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Anglo-Catholicism is... Liturgical

Corpus Christi: 19 June, 2014
Fr Samuel Dow
Assistant Curate, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

It was in 2001 when I made a somewhat nervous trip by train into Sydney from the Blue Mountains to attend a strangely intriguing service called 'Maundy Thursday' at St James Anglican Church, King Street. Up to this point I had grown up around Anglican Churches my whole life, but in a very conservative evangelical tradition. I had been encouraged to make a visit to St James by one of my organ teachers to hear an excellent organist and choir in action. I was somewhat nervous about this trip as my evangelical senses told me that this sort of service must be idolatrous but at the same time I was excited. Excited, because for the later part of my teens I became more aware of a growing sense of isolation and discomfort in the tradition of my childhood and this just may hold something for me. My faith had stagnated in a cesspool of theoretical niceties and biblical injunctions, which I felt continued to force not only myself, but everyone else into a guilty submission.

It was at this Maundy Thursday Mass at St James King Street that I encountered a most amazing style of Anglicanism which I had never imagined. My spiritual life of black and white was almost instantly transformed into a world of colour, of movement, of amazing music and gathering good crowds of young intelligent people. For me, I could quite rightly say that this was a time and place that has significantly shaped my spiritual life forever as I felt liberated by a tradition that was both orthodox and biblical. I once recalled this story to a person from an evangelical tradition and at the end of the story she asked, "did you find Jesus?" to which I replied, "no, I found incense and sanctuary bells"!

As I have taken, from that day onwards, to study and understand this beautiful creature called Anglo-Catholic liturgy, I would like to reflect on three key elements which I think give strength to this our robust tradition.

Firstly, I would like to suggest that Anglo-Catholic liturgy is both serious and Holy.

To say that our liturgy is serious, doesn't mean that I am suggesting our liturgy is not a place to laugh and have fun. In fact quite the opposite at times, I have had the most fun and shared much laughter within our tradition. But I do mean that we take our liturgy very seriously. It isn't a matter of just turning up on a Sunday to enjoy an hour or two of casual chit-chat and bible quoting from a street clothed 'pastor'. Nor is it just something which we attend to make us feel better and get our 'spiritual high'.

When we come and gather for worship, it is to do so in a space which is conducive to sharing in the sacred presence of Christ, recognising our Holiness and our brokenness. Recently we were blessed in our parish to host internationally renowned theologian James Alison. During the retreat that he lead, Fr James describes our gathering at church in terms of a restaurant metaphor: 'God is the chef who invites us to come and share in the most amazing banquet which has been prepared for us'. However, as he goes on to say 'the waiters are there to serve the meal and be an almost unseen presence as they go about their work. Often though, the waiters want to make it about themselves and in so doing greatly distract us from the actual reason for going to the restaurant'. In our Anglo catholic tradition, the waiters, or those called into the apostolic ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, who approach seriously the liturgical observances of the church are able to be just that — quiet servants in the background, faithfully loving the people of God into Holiness of life.

But this seriousness of Holiness has not always been the case. In the year 1800, the then Bishop of London recorded that on Christmas Day there were only 'six communicants at St Paul's Cathedral'. This period of history showed a huge decline in the church as many of its clergy were either lax and indifferent about engaging seriously with their community or were caught up in social and political corruption. All of which deterred people from church attendance. But this trend turned on its head and by the end of the nineteenth century the English church had embraced greatly the Oxford Movement and it's ensuing return to a Holiness in liturgy.

For many parishes, including St Paul's London, this meant stressing higher standards of worship and many changes in church services, such as the introduction of vestments, beautification of church buildings, use of candles and incense, etc. A Holiness of worship ensued which was both English (locally shaped) and yet acknowledged the ancient Catholic liturgy and doctrines. Whatever was to be done it would have to be done to the very best of standards, and to this day our tradition greatly embraces this understanding and approach to worship. 'Be Holy for the Lord your God is Holy' (Leviticus 19:2).

Secondly, Anglo-Catholic liturgy is sacramental.

Tonight, as we gather on this feast day of Corpus Christi we don't just give thanks for 'the Holy Communion' as our modern lectionary calls it — seemingly implying a thanksgiving for a 'liturgical action' that we do in church. But instead tonight we celebrate Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharistic meal that we share together whenever we gather for worship. A presence that we recognise not only in this most significant sacrament but in many other aspects of life, which helps us to seek God's face.

That night, as I took part in the Maundy Thursday liturgy at St James, I went forward with many others to have my feet washed — a ritual completely foreign to me and which seemed quite strange. So as I sat there having my feet washed by a complete stranger I realised that here is my brother in Christ showing to me in a very real way Christ's grace towards us. Here, indeed, was the presence of Christ as we served one another. This sacramental action in foot washing was further confirmed that night through that marvellous hymn 'An Upper Room', which in verse three reads: 'And after Supper he washed their feet, for service too is sacrament. In him our joy shall be made complete — sent out to serve, as he was sent.' So this tradition of Anglo-Catholicism isn't just about a theoretical head thing which I must try and believe in, but experientially I can discover Christ's presence. For years I had been taught that I must do certain things to be a real Christian, but here in this sacramental tradition I can give thanks for God's grace being effective and offered for all without me having to try and do anything. It is an action of God being present with us and not something that I can earn. God's love is unconditional.

Thirdly and lastly, true Anglo-Catholic liturgy is inclusive.

While I don't want to sound like I am continuing to build our tradition up over and against another tradition of Anglicanism (I firmly believe that we NEED a diversity in Christianity), I do think that another major strength and blessing which I have discovered in Anglo-Catholicism is its inclusive nature in the liturgy. For years I was told that people who were Roman Catholic were evil — women could not speak in church and homosexual people were definitely not allowed to come to church. So much exclusion was instilled in me from my childhood tradition but when I found a home in Anglo-Catholicism, the constraints of manipulation were lifted and I could see more clearly a God of love and inclusion. This is certainly evident in our liturgy, where all people are welcomed to the altar.

During the Oxford movement one of the biggest achievements was the ministry to the poor. This continued through a period in history that witnessed the growth of poverty and slums, but running alongside this, an active ministry in these poorer areas developed. Slum priests, as they were called, took to the streets in great number, meeting people where they were at, and sharing in Christ's presence. This lifted the morale to a huge extent since, for some brief time through the week, people in absolutely awful situations were able to experience a God of life and love present with them.

During this very feast of Corpus Christi, the revival of processions through the street with the Blessed Sacrament also gave hope and a glimmer of 'other-worldliness' to those in greatest need. Here was the church coming to them and into their neighbourhoods, places which the more affluent would rather ignore and forget about.

Another example of inclusiveness in the liturgical tradition of Anglo-Catholicism comes in terms of architectural arrangements of churches. In many places box pews, which earned a good income from their renting by the wealthy, were removed so that all people could sit together no matter how much money they had. A very radical move in its day but one that brought about great liberation. Giant pulpits which dominated church spaces were also toned down and kept in balance with the centrality of the altar — signifying the balance of word and sacrament. However, as far as we have come in inviting inclusivity into our liturgy I believe we still have a long way to go in this tradition which seeks to embrace all people.

There is much that could be said and discussed in terms of the strengths of Anglo-Catholic liturgy. Here I have offered just three aspects which I think are integral to Anglo-Catholic liturgy which gives strength to our tradition. But through each of these aspects I don't think that we can be too comfortable and slip into antiquity or notions of romanticism, as if our great liturgical tradition were something from a particular place in history which must be preserved like an old car. It will only be a faithful re-telling of our story to the ever changing societies of our world that will see our tradition continue to flourish.

Recently I read an encouraging article titled 'Young Evangelicals are getting High' which describes a movement in the United States which has seen many evangelical Christians join high liturgical Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches. This story resonated with mine and I think it offers some insight into how our great tradition is able to speak into the generations — if we only let it. A section from that article reads:

The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can't give them. The world can give them hotter jeans, better coffee, bands, speakers, and book clubs than a congregation can. What it can't give them is theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. What the kids leaving generic evangelicalism seem to want is something the world can never give them—a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed. They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents' churches and not finding it.

We have much to offer in our Anglo Catholic liturgical tradition, and I pray that together we can continue to offer Holy, Sacramental, and inclusive liturgies which are both in accord with the ancient liturgies but also respond to our cultural contexts.


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