Letter from America
Michael Heidt on old ways – new hope
One of the happier things about moving parishes is the cheerful opportunity it gives to remove 1970s memorabilia. Out go the weary cassock albs with their thick, rope-like waist accessories that the Star Trek generation forced upon young servers. The ‘President’s Chair’ gets to go back to the teak recycling plant and the nylon impedimenta of the Decade of Good Taste can be quietly shelved and forgotten. All this to say nothing of veneered chipboard Tables, which only succeeded in confusing the faithful. Well, you know what they say ‘its out with old and in with the new.’ The new in this instance being a return to natural fiber, cassocks and cottas, the Sacrament back on the High Altar and the Mass restored. Add a healthy dose of daily catholic devotions and everyone begins to get positively festive. Why not? They’ve got their religion back after several decades of tired modernist experimentation and what better gift to give a parish for the New Year than that?
Apologies are due, at this point, to England’s Novus Ordo churches, but before you turn away in anger, remember how badly the new Mass, or indeed any Mass, is usually celebrated here in America. To give an example; during Advent, an Anglo-Catholic family went to an Anglo-Catholic parish in one of our major cities expecting a simple parish communion. This is what they found, and bear in mind that this is one of our few remaining orthodox churches. The priest and deacon entered the Sanctuary wearing blue Mass vestments, Sarum presumably, and started with the General Confession. Fine, but everything started to spin out of control when the choir fired up with the Venite, followed by a psalm. My friends had obviously stumbled into something strange and terrifying, a sort of Mattinsmass.
So it was, the psalm preceding a Lesson, which was followed by the Magnificat, for Advent perhaps, and then another reading. After this came the Benedictus and the Gospel. The people were instructed to sit for the latter and then stand for the Nicene Creed, which was said from a tiny, oriented, wooden Altar. This being a traditional church, the sermon was delivered after the Creed. Then the priest ascended the Altar and Holy Communion went on more or less as usual. All this in the presence of an enormous Advent wreath, bedizened with blue ribbons and golden balls, which was placed on an easel in the Chancel. The family returned home dismayed, all they wanted was the Mass; what they got was something else again and a sorry reflection of the current state of anarchy in the Episcopal Church.
What’s clearly needed is a return to order and sanity, to the perennial norms of the Church which we claim to belong to. Part of this is liturgical and I see nothing wrong in siding with Ratzinger in a return to the classical ritual of the Western Rite, albeit practiced through the lens of renewal. Perhaps in America, which has leapt so far over the precipice of private judgement, there’s something to be said for a resort to precedence, with all its attendant authority. But, be that as it may, the real problem isn’t liturgical; the awful state of our public worship isn’t its own first cause but the symptom of a deeper disease. This, as everyone here with eyes to see knows, is faithlessness. The revisionists do not believe in the Faith which they attack and attempt to remold into their own disbelieving likeness, evangelicals have faith in Jesus and they’re happy to share it with us, but they aren’t renowned for their love of the Church He founded. That leaves North American Anglo-Catholics, who seem to have lost faith in themselves.
Perversely ignoring the old maxim that, ‘A bad workman blames his tools,’ many of us seem to think that tried and tested ways of belief, devotion and pastoral practice have lost their power to convert souls to Christ. A Bishop, who was converted in his youth from Methodism by one the old school catholic priests for which the States were known, scolded me for not wearing my biretta around the streets of Norristown. I replied that being a dangerous, modern liberal humanist, a cassock would just have to do. At this he turned and in all seriousness asked whether the Catholic Faith, the same Faith which converted him from Protestantism, still had power to bring people to Christ in the modern age. What was once good enough for him obviously wasn’t going to cut it today and his attitude is indicative of countless priests and many people. These have either resigned themselves to doing things the ‘old way,’ but without hope, or have jettisoned the cargo in a failed attempt at inculturation with a faithless age.
No wonder, then, that our worship is bad, from the revisionist to the depressed Anglo-Catholic, no one has the necessary faith to breath life, beauty and converting power into the public worship of God. There should be no surprise either that our churches are in decline, with average ECUSA Sunday attendance at seventy seven persons and a troubled Diocese like Pennsylvania sitting low in the water at a miserable forty one. Of these, sixty-four parishes out of a total of one hundred and sixty two boast membership of no more than twenty-one souls. The figures are bad but we shouldn’t be surprised, why should we expect people looking for ‘faith solutions’ to be attracted to faithless churches? We don’t, in fact, but such is the overall lack of confidence in our message that pathetically low attendance rates come in as a comfortable vindication of already low morale.
The sadness of it all is that this is by no means necessary; there is no good reason for us to side with a disbelieving culture. There is every good reason for us to have confidence in our own, because its true and it works. Fr. David Diamond proved that not so long ago on the streets of Deptford, faithful priests and people proved it before, they do so now and they’ll do it again, even in America. So I say, bring back the High Altars and the Mass which converted me as a child and does so now. More to the point, bring back that militant love for the Church and the people, that holiness of life and surety of mission, which changed the face of Anglicanism and nearly converted its soul. For that matter, bring back triumphalism; after all, what do we have to apologise for but the apology itself? Having gotten over that we can begin to move again, here in America and regardless of primatial decision in February, towards the goal of rebuilding the Catholic Movement and converting our nation to the Faith.
Michael Heidt is
parish priest of St John’s, Norriston, Pensylvania
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