Monday, March 2, 2009

St Mary's 2

Actually, it was a good thing that I walked away from St Mary's. It enabled me to re-explore Catholicism and its varieties in my own town. As I mentioned in my previous post, I discovered that the cup was now a standard part of communion in Roman churches, something I would not have known had I remained cocooned at St Mary's. I noticed that most of Roman churches were doing what they could to give women a place in the liturgy. I noticed that in the Cathedral there was a peculiar shuffle on the communion queues as traditionalist Catholics swapped lines so as to be on one where they could take the communion host from the priest and not from a layperson - especially if they were a woman (mind you these traditionalists didn't seem to have the same scruples re receiving the cup from a lay man or woman). Women generally have a much more prominent role compared to the past. In fact in many parishes women, especially nuns, seem to have the main leadership roles due to the shortage of priests.

But most importantly I also explored non-Roman churches too. The Anglican church here in Brisbane is very liturgical, very Catholic, plus it has the advantage of women priests. I like much of the Anglican liturgy and I noticed too that at most Anglican Sunday eucharists I went to there were a lot of people around the altar, not necessarily priests. It seems that almost anyone and everyone who does anything in the liturgy wears vestments of some kind which interstingly did more to decentre the role of the priest than anything at St Mary's. It was brought home to me even more at Christmas time when I found local Anglican and Roman churches close by to where I lived with the Anglicans doing midnight mass at 11pm to finish at midnight while Romans started theirs at midnight. So I'd do both and was struck by the way in the Roman one the priest stood out as the only one vested person whereas the Anglicans had a plethora of vested people around the altar.

An atheist friend of mine who liked checking out different churches took me along to the local Liberal Catholic church. There too everyone around the altar was vested regardless of whether they were priests. The liturgy itself is very beautiful. One thing for sure, Bishop Charles Leadbetter might have been a theosophist but he understood liturgy and the eucharist. He drew on eastern liturgical traditions to revise the Roman rite in quite a remarkable way. I was particularly struck by the fact that every mass in the Liberal Catholic church includes full sacramental absolution at the start of the mass. I realised later that something similar is found in the Anglican liturgy but not at the start but after the liturgy of the word

I also discovered that there was an independent Catholic denomination in Brisbane based at the Community of the Way in Redcliffe and under a bishop based in Sydney. This denomination not only ordained women but was also inclusive of LGBT people. I had known about Independent Catholicism from the internet but it had been mostly an overseas phenomenon. The movement is fissiparous and so now the Redcliffe community is a separate denomination with its own bishop who leads a network of several communities in Australia. One of the priests I knew through the Redcliffe community has himself been consecrated a bishop in another denomination based in the US, the Reformed Catholic Church. He lives in Brisbane and is easier to get to than the community at Redcliffe. So I often celebrate mass with him.

Consequently I call myself a fringe Catholic. I don't restrict myself to the Roman communion. I couldn't, given the official positions on women and homosexuality. But I wont separate myself either. I was born and raised in the Roman church and I wont leave it to make a bunch of homophobes happy. I also believe it is essential for there to be intercommunion between the churches of Catholic Christianity. We all share in the one eucharist and the current pontiff when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger is on the record saying that wherever a valid eucharist is celebrated there is the one holy catholic and apostolic church so in a sense all these churches are united through the eucharist. Intercommunion recognises that fact and I think will do more to establish an eventual unity than all the theological discussions of a year of jubilees.

I say all this because I think that my experiences across the Catholic spectrum (and I have also made the occasional visit to Orthodox churches during this time) has helped to even more contextualise St Mary's and to provide scenarios for ways of being Catholic that are both inclusive/progressive and remain grounded in Catholic tradition. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that the problem with many of the movements of Catholic reform is that they have taken as their model the Reformation itself. It's almost as if these movements acted on the principle that the Roman church must somehow catch up with the churches of the Reformation. I, on the other hand, think that the Reformation gave the wrong answers to the right questions on both sides of the divide, Catholic and Protestant (there was a Catholic Reformation as much as there was a Protestant one back then). So I'm not interested in turning the Roman church into a version of the Uniting church or a form of low church Jensenite Anglican evangelicalism. Nothing wrong with them, but they aren't Catholic and I don't subscribe to a form of bland syncretism that elides all differences in a merged blancmange. I respect and celebrate such differences and don't hold to the notion that they be done away with in what is always a form of imperialist takeover of one by the other.

So what could St Mary's have done? Well, lets be clear for a start - much of what's been cited in the media as innovative or shocking at St Mary's is not really so. Having Mass in the round is not an issue - many modern churches have been built putting the altar in the middle anyway. Getting rid of most of the pews is no big deal either. Most Orthodox churches don't have pews - people normally stand during the liturgy. Furthermore, none of the liturgical changes they've introduced naturally rely on any social justice theology. (and St Mary's does not have the Brisbane franchise on social justice either). Yes, they go out of their way to give women a key role in the liturgy. But so do most other Roman churches I've been to. Indeed given the shortage of priests locking women out of any sort of role is basically suicidal. St Mary's however does seem to go out of its way to cover up the scandal that women are currently denied ordination in the Roman church. While that may be laudable I think that really serves as a sugar coating to mask the bitter pill. It is a scandal and I don't think it should be mitigated. Covering up the scandal might actually work more to suppress the push for change. And, as I've said before covering up the scandal only serves to reinscribe the role of the priest more strongly. Instead, embrace the scandal and work to expose it so that it eventually will be removed. Here I think the Anglicans have set a good example by vesting everyone who does anything in the liturgy. At St Mary's the priests like to wear their stoles when they do their role. Why not have each person who does a reading or distribute communion or takes on the MC role at the start wear a stole. That way priesthood comes to be seen as a shared quality expressed in different roles. That could be made even more prominent by vesting each person at the start of their bit in the liturgy.

Again at St Mary's they have developed the practice where everyone says the eucharistic prayer along with the priest. My problem here is that it reinscribes the role of the priest while attempting to mask it. Interstingly, I understand the the current pontiff felt that Vatican 2 did not go far enough in promoting he laity as participants in the central core part of the Mass, the eucharistic prayer and that he wanted the priest's role made more interactive. Indeed, many eastern liturgies have a far more interactive eucharistic prayer than western and especially Roman ones. Laity/choir, priests, deacons all have their lines in the interactive drama of the eucharist. I remember many years ago suggesting to Peter Kennedy that it might be useful to check out eastern liturgies for models that could be explored in St Mary's. He didn't seem interested, perhaps because eastern churches weren't considered reformed? But by developing a more interactive eucharistic prayer not only would they have inscribed the role of the laity as having a celebratory role together with the priest but they would even be anticipating and providing a model for what il papa Benedict himself would like to see happen. And in terms of liturgical exploration why not draw on the variety of western rites such as the Ambrosian, Sarum, Gallican, Iberian and even Anglican/Anglo-Catholic, Lutheran/Evangelical Catholic and Liberal and Old Catholic, and even aspects of the Old Tridentine rite (I still like the last gospel John 1 as a way of rounding off the mass)? That way the comunity comes to develop a sense of the richness of its own traditions.

If St Mary's wanted to be even more radical then there are a couple more things I could suggest. Of course with these they put themselves at risk of putting themselves outside the Roman church because then the authority structures are challenged. Why not revive the minor orders? In Roman theology these aren't ordained roles but instead a person is 'installed'. Several minor orders are especially relevant - lector, acolyte, porter (or welcomer) and, from eastern tradition, possibly cantor. The people who perform these roles regularly could be ceremonially installed by the community that way highlighting once more the diversity of liturgical roles and again setting the priest's role in a broader context once more grounded in Catholic tradition.

If St Mary's wanted to be even more radical it could follow the Liberal and Independent Catholic practice of starting each mass with sacramental absolution. I personally think that's where it should be anyway - private confession is something that developed out of the monasteries and while can be important to have a confessor/spiritual guide it should not be a requirement for accessing absolution. This would put St Mary's in conflict with Roman authority which suppressed the general use of the 3rd rite of reconciliation for communal absolution back in the 90s. Like everyone else St Mary's toed the line to stay under the radar rather than push the envelope.

If you are going to be in conflict with Rome why not go the whole hog and actually start ordaining women. Not many people know this but a person can ordain up to their own level, which is why baptism does not require an ordained priest or deacon to adminster it. Indeed in the former Czechoslovakia, during the severe persecution in the communist period, the Catholic church took several extraordinary measures including authorising the ordination of priests by other priests. It was in this time too that the first women were ordained as priests in the Roman church, perhaps since the first millennium. So arguably the priests at St Mary's could ordain women to the priesthood. If they were uncertain about that they could certainly ordain them as deacons spearheading the restoration of the female diaconate in the Roman church ( the female diaconate is being restored officially in the Eastern Orthodox churches and has always continued, albeit in very diminished form, in the Oriental Orthodox churches). Of course, acting in this way would bring Roman authority down on them like a ton of bricks and the St Mary's community would have no option but to leave the Roman church. But at least they would have been both faithful to tradition and pushing the boundaries, challenging the entrenched power structures in a meaningful way. That would have been better than what has happened now where they kept below the radar so as to stay within the Roman church and its privileges while at the same time dissolving everything demonstrably Catholic such affiliation required. And when I talk about St Mary's here I refer to the priests and those who worked with them to actively bring about the currrent situation. As I said in my previoius post I think the majority of pepple at St Marys have been ill served, if not misled by those in charge there.

1 comment:

  1. Sacramental absolution is also given immediately before Holy Communion in the Armenian rite, with strict instructions in the missallette that it does not replace private confession and absolution and personal repentance.