Project Canterbury

by J.G.H. Barry

no place: no publisher, no date.

My Dear Aunt:

Your letters are always interesting, but your last is quite thrilling in its revelation oi the intensity of emotion which is disturbing the wonted placidity of Littleton. I find some difficulty in picturing that somnolent village as excited about anything. Its elm-shaded streets, lined with square brick houses, have always lingered in my memory as the symbol of perpetual calm. But now, if I understand you, the big el .us shiver in the stillness of the Sunday morning at the astonishing novelties that have appeared at S. Jude's.

I recall S. Jude's with a good deal of pleasure. You remember that I attended morning service there quite regularly the year that I spent with you. Perhaps it was that my own life was so happy that year that the Sunday mornings at S. Jude's come back to me so distinctly, wrapped in an atmosphere of sacred peace. The quiet of the beautiful street as we went to morning service (it was at half after ten, I remember), the glint of the sun on the well-kept lawns, the little groups of people converging at the churchyard gale are vivid in my mind to-day. I was young then and not much given to religious thoughts, I am afraid; but I remember being struck with the evident respectability of the Episcopal Church-I do not remember ever seeing anyone at S. Jude's who had not the evident marks of respectability. I was quite proud of my religion, seeing that it associated me with such superior people.

And then the service,-quite instinctively one describes it as dignified; one felt that that was the only possible adjective. I thought the altar, with its two flower-vases and its crimson cloth, a very imposing affair. The half-dozen ladies of uncertain age and the two old gentlemen who sung the long "Te Deum "-I confess with shame that I did think it rather long-seemed to me, somehow, to belong to the religion of S. Jude's. They distinctly harmonized with the two flower-vases and the crimson cloth and the rather florid chants. While they were singing the opening hymn, I used to watch the vestry door for the emergence of dear old Doctor Lamson. I need not have watched, for he always came out as they began the second verse of the hymn. With what solemnity he read the "Dearly Beloved"! To this day I can hear the mellow intonation of his voice in the Litany. I am afraid that my attention used to wander a little at times during the sermon; but I was too young arid too frivolous to follow the good doctor's thought. You must admit, my dear Aunt, that his teaching about justification was rather over a lad's head, and that his explanation of the Real Presence as meaning that our Lord was not in the sacrament, but that the effect was the same as though he were, was a little perplexing. But I used to wake up when he solemnly warned us to beware of the leaven of the Ritualists, who were iniquitously endeavoring to lead our pure branch of the Church back to the abomination of Rome. I did not then know who the Ritualists were, but I conceived a proper horror of them.

And now you tell me the good old doctor is dead, and there has appeared in his place-strange fatality!-a Ritualist! The two flower-vases have been supplemented by two candlesticks, and there is an early Communion at which this innovator wears strange garments that he calls vestments. S. Jude's is quite a different place of a Sunday morning, I can well understand. Its dignified calm is broken. One enters now, not with a sense of peace and the knowledge that what happened last Sunday will happen to-day, but one expects to see some new garment, or to hear some strange doctrine. I can quite fancy the sensation last Sunday when he preached on the necessity of fasting he-fore Communion. He is young and energetic and well educated, you say, but decidedly "breezy."

You yourself wish to be loyal, but you are afraid there will be trouble. The ladies at the guild last Thursday were emphatic on the subject of "innovations." It is quite clear that they will not "stand" having the parish turned upside down. One pictures them, those ladies. They have sewed together in somebody's "front parlor" for so many years, with only mild murmurs of mild local gossip, and now they are waked to incoherent rage by the advent of the innovator. Undoubtedly there will be trouble at S. Jude's, and I will do my best to advise you, as you ask, as to the line that you are to take.

The first thing I would do, my dear Aunt, is to go to the early Communion-fasting, as the rector requests and give thanks to God that at last something has happened at S. Jude's. What has been done by the rector may not be wise or done in a wise way, but at any rate you have, through some inconceivable accident, got hold of a man who is alive. As I look back at S. Jude's in the light of my later experience, I should say that what has been the matter with it is that it has simply been dead. Its peacefulness and its respectability and its dignified services were all a monotonous routine. They belonged to a world that has passed away. Any successor at all to the dear old doctor was bound to work a revolution. It might have been a different kind of a revolution, but a revolution there would have been. The particular kind of a revolution that has come is in the "high church" direction. Well, thank God and take courage.

The immediately impressive thing about your revolution is the change in the method of conducting the services, so I will confine what I have to say to that point. What is the use of all this "fuss and feathers," I think you said one of the ladies at the guild called it? It means that your new rector has certain ideas about the method of man's approach to his God: that in doing so he should express his meaning and his feelings in certain symbolic actions. That is a natural human instinct; all men everywhere have done it and do it. It is never a question of ritual or no ritual, but of good ritual or bad ritual; of a greater or less degree of ritual. The barest (no doubt the ladies at the guild would say simplest) service that you can conceive is still ritualistic. The Baptists, whom, if I remember, the congregation of S. Jude's hold rather in scorn, object strenuously to S. Jude's precisely on account of its ritual-formalism, they call it. There is "too much getting up and sitting down," they say; and they object to "prayers out of a book." Yet if you study it, their service is absolutely as formal as yours. You are used to a certain ritual at S. Jude's. The good old doctor's long surplice and black stole were just as ritualistic as the new rector's vestments. There is little to choose in the matter of ritual between two candlesticks and two vases. There are still people who will say-I imagine that you heard it said at the guild-What do forms matter to God? I do not know whether they matter anything to God, and that does not seem to me to be the question. The question is: What do they matter to us?

And they matter to us just what speech does, just what music or art does; they are the means of self-expression. I do not know whether it makes any difference to God whether I say my prayers kneeling on my knees or standing on my head, but I know that it makes a difference to me and to those who see me. You are a ritualist when you stand up to sing a hymn; but neither more nor less a ritualist than the Baptist who sits down to sing one. The difference is a difference in one's judgement as to what is appropriate in a given case. When one says one's prayers, is it more appropriate, does one express one's mind better, by kneeling down or by sitting down and leaning one's head on the back of the pew in front of one? Is standing a more appropriate attitude in praise than sitting?

I know what you are thinking, my dear Aunt, if you could only gel a chance to put in a word. You want to say that all this about kneeling and standing is not what you and the good people at S. Jude's have in mind when you object to ritual. I know that perfectly well; what you object to is that something has been done to which you are not accustomed. That, my dear Aunt, is a very human attitude, but it is not one that can be dealt with by argument; it is not an intellectual attitude, but an attitude of prejudice. You would not phrase it in that way? No, I suppose not. You would be likely to say that you do not object to ritual, but to too much ritual. Well, I said a moment ago that ritual is a means of self-expression; and the amount of ritual will vary with what one has to express and with one's intelligence in expressing it. One's ritual is the expression of one's emotional attitude toward God. Some people are more emotional than others. Some stoically strive to reduce expression to the minimum; others do not hesitate to give full play to their emotions, and adopt the maximum of expression. I do not see that either can blame the other, so long as it is a matter of merely personal expression.

But when you pass from merely private ritual to the rendering of the services of the Church, other factors have to be considered. Here it is not a question of private expression, but of public expression for the sake of interpretation. The priest is not a private person expressing his own feelings, but an official person interpreting the action of the Church in a given service. When I enter a church, whether I do or do not bow to the altar will depend on my own emotional attitude toward that which symbolises the presence of God. But the same act in the case of the priest entering the church to perform divine service is not an act of merely personal feeling, but an acknowledgment and expression of the belief of the Church in the Divine Presence. And in general the ritual acts of those whom you call Ritualists, in connection with the celebration of the Holy Communion, are an attempt to interpret, through symbolic actions, what they believe to be the teaching of the Church in regard to the sacred mysteries. If one does not believe in the Real Presence, or the sacrificial character of the Holy Eucharist, no doubt the ritual acts of Catholics are absurd and profane. But those who use such acts do believe in a real presence and a real sacrifice, and are endeavoring to interpret this belief and the emotions that flow from it by their actions. The congregation of S. Jude's, I infer, do not believe in the Real Presence; and they are therefore quite right in leaving the church with almost entire unanimity whenever the Holy Eucharist is celebrated. They thereby ritually symbolise their disbelief. Rut they also exhibit their disbelief in the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer, which your priest is sworn to uphold.

May I add one word more to this already too long letter? The ritual your new rector is introducing is the traditional ritual of the Church. It is plain that in this mutter of expression and interpretation the Church cannot leave it to individuals to adopt what ritual they choose. The Church itself, in the course of centuries, has evolved a ritual practise which expresses its own mind. The Holy Spirit acts through the Church and guides it in these matters as in others. The Church is very old and very wise, and we should depart from her ritual tradition with great hesitancy. The Church has not thought it necessary to put all its ritual practises in the Prayer Book, which is a hook of worship for all her children; but her ritual tradition may be easily known by those who care to know, arid is known by her priest, whose business it is to practise it. Among us, unfortunately, this branch of knowledge has been neglected by many priests, who have contented themselves with expressing their own personal feelings and views in the rendering of what is not their own personal worship, but the worship of the Church. This laxity arid carelessness have led to much ritual diversity among us. This is to he regretted; and there are those who, like your new rector, are trying to teach their people the doctrines of the Church through the symbolic ritual that is a part of the Church's tradition; who, by their method of rendering the services, strive to symbolise the Church's mind and not their own; or, perhaps I might better say that, having made the mind of the Church their own, they find it natural to express themselves in the traditional way.

Project Canterbury