If I had a euro every time someone told that the RC mass and the Anglican communion service or Eucharist have become more or less indistinguishable, I would be an almost wealthy man. But while the words of the liturgy are the same, and the shape of the service is all but identical, the anthropology of participation is different.
There are three ways to tell whether you are in a Catholic mass or an Anglican Eucharist. The first is the time when the peace is shared. It is either in the middle of the service or just before the moment when the sacrament is distributed. Personally I could live with either but have a slight preference for the later, Catholic, timing, as it links horizontal and vertical fellowship more intimately and profoundly.
The second difference is concelebration. While not an entirely fixed either/or, the norms are opposite. And for my money the Anglicans have got this one right. Priests should, when necessary, step forward to preside, but they should also be should-to-shoulder with the rest of the laity as their theological norm, remembering their baptism as often their ordination; and, if anything, more deeply.
But the third difference is more profoundly defining than either of the first two. It concerns the way people come forward to receive communion. You know you are in a Catholic mass, anywhere in the world, if, immediately they are invited, the people respond by coming forward to receive the sacrament. And you know, with equal confidence, that you are in an Anglican church if, when the priest offers the invitation to ‘draw near with faith’, no one moves a muscle.
Except, that is, the people whose duty it is to ensure that other people come forward in the correct order.
What follows in Anglican services is a complex courtly dance in slow motion. The dance is controlled by two rules. 1. Do not even think of moving until personally invited to do so by someone who has come down the nave from the west end. 2. Try to get as many people to go forward before you as you can. This is a bit like the slow cycling race at the school sports. It is a stylised enactment of the parable that the first shall be last and the last first.
As you can tell, I think the Catholics have it over the Anglicans here. To see everyone move forward together is to witness an expression of spiritual need, hunger and thirst, that is affecting and infectious.
I recently attended two services in the same city. In one about about 30 people did the courtly dance thing and in the other about 500 did the ‘let’s all move together’ thing. If this were to do with logic it would have been the other way round. But they are not. They are cultural, deep and defining. They matter in curious ways that we can’t fully articulate. If ecumenism is really going to move forward in the coming years these are the sorts of issues that will need to be addressed; for they are the actual stuff of religion.
And there is, come to think of it, a fourth thing. I was genuinely astonished to see a nun at Corpus Christi mass get out her camera and take photos as the sacrament was exposed. And that ‘s where my line is drawn.
I am a true Anglican at heart. Exposition is one thing. Photography quite another.