28 April 2017

The Prisoner in the Tabernacle

In the OF, the priest genuflects to the Blessed Sacrament only on approaching the Altar at the beginning of Mass; and immediately after Mass as he returns to the Sacristy. To me, the symbolic body-language of the rite could be given this vernacular expression: "Good morning, Lord. Glad you're still here. Notice that I am giving you your due respect. But now - I'm sure you won't mind - I'm going to ignore you for a bit, and do some extremely important things with my back to you, centering myself upon pieces of furniture that bear no spatial relationship to the part of the church where we keep you. In fact, for a fair bit of time I shall actually be sitting with my back to you. But don't worry. Before I go back to the Sacristy I shall, very respectfully, notice you again."

I am unfamiliar with this ethos; I have never officiated regularly in a church where I had to have my back to the Tabernacle. Sometimes, as at S Thomas's and in my un-reordered very-moderate C of E churches in Devon, I have faced East. Sometimes, as at Lancing, I have regularly for decades celebrated versus populum but (Lancing Chapel is 'cathedral' in scale and in ordering) with the Tabernacle in a separate Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The usual modern set-up seems to me to teach - thoroughly effectively - the liturgical theology of the 1970s. For those of us who share Papa Ratzinger's critical evaluation of 1970s assumptions, this set-up cannot fail to be to some degree unhelpful. Of course one can worship in such a place ... indeed, one has little choice but to do so; but one is worshipping against the grain of the whole architectural arrangement - unhelped rather than helped by it.

This arrangement represents the apotheosis of that closed-circle liturgical culture, criticised by Benedict XVI, in which the Eucharist is as it were generated in the middle of a gathered community which ritually seems to exclude what is outside that circle. It is, in my fallible judgement, very much worse than versus- populum-without-the-Tabernacle because, in our modern arrangement, the Tabernacle of the Lord's sacramental presence is itself explicitly relegated by the geometry to outside the enclosed and exclusive ritual circle. I hesitate to appear to advocate the removal of the Tabernacle from the focal point of a church ... but, well, recall what happened at old-style Pontifical High Masses. Because the rigmarole of showing proper respect to a prelate was instinctively felt to be inconsistent with the sort of respect one should display to the Sacrament Reserved, the Tabernacle was left empty for the pontifical celebration. If the place of Reservation is at the focal point of the sanctuary, its treatment in the fashionable liturgy of the 1970s seems to me profoundly questionable.

There is a history of apprehension about too 'localised' an understanding of sacramental presence. I am not, of course, entering into that game. My point is that signs teach; the arrangement of churches is a complex of signs which are not meaningless - otherwise the liturgists of the 1970s would not have gone to the trouble to make all the changes they did make. And those changes increasingly seem to this one very fallible commentator to be difficult to reconcile with the decencies of orthodoxy.

The OF itself in no way exclusively mandates this culture; and still less did the Council. In my recollection, it is only a few years since an Irish bishop who was (still) trying to re-order his Cathedral (a famous landmark with a distinguished architectural history), claimed that he was obliged to do so by Vatican II. Happily, he was forced to take his arguments to a planning enquiry where his ... er ... inaccuracy ... was exposed. Places like Brompton demonstrate that it is not impossible to 'stage' decent OF worship, and to avoid vandalising a building which was lovingly - and expensively - constructed to enhance a particular liturgical culture. Places like Westminster Cathedral demonstrate ... under the influence of Cardinal Nichols ... how Decent things can be made if the arrangements of the 1970s are intelligently but radically reconsidered.

1 comment:

StMichael said...

I would note that our medieval Dominican rite retains rubrics similar to the OF for the reverences toward the reserved Sacrament during Mass. We genuflect at the beginning and end, but not during (profound bows are used during Mass).