09 December 2007

Mass Matters

There's a fine passage in C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters where the demon Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood, a mere apprentice in the lowerarchy of Hell, on the dangers of a Christian having fidelity to a particular parish church. Dangers, that is, from a demonic point of view:
Why have I no report on the causes of his fidelity to the parish church? Do you realise that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that 'suits' him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.

The reasons are obvious. In the first place the parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational princople, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a 'suitable' church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil. What he wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appriase -- does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going. (You see how grovelling, how unspiritual, how irredeemably vulgar He is!) This attitude, especially during sermons, creates the condition (most hostile to our whole policy) in which platitudes can become really audible to a human soul. There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper.
I'm afraid I found myself thinking of this with some shame earlier today, because yesterday had seen me guilty of this very thing. Yesterday being the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the weather being a tad on the foul side, I checked out the mass times sections of the diocesan website, and accepted a lift to go to what would have been the last mass of the day, at least locally; unfortunately, I'd rather screwed up with my reading of the website, and so wound up at the first mass of today, having missed yesterday's masses altogether.

Anyway, I don't normally attend mass in this church, and yesterday, as I gritted my teeth and tried to concentrate, I remembered why. I won't go into a rant here about why I got annoyed, except to mutter that you're surely into dangerous territory when you've been invited to sit rather than stand during the gospel, when the gospel is proclaimed -- inaccurately -- from memory, and when the subsequent homily actually contradicts all four gospels.

And I referred to England as 'home' yesterday...
Part of the problem, surely, is that I've spent several years in England, where in my experience the simple execution of the liturgy seems of a higher calibre: missals and hymnbooks tend to be used rather than missalettes, aiding people to follow and join in singing the hymns; the readings tend to be read more slowly, more clearly, and more carefully, rather than rushed through or mumbled as is usually the case here; homilies are as a rule longer and more thoughtful; there's just one collection, linked with the offertory, rather than one following the homily and one a few minutes later; people tend to be closer together rather than scattered widely around near-empty churches, making both the collection process and the sign of peace more orderly than is the case of here; the Eucharist is typically offered in both kinds, rather than just the bread, which makes a symbolic difference even if not a real one; people tend not race off before the final blessing; and the notices are read, not as an appendix to the homily, but just before the congregation leaves at the end of the mass.

I know: I'm generalising about both Irish and English masses, but allowing for that I think it's a pretty fair summary. It probably seems rather harsh, but I think it's fair to say that my -- shall we say sporadic? -- attendance at mass until a few years back was largely down to me not feeling that I was getting anything from it. I know, mass is mass, however sloppily done, but there are reasons why it has a shape, why we have rubrics and such. Until a few years ago I never felt that mass fed me.

And I reckon I'm far from alone in that. If you were to ask almost anyone in Ireland around my age who'd been raised Catholic why they don't go to mass, the answer almost certainly wouldn't be a carefully considered atheistic or agnostic defence, and probably wouldn't even entail a recitation of the various scandals that have come to light since 1992. I suspect it'd really be little more than a shrug, and perhaps any of series of rhetorical questions: Why would I? What's the point? What difference does it make?

Mass seems to matter more in England than it does in Ireland, which may reflect the fact that Catholics have been for centuries a minority in the land that was once known as Our Lady's Dowry. Being just one church among many, and numerically far inferior to the Church of England, there has been no opportunity there for the complacency -- even the arrogance -- that for so long marked the Irish church.

Lies, Damn Lies, and, um, possibly rather Uncomfortable Truths
That's not to say that things are perfect in the UK, mind, as a recent poll conducted by the public theology think tank Theos indicates that hardly anyone there seems aware of the basic ingredients of the Christmas story, as conventionally told. It seems that out of 1,015 people interviewed over the phone, only 126 -- yes, that's 12 per cent -- were able to say who told Mary she would give birth to a son, who was Jesus' cousin in the context of the Christmas story, where Jesus was born, and where the Holy Family went to flee from King Herod. Bizarrely, the director of Theos has interpreted these findings as showing that 'the Christmas story, in its classic formulation is still very much in our cultural blood stream, as indeed is the Christian story as a whole'.

Twelve per cent. That's not exactly grounds for confidence in any of my books. Especially when you look at the poll in more detail, and take a gander at the figures for those Christians who attend church -- yes, the ones who don't really have an excuse for not getting the answers right. Only 161 of the 1,015 people interviewed fell into this category, so just under 16 per cent. I'm not sure what percentage of Scots and Welsh attend Sunday worship, but seeing as only 6.3 per cent of the English population regularly worship on Sundays, this figure may be too high. Anyway, allowing for that, only 57 of the 161 -- just over a third of them -- got all four questions right.

Granted, 28 per cent of England's regular churchgoers are Catholics, so in theory all the Catholics might have all done themselves proud. I rather doubt it, though. After all, they haven't exactly shone in similar surveys in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.


Martin said...

Bah! Surely you know that "hierarchy" derives from Greek "hieros", holy, rather than "hier" as comparative of "hi", and therefore "lowerarchy" is a neologism coined via a false etymology!

Slow day in the office.


The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Indeed I do, Martin, and I'm sure Lewis knew it even more than me.

I'm disturbed, though: even with a slow day in the office, devoid of muppetry, I'd have thought you'd rejoice in such a playful pun!

Amanda said...

who told Mary she would give birth to a son

An angel. Which one, I haven't the foggiest.

who was Jesus' cousin in the context of the Christmas story

John the Baptist?

where Jesus was born

Bethlehem, yes? I'm going to feel rather dumb if I get this one wrong.

where the Holy Family went to flee from King Herod


How did I do?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

You got three out of four.

The angel's name was Gabriel, but Theos was accepting 'an angel' as the answer, so that's fine.

John the Baptist was indeed Jesus' cousin - the Christmas story has him being born six months ahead of Our Lord.

Bethlehem was indeed the place of Jesus' birth - it means the 'house of bread', curiously enough - so you're up to three.

And finally, the Holy Family scarper to Egypt to flee from Herod, at least in Matthew's gospel. They only settle in Nazareth after Herod's death.

Not bad, though, considering.