Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Community" and altar rails

Being an Anglican, and not a very good one either, I'm venturing into strange territory by giving an opinion on this subject, but here goes: I understand that it's common in the Novus Ordo Mass in the Roman Catholic Church for the priest to stand facing the people and also for there to be no altar rails. The people instead come up and stand in lines and receive the Host while standing. As I understand it, one point of both practices is to increase a sense of "community" among the people and to emphasize the fact that the original Last Supper was a meal and that the early Church combined the celebration of the Lord's Supper with a meal.

Both of those latter facts are undeniably true as an historical matter. But it's not at all clear to me that they imply that our current liturgical practice should be a self-conscious attempt to "encourage community," still less that this is best done by having the celebrant face the people rather than facing the east and praying on behalf of both himself and the people to God. And how does having people stand in line to receive the Sacrament make them feel more connected to one another?

For whatever this is worth as a fact of personal psychological experience, it occurred to me this morning that, when I go up to the altar rail and kneel with other members of my own small congregation, this gives me a very strong sense of community. It is not a self-conscious thing, not forced in any way. It's just that, in fact, we are going and kneeling together, different though we all are from each other, to receive the Eucharist. Our commonality, our sense of community, does not come from celebrating that community per se. Rather, it comes from a shared focus on God, on our need for God, and our need to kneel before God and receive Holy Communion.

This seems to me to be a fact of human life which C.S. Lewis referred to as "them that asks don't get." What I think he meant was that when we demand a certain feeling as an end in itself, we don't get it. Hence, joy comes not from insistently demanding that life be enjoyable but from focusing on something worthwhile outside of oneself. If we go around demanding peace we probably won't feel peaceful. And so on through the whole gamut of human emotion. And so with community. Esprit de corps is not going to arise from saying, "Okay, folks, we're all one community. What can we do to emphasize that?" Rather, it's going to come from having something that, in fact, we really are all trying to do together.

I suspect I'm preaching to the choir if I tell any of my Catholic readers that you have my sympathy if you don't have altar rails. I hope you get them back again. And if you have anything to do with the decision, definitely plump for the altar rails and for having a bunch of people kneel at them together to receive. Among other things, it's good for community, because it's about Something Else, something much more important, than community.


Jeff Culbreath said...

Good post, Lydia. As a former Anglo-Catholic I couldn't have imagined converting without the benefit of receiving Our Lord kneeling at the altar rail.

You're right, community doesn't happen without that Something Else, along with all the symbolism and ritual that makes that Something Else important.

I've shared this post.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks very much, Jeff. I'm glad it was useful rather than sounding like bragging or something.

Sage McLaughlin said...

You make a good point, Lydia. It's a lot like the old proverb that the moment a king has to justify himself to the people, his reign is already over. As soon as you start making a conscious effort to "act like a community," you've already lost your sense of community. As soon as you have a liturgy than "can be done reverently if it's done by a holy priest trying really hard to make it reverent," you've already got a defective liturgy.

There's an excellent paragraph I used to have ready to hand when this subject came up, but I can't find it. Anyway, your instincts are exactly right. Staring at the back of someone's head doesn't make you feel as connected to him as kneeling next to him, literally rubbing elbows, receiving a sacrament together. I don't think for an instant that anyone actually believes otherwise, by the way, whatever rationalizations they're trying to offer now.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks much, Sage. I suppose I was cheating a little by doing a mash-up of two NO practices--facing ad populum and doing away with altar rails. I gather it's the former that is actually alleged to increase the sense of togetherness or community or what-not, because the idea is that the priest and the people are looking at each other as if they are around a table or a communal meal, etc., etc.

But it is rather funny that the altar rails should have been done away apparently as part of the same liturgical reform, when that, as you say, forces people to look at the back of someone else's head in a line while waiting to receive Communion.

Tony said...

I am somewhat confident that BOTH changes were introduced by out-and-out liars who just made a pretense of a "reason". That is, I don't think that they themselves believed either in the objective "more community" or in the notion that these means would achieve it. I think the real motivation was to de-sacralize the mass, though the humans who put it forward might have put it slightly differently to themselves, such as to increase the horizontality of liturgy. Or some such claptrap. Not realizing that getting rid of the vertical aspect of sacrifice JUST IS to de-sacralize the mass.

Facing the people was justified by re-introducing the priest as "the presider" of the meal. Of course the person who presides over a gathering like a meal faces everyone. But of course to emphasize presiding is to already de-emphasize the fundamental purpose of the gathering, which is to offer sacrifice to God, and sacrifice is essentially a priestly role, not a "presider" role.

The communion rail nonsense along with ditching the kneeling was even less justifiable. There isn't any actually (valid) reason that I have ever heard for it, not even valid reasons that would be overshadowed by reasons not to make the change. The "community" business is just stuff and nonsense, doesn't even apply. Some people claimed standing was faster, but that's not even true unless you increase the number of ministers of communion, and then it's not the lack of kneeling, it's the fact that once you have enough ministers there is nowhere to have everyone kneel. Big deal. (Besides which, (a) 4/5 of these people should be told point blank that if they are divorced and remarried, or using contraception, not to receive communion, and (b) there are "events" where it takes so darn long to distribute the hosts and chalices to all of the extraordinary ministers that THAT process takes up any time that might have been saved.)

Oh, and let's not forget that silly old canard that Vatican II called for "more participation" in the mass, as if the participation they specified was the interior one.

Lydia McGrew said...

I can't imagine myself taking Communion from a woman, except under some kind of bizarre apocalyptic circumstances (as at the end of Canticle for Leibowitz), and so many of the so-called "extraordinary ministers" are female. Talk about de-sacralizing!