Brexit, Evensong, and the Economy of Salvation.
Yesterday was the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, which has gotten me thinking about an experience I had long ago at this point in the liturgical year. As law student at Notre Dame, I spent a summer in London studying the British legal system. I was not yet a Jesuit, but I already had a deeply-ingrained habit of attending daily Mass. During my time in London, I usually attended Sunday and weekday Mass at the Brompton Oratory; the experience of the liturgy at the Oratory was one of the crucial formative experiences of my liturgical life up to that point, together with the 11:15 pm Mass at Georgetown and the Sundays I had spent at Old St. Mary's in Washington. One of the first Sundays I spent at the Oratory coincided with the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, a holy day of obligation in England and Wales and a feast that took precedence over the ordinary Sunday liturgy. The Mass was celebrated with the solemnity for which the Brompton Oratory is famous, with some special touches for the feast day such as the vesting of the Oratory's statue of St. Peter in a red cope (a custom copied from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome). What stands out most in my memory, however, is a line from the homily, delivered from a raised pulpit in the center of the church: "Only the Mass will save England."
Only the Mass will save England. At the time, the phrase struck me as a line from another time, recalling past generations of British Catholic apologists as well as the English Catholic laypeople of the sixteenth century who resisted the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer, declaring, "We wyll haue the Masse." Those words have a different ring for me now as I think about the referendum held last week regarding the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union. Observing the contentious and often ugly debate over 'Brexit' and the chaotic aftermath of the vote, I found myself recalling some ancient and still valid words of warning: "Put no trust in princes, in a son of man in whom there is no help" (Ps 146:3). Neither the bureaucrats in Brussels nor the politicians who persuaded a majority of British voters to opt for Brexit can provide a lasting solution to the anxieties that rend the hearts and minds of individuals and nations. England will not be saved by Brexit, nor would England be saved by the European Union.
Only God can save us, and his chosen means are not political but ecclesial and liturgical. Neither Britain nor Europe can be saved through politics, but a renewed appreciation for the Christian values that shaped both would still be helpful; Pope Benedict XVI expressed this point with gentle but insistent force, and I'm pleased that others have taken up the theme as well. Outside the political realm, I'm encouraged by reports like the following, which was published by The Telegraph in March but which I only discovered a couple of days ago:
College chaplains have seen a steady but noticeable increase in attendances at the early evening services which combine contemplative music with the 16th Century language of the Book of Common Prayer.The chaplains interviewed by The Telegraph also pick up on a theme I've noted here before, namely the renewed openness of many Millennials to traditional patterns of belief and observance often eschewed by members of their parents' generation:
It mirrors a similar trend reported by cathedrals across England for growing congregations at choral midweek services, which appears to challenge the view that the church is in irreversible decline.
Chaplains say the mix of music, silence and centuries-old language appears to have taken on a new appeal for a generation more used to instant and constant communications, often conducted in 140 characters rather than the phrases of Cranmer.
Neil McCleery, assistant chaplain of New College, one of Oxford’s oldest and grandest chapels, said it was now rare to see an attendance below 150 at a weekend evensong.
"We get people, especially very hard working postgraduate students who say that it provides a time towards the end of the day, when you can just sit in silence and tune out all of these influences and instead tune in God perhaps," he said.
"We get a lot of people who perhaps come to faith or return to faith by being drawn into that worship experience."
Mr McCleery, a member of the Oxford committee of the Prayer Book Society, said [the growing popularity of evensong] reflected a wider interest in older styles of worship, including greater interest in the Prayer Book among trainee clergy.All of this deserves to be unpacked in greater detail, but for now I'll simply observe that, whatever happens in the realm of politics and whatever sort of chaos plagues Western society, one can still find signs of grace at work. AMDG.
"The era of jaded folk worship is coming to an end," he said. "Indeed I think the people who want that sort of thing are the older generation now and the young are coming back to traditional worship and the choral tradition."
Nearby, the Rev Dr Daniel Inman, Chaplain of The Queen's College agreed.
"Although the language of the Prayer Book is rather alien to modern ears, precisely for that reason it's also less threatening and more inclusive," he explained.
"You're not really asked to signal your own dogmatic beliefs or lack thereof, but invited to join in a pattern of worship that has shaped our national life for centuries."