Saturday, September 15, 2012

Is it any wonder?

Recently I took my copy of O`Connell`s Church Building and Furnishing (Burns &; Oates 1955) off my shelf to see if I could find if he had an explanation as to why there are always an odd number of lamps before the high altar or Blessed Sacrament. He does say that there are to be an uneven number but offers no explanation. But then I began browsing the rest of the book and came across his chapter on the altar with a section on Mass facing the people.

It reads as follows:

From the 4th century to the 6th century it was the practice in all greater churches to celebrate Mass facing the congregation. The choir (the clergy) was at the east end; the subdeacon stood behind the altar facing the celebrant. Even in private houses, or in chapels, or even in the catacombs, the celebrant faced the people, when this was physically possible ( sometimes e.g. in the catacombs the celebrant necessarily faced the arcosolium). It is certain that Mass was celebrated facing the people in a church where the Bishop`s throne was in the apse, or where there was a confessio ( the approach of this was from the the nave, at the back of the altar) or where the people were at the east end of the church, facnig West. The practice of celebrating with the celebrant`s back turned to the congregation gradually arose with the change in position of the people, desiring to face East at prayer, with the growth of the number of priests for missions and in monasteries and with the multiplication of Masses " for a private intention" and private Masses for the dead (these Masses were said in small chapels, not at the high altar). The practice of saying Mass back to the people, at side altars, gradually spread to the high altar. Yes both systems of orientation and both ways of facing at Mass existed together from the 6th to the 9th or 10th century; and then the eastern apse, and the celebrant facing it, became the prevailing usage. But the practice of celebrating Mass at the high altar facing the congregation has continued to this day (e.g. in the great Roman basilicas and in some of the catacomb chapels) and is now being restored in certain great churches (e.g. in the cathedral at Lisbon).

I wonder what was going on in Lisbon? Another book I`ve started is The Elusive Father Brown which is a life of Mgr John O`Connor (1870-1952, the inspiration for Chesterton`s Fr Brown. I found the following paragraph on p.145.

During the course of one of his Sunday sermons, Father O`Connor gave his view on the position of the altar, stating that to have it pushed to the far end of a long building with the priest turning his back on the people was an abuse which was 1,000 years old/ `Fancy, if all representations of the Last Supper made Our Lord turn his back to the Apostles!` e thought it unlikely that any reform would happen in his lifetime. He was right in that it was not until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council wre generally adopted that the priest no longer turned his back on the congregation. In Why Revive the Liturgy and How? which was probably written about 1928, his suggestions included many of the changes regarding vestments, language, the times and manner of communion, that would have to wait almost forty years to be implemented`

This is in the context of his building of First Martyrs` church in Bradford which opened in 1935. The church is circular with a free-standing altar.

Many of us who are keen on the Extraordinary Form have heard responses like Mgr O`Connor`s regarding orientation. At seminary we were given accounts like that of Fr O`Connell. It just struck me that there must have been a widespread expectation that Mass `facing the people` was the way to go to revive the liturgy and how this helped the transformation take place so quickly. Nowadays thanks to the writings of Mgr Gamber, Cardinal Ratzinger and Fr Uwe Lang we are more knowledgeable about the whole issue and how the intention to face East for prayer was much more important to early Christians than liturgy `facing the people`.


Anonymous said...

" Nowadays thanks to the writings of Mgr Gamber, Cardinal Ratzinger and Fr Uwe-Lang we are more knowledgeable ".

I hesitate to enter on this matter, Father Michael. Yet are we more knowledgeable? How do we know who is correct and who is giving a historically accurate view?

Fr Michael Brown said...

The same way we assess any historical matter: by producing facts. I dare say there will be a counter-blast in time to the ad orientem view but it works for me.

Rubricarius said...

I am of the view that the best book on the subject is Bouyer's 'Liturgy and Architecture' and very much the scholarly rebuttal of the ideas that became so popular in the 1950s exemplified by JBO'C. It was Bouyer's views that influenced the late Fr. Michael Napier at the Brompton Oratory.

Twenty years ago a visiting classics lecturer at Kings College stayed in a flat which I was sharing. He argued that Mass must have been celebrated versus populum citing the seating arrangement of early basilicas with the episcopal throne and canons' stalls in the apse behind the altar. Dr. T said that proved it. I took him to the Greek Cathedral in Wood Green the following Sunday where the same spatial arrangements could be seen as in the early churches he had described. When he saw the bishop standing at his throne in the apse for a small part of the service but the other side of the altar, facing the apse, for the vast majority of it Dr. T, being on honest scholar, admitted he had never considered that the clergy could get up and walk to the other side to be facing East.

Fr Michael Brown said...

Thanks Rubricarius, I`ll put the Bouyer on my reading list. Good story about Dr T. I wonder what Mgr O`Connor would have thought.

Rubricarius said...

Fr. MB,

Yes do read it. Bouyer is succinct and very good IMHO.

Frank (Dr. T's baptismal name) was a good example of the problem. To the modern mind-set it seems obvious that from apsidal seating and the altar, on the apse's string, that celebration were VP. However, Frank is an honest man and when he saw the Greeks in action he realised at once the absurdity of what had been his argument.

There is an interesting monograph by my hero Dr. Wickham-Legg on English arrangements of chancels that demonstrates that our altars were almost always in square-ended chancels very close indeed to the East wall. I shall try and find it in the chaos that is my abode.

The Bradford church you mention, IIRC, is mentioned in Anson's 'Fashions in Church Furnishings' as a 'good' example. My late old, and much missed, friend Mgr. Gilbey argued VP was just that: a vulgar fashion. It really has nothing to do with the Second Vatican Council as its popularity goes back a decade earlier (and its origins to the 1920s).

Sixupman said...

Galloway Diocese, ex Non-Conformist chapel acquired in Langholm as local convent closed. Chapel refurbished and furnished at some cost.

The arrangement, a series of tables adjacent to one another with Celebrant at head and congregation seated all around. As I recall, no kneeling, no standing, Mass (?) a real meal!

I have always held the opinion that "re-ordering" is an industry for the benefit of latter-day litugists, architects, builders and furnishers, not to mention the glossy magazine published on the subject by, I think, The Universe. Iconoclasts to a man.