Friday, 25 January 2013

All In The Mind

I bought a pound of Blachernae Rose incense from the Orthodox brothers at Brookwood Monastery a few weeks ago and in an excess of enthusiasm used it three times over the Advent and Christmas season, the last occasion at the main service on Christmas Day - not full-works censing, just a bit to wave over the altar at the appropriate moment.

On Boxing Day morning I was down in the church tidying up and met Jack. Jack is one of the most useful people in the church, as not only is he basically a Pastoral Assistant sans la lettre but also, being a Northern Presbyterian by extraction, tells me what he thinks in no uncertain terms whereas most southern English people hem and har and beat around an entirely different bush, usually, from the one in question.

'Can you warn me when you're going to burn incense?' he said. 'That was why I had to go out yesterday morning. When we had it at the Advent Service it was three days before my throat was back to normal.'

Now part of the point of using the Orthodox incense is that you get fragrance off it rather than acrid smoke, but it is the case that a few people react badly to some perfectly natural substances in frankincense gum, and the last thing I'm bothered about is putting obstacles in the way of people coming to worship: it isn't a matter of high principle. So at the very least incense can be flagged up before use to give folk the choice of coming or not.

I compromise over most things, awful wet liberal that I am. My Victorian Anglo-Catholic forebears like the great Fr Mackonochie went to prison so I could wave incense about. Reading as I am that strange, waspish and yet horribly fascinating book Fashions in Church Furnishings 1840-1940 by Peter Anson, I came across this passage:

The 'Six Points' were almost a matter of life and death to the ritualistic clergymen and layfolk of the 'sixties and 'seventies. ... They could not be given up under pain of mortal sin. Rather than do so, Anglo-Catholic incumbents were willing to face persecution, fines, imprisonment and even martyrdom. Looking back over nearly a century, it is difficult to understand the mentality of those utterly sincere and devoted clergymen ... Considering that there seems to have been no uniformity in the position of the celebrant of the eucharist during the first three centuries of the Christian era, it is curious that [they] attached so much importance to the eastward position ... [or that they] were convinced that they could not fully proclaim their priesthood unless they were clothed in certain garments, usually of a rather debased late medieval shape ... After the ceremonial use of altar lights had been forbidden, all that had to be done was to black-out the chancels, and illuminate them with lamps filled with olive oil ... Again, one wonders why so such importance was attached to the use of wafer bread, considering that all the Eastern Churches, including those in communion with Rome, use leavened bread.

And so on. I know that, had I been a 19th-century Anglican priest, I would have had my own opinions, but have been equally ready to cavil on virtually all of them so as not to outrage the faithful needlessly. I would have told myself I was leading them gently and sacrificing my own preferences for the sake of the weaker brethren. Yet had everyone been like me nothing would have moved at all. It was, and usually is, the nutcases who drive change forward; the reasonable just bob along in their wake. I suppose, being generous to myself, it takes both sorts.

Leaving Jack, I went into the vestry and emptied the thurible. It turned out that, as I'd put in only one charcoal on Christmas Day morning thinking that would be plenty, by the time it came to the censing so much had burned off that the grains of incense never actually ignited and so essentially nothing was coming out of the thing; whatever had caused Jack such physical difficulty it wasn't the smoke. 'Psychosomatic incense' was our Reader's diagnosis.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Yes, It Went All Right, Thank You

Venturing back into blogging after a bit of a gap, but not being too hard on myself, I thought I would write a very very little about Christmas. It was fine, thank you very much, as people are just about ceasing to ask me, it being the latter stages of January now. All the celebrations were a bit concertina-ed this year, as the last Sunday before Christmas - traditionally the day for a lot of churches' Carol Services - was the day before Christmas Eve so everything was crammed into a couple of days. Everything was pretty much the same as in previous years, as you have to summon up quite some reserves of energy to do anything ground-breaking over Christmas; the only thing we did differently this year was to replace the simple Christmas story readings at the Crib Service with an equally simple Nativity drama, all narrated by a few voices and acted by a few (adult) people. The Crib Service, as similar services in churches the country over, draws enough people to fill the building to bursting, and isn't always easy to manage. This time, there were real moments of attentive quiet, which was a lot to do with the drama. It was nothing at all to do with me, but originated, planned and executed by congregation members, which pleases me very much indeed. All the numbers were similar to last year, too, though my colleagues at other churches in the area report quite a lot of fluctuation.

I am still smarting a bit from a statement by one long-standing member of the congregation who told me some time after the event that he thought the Midnight Mass was 'incomprehensible to anyone new'. It was a quick phone conversation and I haven't delved into the matter yet, but it's hard to see how it's any more incomprehensible to anyone new than an ordinary Sunday Eucharist is. My guess is that this is a rationalisation of not liking the eastward-facing celebration, which we only adopt for the Midnight and the Easter Vigil; another guess would be that it's based on a sample size of one, i.e. the complainant, as it's difficult to see how they could have sampled the actual opinions of anyone coming through the door for the first time. I will have to ask the 19-year-old who I baptised earlier in the year so she could be a godmother to her friend's baby, and who turned up at the Midnight with two of her friends, and see what she thought.