of the service, turning them into lectures within the congregation.

And it is that inward focus which increasingly dominates our liturgy. I have heard it asserted that versus pop and centrally focused liturgy signify immanence, but personally I see this as a problem, and not a positive sign. Here I can do little better than repeat what I said last spring:

In the new plan, we do not look to God at all. We look to ourselves, and turn away from transcendence. Communion itself is the most immanent of all rites, for what could be more immanent than holding Jesus' flesh in one's hand, and drinking his blood from the common cup? Jesus looks down upon the performance, over the shoulders of the sopranos, hoc est corpus, hocus-pocus, see how the miracle is performed once again, pay no attention to that Son of God over there, reigning from the cross.
We moderns don't like a transcendent God. We like our God to resemble the Force, flowing in and amongst us, but not possessed of an alien will beyond and outside our ken. The big problem with God the Father, and I think the real reason why he continues to disappear from our liturgies, is not His gender, but the fact that his elderly frowning countenance represents everything that reminds us of our failings, and that we are every bit the rebellious children taught in Genesis 3. We are caught between time in the church, saved and exalted, and yet still not free of the sinning which we recommence to committing each morning.

This is why the church needs to continue to pray outward. Christ is within us, yet we are still apart from God, and must petition him as his servants. We sing "Come down, O love divine;" we pray that the elements be the Body and Blood as though God must act anew at each liturgy. And this is right and proper and even necessary, not because God cannot be ever present, but because we are ever pulled from him by our sins, which we from week to week commit anew. We need to know not just that God is good, but that he is also great, far greater than can be enclosed in our little community. The eucharist testifies not only to God's presence among us in the person of the Son our Christ, but that God's presence is made manifest through the Spirit which blows where it pleases, according to the purposes of the Father whose reason is beyond our ken. In a world where all is very terribly still not made well, we need to be reminded that our salvation depends upon the grace carried down to us from heights we could otherwise never reach; the priest prays, and we pray with him, and not he to us or us to him.

As Fr. Haller says, it is possible to construct a round space in which the focus is central, but directed upward: I would mention St. Clement's, Alexandria, thought to be the first of its kind in modern times. But the symbolism there is of Tabor or Sinai, and the priest does not face the people, who are arrayed around him. I would also say, as a practical matter, that round spaces are acoustically very difficult unless they are very small; long vaulted spaces are much more congenial to congregational singing. But in any case these spaces, at their best, cry out for God to descend upon us; and they are very, very different from the sanctuary-as-stage/nave-as-audience arrangement which is the typical versus populum sanctuary. One can also see that at St. Clement's the Liturgy of the Word conducted from a different part of the church, away from the altar, leading to the same rhythm of attention that the tripartite church evokes. By contrast the increasing trend is to build what is frankly an auditorium, in which all seats face the sacred stage so as to have good sight lines for the performance of the rite. And it's terribly ironic that in the middle ages, it was considered so very important see the key moment of the liturgy, in buildings which were so very uncooperative about allowing that vision; but we moderns, who can read and hear and participate without seeing, have made this the sine qua non of liturgical design. But the liturgy is not a show to be seen, and indeed the watching is distracting. When the priest raises the elements in token of offering, it is He to whom they are lifted who should be the object of our attention, not the ministers, nor the ritual of that offering. God is and shall be among us, but we must also remember that he is without us and beyond us, and it is that remembrance, I think, which needs the more attention in this age.


Tobias Haller said...

Thank you, Charles. All very good, but your last paragraph two sentences are pure gold, refined in the fire of experience and common sense.

Jon in the Nati said...

This is a great take on this subject, but I doubt it will ever be taken seriously. Consider that in mid-century and later, many Anglican churches were renovated to allow for versus-populum celebration, even in churches in which it was wholly impractical, because this was just so darn important. I have a hard time believing that anyone who oversaw such 'renovations' would ever be interested in returning to ad orientam celebration, despite the manifold good theological and liturgical arguments for it.

For the most part, anyone interested in ad-orientam celebration is already doing it.

C. Wingate said...

I insist on maintaining hope. It seems to me to be possible that the day will come when ''versus pop'', liturgical puppets, clown masses and the like will be seen as the embarrassing relics of sixties and seventies, like bell bottoms and big blow-dry hairdos and disco. After all, Anglicans in the mid-1800s were successful in turning around the goofy notion of their fathers that the temples of pagan Rome were the ideal model for church architecture.