The First Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers
New Haven, Connecticut, November 3-5, 1925
Philadelphia: Published by the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests, 1926.
The Church's Chief Act of Worship
THE REV. WILLIAM HARMAN VAN ALLEN, S.T.D.
Rector of the Church of the Advent, Boston, Mass.
I CANNOT hope to say anything new, or to instruct my brethren. I can only reaffirm at the outset of this paper, that the Church's chief act of worship, (by whatever name it is called, Mass, Communion Service, Eucharist, Lord's Supper), is the Lord's own Service, wherein she consecrates and offers the Blessed Sacrament of His Body and Blood, distributing it thereafter to the faithful.
That requires only to be stated to be recognized as true. All other services of worship are of human arrangement. They may be edifying, aesthetic, comforting, instructive; but man has devised them all. And though much of Holy Scripture may be used in their compilation, they can never rise above the level of their human origin, so far as their authority goes. This is not to belittle any act of worship which men have found helpful. Groups of devout people—whether monks, as in the case of our choir offices, or private lay-folk,—are responsible for them, and their usefulness, however great, is limited.
Now the Holy Eucharist is infinitely superior to any of these, in that our Blessed Lord instituted It Himself, and ordered Its observance among His disciples, "even unto the end of the world." Liturgies vary, reflecting the tone and character of a particular age or [101/102] people; but the heart of all liturgies is the same: "Do this in remembrance of Me;" "Touto poiéite eis ten emen anamnesin:" "Hoc facite in meam commemorationem."
"Do this"; that is the divine precept. And, "Ye do proclaim the Lord's death till He come"; there is the reason for the precept, expounded by the great Apostle. No alternative can be found; Christ instituted and ordained Holy Mysteries; we either obey Him by celebrating them, or disobey Him by neglecting them in favour of some other rite of our own self-pleasing.
There is a significant comment upon this matter in the usage of the followers of Alexander Campbell, commonly called Christians, or Disciples of Christ. These excellent people are Baptists; but their first principle is to be "Bible Christians," with reliance upon nothing to bind them together except the plain word of Holy Scripture. Turning to the New Testament, they found that the clearly declared usage of the primitive Christians was to observe the Lord's Day by the Lord's own Service, the Breaking of the Bread. It is not set down as a formal enactment, since the Book of Acts was written for already instructed Christians. But the testimony is explicit. Their custom was to meet together on the first day of the week, for the Breaking of the Bread. Other things were subordinate,—psalms, hymns, Scripture-reading, sermons; that one great Observance was universal. So the Campbellites, following the Bible and the Bible only, re-established that rite, so far as they could, and observe its memorial every Sunday.
On that point Christian antiquity gives one consentient voice. The Apostolic custom of a daily Eucharist may have ceased, except in times of special [102/103] rejoicing or of persecution. But there is no question whatever that in all lands, in all tongues, in all rites, the First Day, the Day of the Resurrection, was honoured by the offering of the Pure Oblation in the power of the Risen Christ. It was so entirely the chief act of worship that all other and lesser acts had efficacy only as they were associated with it, directly or indirectly. And the early Fathers of the Church speak in plain terms of the desirability of continuing the use of the blessed Apostles who broke the Bread daily from house to house, and continued therein, as in the Faith, the Fellowship, and the Prayers. Nay more, they associate this daily Eucharist with the "daily Bread" of the Lord's Prayer; as St. Cyprian says: "This Bread we pray that it be given us day by day, lest we who daily receive the Eucharist as Salutary Food should offend by the admission of any mortal sin."
We gather from Pliny's famous letter that "on a stated day," (i. e., on Sunday), "The Christians met to worship Christ as God, to bind themselves by an oath against all ill deeds and words and thoughts, and then" (as the heathen puts it) "partook of a simple meal." And St. Augustine says: "I neither praise nor blame those who receive Holy Communion every day, but I exhort all to receive It on the Lord's Days."
There are some among us who seem to maintain that the Church of the English-speaking peoples has a right to change a custom of the Universal Church, and that, in point of fact, she did change this custom at the Reformation. I doubt the first part of that proposition, and I utterly deny the second part.
Turn aside from all other books and consider only the Book of Common Prayer. There you will find Collects, Epistles and Gospels for all the Sundays in [103/104] the year and for many greater holy-days. But the time for using these is at the Holy Communion, surely. There is yet further provision: "The Collect, Epistle and Gospel, appointed for each Sunday, shall serve all the week after, where it is not in this Book otherwise ordered." So this Church contemplates approvingly a daily Celebration of the Divine Mysteries.
And there is yet another point; that the only place in the Prayer-Book, where a sermon is explicitly ordered in the course of regular public worship, is in the midst of the Communion Service: "Then shall follow the sermon." Nor is there any provision for the Judas-procession one still finds in some dark regions, "going out" afterwards, before the end of the service; for it is declared, "Then the Priest shall let them depart with this blessing."
So, too, the Prayer-Book of 1549 speaks of "churches where there is daily Communion," and "parish churches, upon the week-days," with a further rubric, "When the Holy Communion is celebrated upon the work-days."
It is proved then, from the New Testament, from the early Church, and from the Prayer-Book, that the one chief act of public worship which the Bride of Christ on earth puts up before the Throne of the eternal Majesty is the Holy Eucharist. If we are Bible Christians, if we are at one with the Primitive Church, if we are plain old-fashioned Prayer-Book Churchmen, we must accept this wholeheartedly. And observe, I do not complicate the question with matters of doctrine, terminology, or ceremonial. Churchmen of the Evangelical school should be at one with Catholics here, laying all controversy aside. The Mass celebrated in surplice and tippet, the Lord's Supper administered in chasuble and albe; [104/105] the emphasis put upon "really," or upon "spiritually," (as if there were any opposition!)—all is the same in the presence of this great fact, that the worship of the Church is sacramental, and that nothing can alter it until we have passed beyond the veil of sacraments to behold the King in His beauty.
But this is a matter admitting of treatment under several heads. So let us next consider it practically.
When a stranger or an ignorant person finds his way to a church, and wants to follow the service, he finds it simple and easy, if the Eucharist is being celebrated. There is only one place to look up anything in the Prayer-Book, once it is opened at the Communion; that is, to find the proper Collect, Epistle, and Gospel. On the other hand, if it is Matins that are being said, he loses himself in a maze, and requires someone by his side to "change books" with him all the while.
But he must also follow with keen intellectual attention the psalms and the lessons, or else let them go over his head, unheeding. Matins was originally prepared for Religious who made a business, so to speak, of the Opus Dei, and were accustomed to focus their minds upon it. To expect an ordinary congregation, tired and burdened, to follow a highly elaborated series of instructive readings, is to invite disappointment. But to ask them to join in a definite Act, under the leadership of the priest at the altar, to teach them to unite their praises, confessions, aspirations, supplications, intercessions, thanksgivings, with that Act, making their prayers articulate, or inarticulate, but none the less sincere, will be to find that they respond.
Our Lord has special concern with simple, unlettered folk. Let the proportion of those in congregations [105/106] accustomed to Eucharistic Worship, be compared with that in congregations who substitute something else for the Lord's own Service; and the contrast will be startling indeed.
Worship, we are often told, is a lost art. This is not true; but many have lost the knowledge of how to worship. The "blue-domers" do not often worship God out of doors; they are occupied with vague and sentimental aspirations towards union with nature,—if indeed they are not thinking of selfishly mundane things.
Public worship means the assembling of ourselves together to pay homage to God. But that homage involves the offering of our best to God. And the old command still holds, "Ye shall not appear before the Lord empty." Our best, if it is of ourselves, is all too poor, though God condescends to accept it. But, seeing this, God Himself gives us something to offer. And Christian worship at its height is the offering of this Pure Oblation, to which our gifts, and our adoration join themselves. It is nothing costly, or difficult to obtain; the poorest can find his way to it unfaltering. Bread and Wine, symbols of earthly sustenance and joy, are spread before the Eternal Father, are blessed by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and become the Body and Blood of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, Who was sacrificed for us, and Who here, both Priest and Victim, spreads before the Father the Memorial of the Sacrifice, renewed till He comes.
It is right that we should surround the Christian Sacrifice with all the glory which our resources can afford; but art, music, gold and jewels, can add nothing to the virtue of the Sacrifice.
I do not need to labour the point that this worship must be in communion with our fellows. Other teaching [106/107] leads to plain anarchy, none the less pernicious because professing to rest upon a superior spirituality. Nor, since we are not ghosts, but men and women, is it necessary to apologize for worship that is associated with things material. We believe in the Religion of the Incarnation, and we worship as our Incarnate Lord commanded us, with no fear of its being unacceptable to God, Who is Spirit, and Who was made Flesh.
Now turn to another aspect:
Admitted that the chief act of Christian worship is the Holy Eucharist, it is nevertheless plain that multitudes of good Christians among us join in that service only occasionally. How many churches are there where a handful gathers in the early morning of each Sunday to receive the Manna from Heaven, while the greater part of the congregation content themselves, at ten-thirty or eleven, with musical Matins, to which is added, perhaps, what an admirable misprint once called "the Anti-Communion!"
Ask the clergy of those churches what the difficulty is, and you will hear various answers, all resolving into this, that "my people love to have it so!"
A good definition of a Catholic parish, I think, is this: One where all the parishioners keep the Lord's Day holy by joining in the Lord's Service. And correspondingly, a heretic parish is one where the people's choice is other than our Lord's command.
A church may have a glorious altar, properly adorned with sumptuous vestments and all the rest; but if only a tiny fraction of its members resort to it when those are used, and its gates are crowded with those who neglect that august Mystery, it has no right to the fulness of the Catholic name. Therefore a priest [107/108] who rests content with that unhappy arrangement, has no right to be called a true Catholic.
The problem is complicated by the rigid tradition of American Christianity, (outside the Roman Church), that ten-thirty or eleven is the only proper regular time for going to church; and by the difficulty about duplicating found by the clergy who are single-handed. There is nothing sacred about ten thirty, and there is nothing more absurd than priest and people, at that advanced time, thanking God for "having been safely brought to the beginning of this day." In many parts of New England, church bells sound harmoniously at nine o'clock Sunday morning, though there is no assemblage at that time. They call it "the warning bell," but it is really a survival of the old canonical time for the parish Mass. Would it not be better to make that hour the one for the chief Sunday service, educating the people to come then, fasting if they wish to receive, if not, not fasting?
Over and over it has been shown that it is not a case of the danger of "non-communicating attendance," but of non-communicating non-attendance. And we need not fear lest our people will prove neglectful, once they learn what so many have yet to be taught, the joyous obedience to Christ's invitation: "Come unto Me and I will refresh you." Once their ears are opened to the summons, "Eat of My Bread, and drink of My Cup which I have mingled," they will not keep back from the Table of the Incarnate Wisdom.
To conclude: The Holy Eucharist is the one service ordered by Our Blessed Lord. It is consequently of universal obligation among Christians. What that obligation involves appears from the unbroken usage of all branches of the Catholic Church: that is, every [108/109] Lord's Day, at least, the Church celebrates the Blessed Sacrament, and the faithful are bound to say "Amen" at her Giving of Thanks. Whatever is inconsistent with that is a corruption, to be done away at all cost.
This is not to do despite to the office of Morning Prayer, or to any other devotions which Christians have found helpful, such as prayer-meetings, litanies, the Rosary, class-meetings, and the like. Nor is it inconsistent with a high regard for what St. Augustine calls the sacrament of preaching. But you remember the story of the good King Henry VI., found on his knees in a side chapel of Westminster, when the Abbey was echoing with the voice of an English Chrysostom. Being asked why he was not with the crowd, he said, "I had rather be with my dearest Friend than hear anyone, however eloquent, talk about Him."
So long as exercises of piety, premeditated or extemporary, are recognized as ancillary, so long as all preaching is put second to the Preaching of Christ Crucified, there need be no fear of any failure of correlation. And this is yet another reason: "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me," our Lord hath said and though that saying has infinite depth of meaning, it is surely fulfilled in the Eucharist, where Christ is proclaimed our King, Who was crucified and Who reigns. The Church is not a debating-club, nor an amusement-hall, nor a college, though all those have their place. It is a shelter round an altar; and the altar is a present Calvary. Here Emmanuel meets with us in the glorious humiliation of His sacrificial death, in the mysterious splendour of His Resurrection and His Sovereignty.
How shall we set those forth, except as He hath appointed?