Addresses on St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Sunday in the Octave of St Peter's Day, Sunday 1 July, 2007
To mark the Sunday following St Peter's Day in our 160th year, The Vicar invited four parishioners to give their personal thoughts about the parish of St Peter's, Eastern Hill. These four addresses are collected here.
The 1980s were not such a good time for me, and I ended up in 1989 in the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous. Part of that journey is to seek a spiritual awakening and a conscious contact with a Higher Power. It is up to the individual to decide who that Higher Power should be, and I discovered the Anglocatholic tradition at Christchurch Brunswick and then at St Peter's Eastern Hill. I believe that there are many ways of seeking and finding God, but there is something about this particular way which spoke to me.
In the 17 years I have been involved with St Peter's I have at times become upset when I feel that the traditions of Anglocatholicism are being allowed to slip away. As an example, I notice when fewer people seem to bow to the processional cross as it passes. This may seem nit-picking, but I don't believe it is. I have at times sought alternatives, but St Peter's seems to have spoiled other strands of Anglicanism for me, and whilst some alternatives have their appeal, I am drawn back here. I have had to reflect on why these points of ritual and reverence matter to me. I have decided that I am not attracted simply to some high camp ritual for itself.
As I understand it, Anglocatholic tradition is based around reverence for the True Presence in the bread and wine consecrated in the mass and reserved in the tabernacle. It is this reverence which, to me, makes every bow and every genuflexion important. My faith is not always perfect, but my awareness of the presence of God can be increased when we worship corporately and well. Sometimes at Benediction, when I am kneeling next to a priest and realise that he is aware of the True Presence in the monstrance, my faith can feed off that. So, when I observe the traditional reverences I am affirming my faith. When others do, they are helping my faith too.
I looked forward to the recent Corpus Christi mass. It has seemed to be a mass where we can have some fun in our worship. When we were processing with the Blessed Sacrament, I was watching Joyce Newton scattering rose petals in the front of the procession, and I had the sudden experience of why we were there, and what we were celebrating. That sort of realisation doesn't happen to me every time I come to church — but it happens often enough to keep me coming back.
I am not convinced that in making liturgy "more accessible", the Church attracts many new members. Change of language to the vernacular does not seem to have achieved that for the Roman Catholic Church, and I do not believe that any of the language reforms in the Anglican Church have improved on Cranmer's original. A signal case in point would be the response "And also with you". I do not claim to be a scholar in ancient languages, but I do not see how this could be a more accurate translation of "Et cum spiritu tuo" than "And with thy spirit". It certainly grates on me each time it occurs. I am not sure that what we gain, in becoming more uniform with the general Anglican Communion in such matters, is worth what we lose.
I am aware that "the only constant in life is change". That is made evident to me often in my everyday life. If the business of the church is to represent eternal verities, then a reassuringly constant tradition in the liturgy may be more useful, it seems to me, than a repetition of the constant change assaulting us elsewhere. When discussion of change occurs, not all options are, in my experience, available for consideration. The Anglocatholic revival was fuelled by the realisation that the Church of England had lost much of value in the Reformation, and the reintroduction of previous beliefs and traditions, despite strong and sometimes violent opposition from more protestant elements, gave us what makes St Peter's special.
I write this on Sunday evening in the Octave of St Peter. It is not a verbatim transcription of what I said at High Mass — I spoke then without referring to notes. I hope I have captured some of the feeling, as well as the main points, of what I said then. I am grateful to the people who spoke to me after Mass and at Evensong, and to Fr John for providing the opportunity for me to speak.
When Fr John first asked me to reflect at today's mass on what it is about St Peter's that's so special — my first thought, as a relative newcomer to the parish, was "Why me?" But of course the real question is — "Why St Peter's?" What is so special about this place? What do I find here? What does it offer? Why does it work so well? And what, of all things, is most important?
These are questions I'll try to address — from my own experience. But to start the story I'd like to briefly recount how it was I found myself here at St Peter's and what kept bringing me back.
It was Easter, a little over two years ago. We always compare it in the family to that classic Christmas Vicar of Dibley episode, where the vicar can't say no to her parishioners' invitations to Christmas lunch and finds herself going from one household to the next, eating one Christmas dinner after another. So it was with us that EasterÓ but instead of Christmas puddings, we were getting our fill on Easter services. We went from one to the other, everything from Midnight vigils to tambourines and PowerPoint presentations in the sanctuary. By the end we were exhausted, and after three or four different services and different churches we still hadn't found what we were looking for. Mum wanted her fix of bells and smells — so we'd try once more, High Mass at St Peter's Eastern Hill.
I remember sitting in the back pew, just letting the music, liturgy and contemplative atmosphere of worship wash over me and renew God's call to relationshipÓ and my place within his Church. Now, two years later, whether I'm sitting in that back pew — or over in the sanctuary, St Peter's offers me a space where I can worship, reflect on and contribute to God's Kingdom.
SoÓ what's so special about this place? Some things are obvious to the newcomer — you can't get much better than the music at St Peter's for beauty and quality. Each week's mass setting draws us up and out of the complacency of our daily lives and inspires us with prayer, thanks and praise. I recently read somewhere — "A theology that does not sing, is bad theology. A theology...however scriptural, learned and orthodox, that does not pulsate with the thrill of sins forgiven and life renewed... is unworthy of its object and untrue to its biblical sources." I hope...that what we have here at St Peter's is both worthy and true.
Another thing that is quickly apparent is the care and precision taken in every part of the liturgy, and behind the scenes. This is something I experienced first hand when I was given, for the relatively simple role of torchbearer, no less than 7 pages of notes to learn! I wonder how many of us notice (or would care to admit that we do!) that each alter cloth is laid out to be perfectly symmetrical and centered, each candle is straightened and each of the vestments and eucharistic vessels are carefully, meticulously, prepared and laid out before each mass. I'm reminded of that car commercial with the tagline — "Isn't it nice, when things just work!" Well at St Peter's it's no accident that, most of the time, things do...just work!
But there's got to be more than this. St Peter's is a living community, it reaches out to the marginalised and destitute through initiatives such as the Lazarus centre, it challenges us through its preaching, it calls us to engage with our faith and involve ourselves in the whole church. It draws us in for worship, and sends us out in the Spirit. It is a place of prayer. And it has been all this, and more, for 160 years.
My very first encounter with St Peter's was the High Mass in Father Maynard's time. To come here as a young person was like entering Aladdin's Cave with the fragrance of incense, the sparkle, the precious jewels, the gold, the richness of the candles, the windows, the vestments, the processions and the banners; the words and liturgy presented in a fresh and startling manner, the amazing and at first bewildering movement sequences in the Sanctuary — all made more awesome by the mysterious Priests-only Holy Communion and the eventual discovery that the beautiful words and ancient liturgy had been there all along, less grand in other venues, veiled by boredom and the lack of understanding and insight. It was a real awakening.
Over the years there have been many changes, all aimed at making the Mass more meaningful, more discernible, more accessible. The Communion of the People has become an essential and integral part of the Mass. There were new words to learn and changes to the liturgy. We mourned the loss of the beautiful old words, the familiar traditional liturgical sequences and the prayers as we knew them. I remember the scandalised expression on the sidesman's face when I returned the long white Mass booklet for the last time with RIP written on it, a personal expression of grief and loss.
We struggled with new musical settings for the Creed, changes to the Lord's Prayer, no more last gospel. We watched new movements in the Sanctuary by the servers and, horrors for some, serviettes as well. We sighed, we murmered, we grumbled, we protested; some left, but we worked together: Priests, Sanctuary, Choir and People.
And wonder of wonders, the new words became just as beautiful, the Mass remained just as magical, just as mysterious, as confronting and challenging, just as reassuring and transcending — still beckoning. The High Mass has this marvellous and riveting re-enactment of the Christian story, told afresh each year in captivating ways with splendour, pageantry, drama — and at the heart of the Mass, stark simplicity weaving the strands of visual and auditory imagery from our distant past into a fabric where the pattern is still traditional and familiar, but also contemporary and relevant.
The changing colours of the Vestments to keep us focused and attentive. Sermons and homilies for lateral thinking and creative energy. We have the shared stillness of every Sunday Mass after the Censing.
And sometimes — often on special occasions when there seems to be an enhanced level of anticipation, participation and expectation — there descends upon the place a hush, a silence, an atmosphere charged with such intensity and unity of purpose and feeling, such rapt attention, that it seems as if the entire community is holding its breath. A marvellous sense of the magic and mystery of the Mass. A transfiguring mountaintop experience. A powerful reminder from an even more remote past of Jacob's words:
This is none other than the House of God.
Let me start by saying thank you on behalf of all visitors to whom St Peter's has given a home away from home over the years.
As an American Anglican, spending this year of all years here with you has been a little like being sent to a distant relation while your parents decide whether to get divorced. In the midst of tough questions about Anglicanism's future, it has been a true blessing to find a church with such a wealth of traditions and so vibrantly alive.
When you visit somewhere, you get to enjoy the illusion that the place makes sense, that things actually fit together, as if by design. In Melbourne you can admire the generosity with which the streets accommodate trams and sidewalk cafes, the wry wit with which the spires of St Patrick's perch ű off centre ű atop Parliament House as seen up Bourke Street, and the delicacy with which the Shot House Tower rises to just beneath the apex of Melbourne Central's conical dome. At St Peter's you might be moved by the tenderness with which an English gothic ceiling cradles an Australian iconostasis, or how sweetly the Venetian mosaic above the altar, picked up at Melbourne's first International Exhibition, flows into the gilt of the sanctuary (circa 1970) and reflects the Venetian music which has come to play so important a part in the repertoire of the choir.
Your initial sense of the way things fit together is usually wrong. But if you stay a while and poke around a bit you may arrive at a corrected view of how things have indeed come together (or at least have come not to clash). You experience a friendship of past and present, and a sense of legacies and possibilities natives may be too involved to notice.
Pondering such profound matters has helped me make sense of the Anglo-Catholicism of St Peter's. Or perhaps it's the other way around. Perhaps it is the Anglo-Catholicism of St Peter's which has helped me understand more deeply the possibility of the friendship of past and present, and its promise.
Inspired by Colin Holden's From Tories at Prayer to Socialists at Mass (written for St Peter's 150th anniversary), I had the chance in recent months to poke around the history of this remarkable place. I've found some fascinating things. Most valuable to me was an argument often made by Farnham Maynard, incumbent from the 1920s into the 1960s. Canon Maynard was a famous (infamous?) Christian socialist, and I found myself delighted to feel in his writings the messianic hope of both these traditions alive and flowing together. You don't encounter either kind of hope very much these days.
Here's how Canon Maynard put the argument in a book called A Fair Hearing for Socialism, published in 1944.
Christianity not only shares with all Religions an institutional element which is in its very nature conservative—for it is part of the function of religion to conserve the fruits of the spirit, and the values of the past, by according supernatural sanctions to the customs and traditions in which they are enshrined—but it possesses also intellectual and mystical elements, which are restless and dynamic, and which continually threaten the stability of the existing order by the incidence of new truths and spiritual power. It was because of these elements that the Prophets of the Old Testament were continually disturbing priestly complacency, and coming into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities of their day. The Prophets were frequently persecuted, and sometimes killed; but the successors of the Priests who compassed their deaths, conserved their messages. This co-operative work cannot be said to have been conducted on the best lines; but it was really co-operative work. And both priestly and prophetic elements are essential to a living religion. Institutional conservatism is like inertia in matter; while it resists change, it is the ground of the possibility both of change and stability. Reformers are frequently impatient of the institutional element in religion; but it will be needed to conserve their gains.
It is no coincidence that liturgically serious congregations can be among the most socially progressive and intellectually vibrant — any more than it is an accident that the early music scene nurtures some of the most interesting contemporary music scene. A liturgy like St Peter's makes prophecy possible not only because it is stabilizing, but because it sanctifies time and lets tradition live and breathe.
Some think Anglo-Catholicism is backward-looking and can imagine no future for itself. Canon Maynard's view of the dialectical (and not frictionless!) cooperation of liturgy and prophecy — preached in this very space! — helped me better understand that a spirit-filled, a truly human future can be best and most fully imagined from a place like this. The living, breathing friendship of past and present promises a blessed future.
Much has doubtless changed since Canon Maynard's time. Yet (to this visitor at least) St Peter's remains a place which teaches us to expect liturgical splendour to feed prophetic hope and the discernment of new truths. You've got a great thing going here, more powerful than you may even realize. In fully lived Anglo-Catholicism the institutional, intellectual and mystical grow together. It's no coincidence. More people need to know about this, in our church and beyond.
Perhaps that's why the statue of the risen Saviour, which stood above the Venetian mosaic in Canon Maynard's time, now stands beside the church entrance. This figure once drew worshippers at St Peter's toward the mystery of the Eucharist. Has it moved to the doorway to urge us to take the good news out among the nations?
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