Geoffrey Laycock reflects on burning altar boys in his first article on liturgical malfunctions
AN ASPECT of communal worship which has been much neglected by theologians and commentators is the liturgical malfunction. Some scholars dismiss these as the 'human factor', arguing that malfunctions are invariably attributable to natural law.
Others of the more mystical school refer to the 'Holy Spirit factor', holding that all human activity is of divine origin. A third, more liberal, school is emerging which argues that the Holy Spirit occasionally stands back to allow ever-willing human fallibility to have its way. This is a bet-hedging stance, displaying a degree of postconciliar uncertainty about various matters of faith which had previously been crystal clear for centuries.
This school however may not be entirely new. Over a thousand years ago the author of the great liturgical hymn: Veni, creator Spiritus included the lines: lnfirma nostri corporis, Virtute firmans perpeti (Support with your strength the weakness of our human nature).
While the inspirational source of malfunctions may still be disputed there is general agreement that natural law can sometimes interfere with the smooth flow of even the best ordered liturgical proceedings.
A good illustration comes from that fruitful source of malfunctions, altar boys. In a northern parish some time ago a rather rambling sermon, mainly drawing the attention of the faithful to the retiring collection, was brought to a premature close when an altar boy burst into flames. The Holy Spirit may here have been using his main armoury.
Fortunately a fast-reacting MC was nearby to quench the tongues of fire with no damage beyond a badly singed cotta and some loss of dignity. Theologians might profitably examine liturgical arson as a possible channel for celestial messages.
Processions can also be fruitful. After the Nativity Midnight Mass the procession to the crib is a potentially grand moment capping a joyous liturgy. In one of our largest and packed cathedrals last year the procession was long, including acolytes, augmented and fully robed choir, legions of altar boys and men, a posse of deacons and priests with an episcopal group bringing up the rear, all having to travel the full, length of the nave to reach the crib. Careful planning was required at the setting-off point but after a flourish of finger-clicks and ticktacking from MC's everyone eventually got under way.
When all had arrived at the crib it was discovered that the main object of the procession had been overlooked and a small boy had to be dispatched in haste back to the high altar to retrieve the effigy which was to fill the empty manger.
Some liturgical happenings have an appearance of being made by human hands. Throughout history, church musicians have used various means to liven things up. A favourite device in the 16th century was the 'Parody' piece in which a
popular tune, not always of liturgical origin, was concealed in the tenor line of a complex polyphonic Mass setting. Palestrina and his contemporaries were skilled in this method of composition.
Variants sometimes happen today. At the last sung Mass prior to the traditional August choir holidays, the skilled organist at a well-known church burst into a flamboyant concluding voluntary in the style of a French Toccata. Only the more musically aware may have noticed that the big tune, given out in long pedal notes, was not unrelated to the melody of 'I-do-like-to-bebeside-the-seaside'.
A similar event took place in a church with a good choral tradition. During the Offertory the choir sang an unaccompanied I,atin motet put together by a competent musician in the serene style of the 16th century polyphonic pastiche and using the wellknown biblical text: Pattern meum cognovit lloyd georgius. It must be assumed that nobody outside the choir left noticed as the director of music is still in office.
Divine intervention possibly had some influence in a recent linguistic experience. 1 was host to a visiting Austrian colleague from St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna who spoke only modest but rather earnest English. He had never heard a vernacular Messe in englischer Sprache so off we went to a London church which I felt might give a favourable first impression. "lntzy nemmov tze Fahzer entov tze Zone" began the visiting Slavonic priest, intent on the gift of tongues, and my friend's face amply described our feelings. Such diversions can only be uplifting to those with a love of liturgy.
On crossing the English Channel one becomes an honorary foreigner and the travelling liturgy watcher finds much that is fascinating. It is not necessary to be a skilled modern linguist to be at home with the general format of Mass in another language. (During the sermon one can always make a leisurely study of the surrounding architecture).
Latin novus ordo Masses seen generally more available on the continent than in England, especially in the major churches. These sometimes include full Gregorian chant, an art becoming forgotten in England apart from the ubiquitous Credo — which is perhaps not true plainsong anyway.
If, as on some American package tours, you are 'doing Europe' and not quite sure which country you have reached, Italy can usually be identified by the preacher's decibel count; there is also a tendency to have microphones turned up to disco levels. Liturgical silence seems quite contrary to the Italian, and especially the Roman, temperament.
Those with an interest in the main European tongues may notice that the common prayers and responses of the Mass are rather closer to the Latin norm than some of our English vernacular.
The kiss or sign of peace is given "according to local custom" and Anglo Saxons should remember that English customs are not universal. Be not alarmed if, in some ancient churches, a steward in medieval uniform draws his sword in salute at the Consecration. Liturgical scholars have never convincingly explained this symbolic and moving gesture.
After leaving England one discovers that the strictness of adherance to liturgical rubrics tends to diminish in a southerly direction in proportion to one's proximity to Rome itself. In one matter however Italy is uncharacteristically strict: Communion in the hand is not permitted. In the big Roman basilicas where international congregations are the norm, the clergy are skilled at ignoring proffered hands and getting mouths open.
In England I know a good lady who is neither elderly nor dotty but has that brand of faith which is a marvel. She seems to regard liturgy as something which just gets in the way of her constant communication with the Almighty. She has one firmly held conviction however: not even a letter from the Pope would persuade her to receive the Body of her Lord from a female, and only reluctantly from a male, lay minister. With practised dexterity she can manoeuvre herself, and sometimes others, to accord with this conviction.