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Holding ones Fingers Correctly at Mass?

Hands at Mass

A recent comment quoted Episcopal bishop Charles Jenkins who said

Before the storm [Hurricane Katrina], “I thought Christianity and priesthood were primarily about the cult,” Jenkins said. “And doing the actions correctly — holding my fingers correctly at Mass, not wearing brown shoes when celebrating the Mass. That it was getting all those right.

“And I was missing the larger picture of the dignity of humanity and the world for whom Christ died.”

This particular, regular commenter here frequently accuses liturgy of focusing too much on “man made” rules at the expense of morality.

Let me put a bit of a frame around this. Many will know of seminary training with a tied circle of string that theologs used around their hands to train for presiding so that during the consecration they held their hands, as in the picture above, not extending beyond the edges of the corporal on which stood all and only that which was to be consecrated. Some continue to insist that before, during, and after the consecration thumb and forefinger are to be kept together (again as in the image above).

That is one end of the spectrum. Towards the other end, I regularly see clergy presiding, wearing a far-too-short alb, sitting cross-legged, alb splayed more than a slit dress at an Emmys award ceremony, hanging open either side of their crossed legs in a gesture of “I’m only wearing this alb because I have to, and don’t worry I’m a real Kiwi bloke and not taking this cross-dressing seriously”. Or in full vestments presiding with hands behind their back. And so on.

The Gospel reading for the Eucharist on Tuesday this week fits with this reflection. Jesus said:

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

I, on this site, am committed to justice, ethics, morals and to best practice worship (individually and communally), worship that is both an end in itself, and that empowers for justice, ethics, morals as its fruit.

The reducing of everything to binary options of either/or is a mistake. Mostly it is both/and.

I am regularly at pains to point out the error of liturgy-as-cloning, as if the exact practice in one place should be mimicked in another place which has quite a different context. Rather, we need to seek principles that may work across most if not all contexts. We need training, study, and formation to come to a fluency in the “liturgical language” of symbol, gesture, architecture, and so on.

Listen to Jesus’ words again: “It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.” Jesus is both/and. Jesus is not saying: focus on justice but don’t wash the dishes!

Let’s return to the context of the Bishop Charles Jenkins’ quote:

Before Hurricane Katrina, in the days when Jenkins says he was focused more on the well-being of his predominantly white church than his predominantly black city, [white Charles Jenkins and black Jerome Smith] might never have crossed paths….Fundamentally, Jenkins has embarked on a personal re-education in which he seeks to see the city through the eyes of the poor.

The issue with Bishop Charles was not valuing quality liturgy, it was the lack of connection with the real context in which God had placed him.

In a game of football the primary purpose may be the scoring of goals, but one would be surprised if a captain and coach would encourage the team to arrive in motley disarray, their kit filthy, and loud-mouthing the opposition. Certainly, if all the focus is on those things, and the minutia of throwing in, for example, and no attention was paid whatsoever to attempting to score any goals, then we are in the Bishop Charles situation. But where both/and are valued we are probably in for a good game.

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16 Responses to Holding ones Fingers Correctly at Mass?

  1. “… clergy presiding, wearing a far-too-short alb, sitting cross-legged, alb splayed more than a slit dress at an Emmys award ceremony, hanging open either side of their crossed legs in a gesture of “I’m only wearing this alb because I have to, and don’t worry I’m a real Kiwi bloke and not taking this cross-dressing seriously”.” Good heavens clearly you only attend high church churches! At some of the allegedly Anglican churches I have accidentally attended in A/NZ an alb would be a far-off, long-ago dream. I remember one dude, who shall remain nameless, sauntering out from the congregation in “civvies” (no stole, of course), soaked in sweat, pointing nonchalantly at the Jesus-juice and crumbly tiger bun on a tea trolley, and mumbling some words about remembrance. I left.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more on this one. I sometimes get ‘taken to task’ for being too focused on the intricacies of the celebration of liturgy. And while I do pay attention to liturgical principles and practice this is not the only part of my ministry: it may be the most public and visible part, but not the only part.

    Like many things in Christianity there needs to be more both/and, and less either/or, in the Christian life.

  3. There is nothing in what you write, Bosco, that I am going to dispute. And as your site highlights liturgy then perhaps it has been unfair to bring up other matters. But you go on with the words “Spirituality that connects”. And that in my thinking brings us back “to the real context in which God has placed us”. As I read some who comment on this site their main interests are form and style.
    I was at Eucharist/Mass on Tuesday and listened to “woe to you”. I caused some dispute among the few others present by commenting that the present scribes and pharisees, but also down the centuries, were the institutional churches. They have not heard this that you refer to one part of.
    “For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
    Living in Australia One is constantly confronte with the failure of religious bodies in the “neglect of weightier matters” for the protection of the institution and its style. Certainly the Roman church has been mainly featured but the Anglican Communion is involved to. A day or so ago the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle had this to say:
    “In an extraordinary interview on Tuesday the bishop confirmed the Anglican Church had already paid compensation to sexual abuse victims of a late former Newcastle bishop for offences against children in another state.

    It was ‘‘more than likely’’ there were serial perpetrators in the Hunter Region’s past who were ‘‘aware of one another’’, and ‘‘people of significant influence’’ in the Church had failed to respond to child sexual abuse allegations when they were made, he said.”

    Our General Synod has concentrated on such matters not on liturgy and lectionary.

    I am a Lay reader in my parish where lay readers are very active in our smaller outlying churches, Last Sunday I led Morning Prayer using the current Prayer Book form of BCP Matins. This was the first time this had been used in many months. Our Lay readers are more likely to use a simple Iona form of Morning Prayer. talking to people this has no effect on the spirituality they feel arising from the service. Nor do I. Indeed we have had a priest- granted at not in principal parish church- use an Iona Communion Service. I have never felt I was not at a true Eucharist.
    Indeed for many of us, me included, there is great beauty in a well celebrated traditional Service as their is in Gregorian Chant, Bach’s ST. Matthew’s Passion and so on. Again I have noted before this is as much aesthetic as spiritual. Thenthe two do interact. For a friend onmne it comes from waving her arms duing popular hymns. Which is the more valid?

    • All comments go through moderation, Brian. I run this site totally voluntarily in spare moments. That your comment went through moderation in the last hour should not be taken as precedent – many comments take much longer before I get to them. [A second version of your comment is also awaiting moderation – I do not think both need to be on the thread, so I am deleting the second] Blessings.

  4. Bosco, as I read your post today I drawn to reflect on that the ordained as presbyter and episcopi eshare in a particular way in the one priesthood of Christ. Though awkward I have begun to believe that the term “priesthood holder” is better than the title priest as if an ordained priesthood holder holds a particular priesthood unto themselves. I also like your analogy about football. One of my liturgical inspirations is one that is somewhat surprising to many. William Webb Ellis according to the myth picked up the ball and ran. I am sure that that young man paid the price and was more than summarily punished according to the strictures of the day, but in that simple, creative and now profound move he started a new movement. As Ellis most probably learnt that picking up and running that day was not so wise, and the smarts behind the move probably led to smarting backside, I suspect we all need to learn how to play the game, and bottom lines, guidelines, principles and norms are all part of this, especially if they are life-giving and not static. the post today on Praytell also speaks to this well http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2014/08/27/viewpoint-the-ongoing-problem-of-liturgical-clericalism/

    • Thanks, Phillip. To use my other analogy – liturgy is a language. Once we speak that language of signs, symbols, gestures, etc. fluently, like other languages we can be amazingly creative. If, however, we are not agile with the language, we struggle to communicate within it – and creativity is the last thing that helps. Blessings.

      • Yes agreed agility requires discipline, because being deft with liturgy means that gracefully “footed” doesn’t breakdown into a liturgical twisted ankle. Good liturgy requires communication (language), collaboration (with the community of faith) and coordination. Creativity (and I believe liturgy should be simple, creative and profound) often confuses adaptability for improvisation. To use my rugby analogy – the liturgical “game” can be ruined by two many dropped passes, missed opportunites, collapsed scrums and at worst taking too many punts.

  5. I wasn’t worried about time to review. I suspected wrongly it is now evident that my first comment through my pushing wrong button had disappeared. As you say the last post is therefore irrelevant.

  6. As a Lutheran, and former pastor, I always struggle with wanting to have good liturgy without coming off as stuffy or stilted. I do think too many times we can either get tied up with doing it exactly right and throwing the baby out with bath water. While I did have a habit of crossing my legs, I made sure my alb continued to cover my legs so not to get the Hollywood slit look. I do believe that continual training and education is essential for clergy and laity. I think liturgy would be more meaningful if our folks understood the reasons and traditions behind the things we do. I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons “entertainment” worship is so popular is because people know longer want to do “the work of the people” i.e. Liturgy. We seem to have forgotten the we go to worship to praise God and not have God entertain us for our pleasure.

    • Thanks, Richard. I am strongly in favour of ongoing training, study, and formation of and for all. On the other hand, if much of what we do is so esoteric that it requires constant explanation, then perhaps there is something about the way we do things that requires reworking, or perhaps some things need retiring as no longer appropriate. If a hug or a handshake etc need explanations what is really going on? Blessings.

  7. Having been brought up in the fifties in a pretty traditional Roman Catholic faith, even as an altar server, much of what the priest did was meaningless to the congregation as it was done facing away from them.

    Than came Vatican II and it was like a breath of fresh air. Firstly the language became accessible to all, but also the actions during the communion service were available and for us to begin to question why they did a particular thing, the example being the way that the fingers were folded in the way you show here. To be honest, the answer that they gave were because that’s the way we’ve been trained, as part of an elaborate procedure to honour the sacrifice of the Mass.

    I never bothered to challenge them, because it was part of the mystique that they wanted to portray that set them apart and over their flock. A view that I came to dispute, particularly when I received some quite shoddy pastoral care later in life.

    As an Anglican I’ve seen a wide variety of styles from High to Low Church, from Cathedral to Chapel, and only one Anglican Priest who was doing locum at a church I attend periodically for mid-week communion did all of the elaborate ritual that I remember from my childhood, including the finger stuff. I was surprised, while those regulars at the communion seemed quite bewildered (they are on the Evangelical wing of the church).

    I’m sure that this sort of thing has it’s place, and I just think that what is being done needs to be explained and understood more widely than it is currently, if it is to be used at all. Otherwise robing and doing worship well in a dignified fashion with a sense of reverence in context should be sufficient.

  8. Bosco another thought on this subject comes to my mind as I raed your comment about “ordinary names.” Maybe if we realised that liturgy was the work of the people, the work of the baptised, the work of all, then we should dispence with the phylacteries, trappings, honorifics. A place to start could be by calling all by their Baptismal Name, and let go of titles like Father, Reverend etc.

  9. To me, a retired from full-time ministry priest, my greatest privilege now os tp preside at the occasional Liturgy of the Eucharist with a small group of people at a mid-week mass, here in Christchurch, New Zealand.

    This morning, the privilege extended to the Baptism of a baby after the Synaxis, when we all trooped down to the font, affirmed our Baptismal Faith and received into the Body of Christ little Evie Honour Ann, with water lustration – in the Name….. – anointing with the sign of the Cross, presentation of a Baptismal Candle lit from the Paschal Candle, and another procession up the aisle, to continue with the drama of the Eucharist.

    That word really took on a new meaning this morning – Eucharist really meant ‘thanksgiving’ – for an other wee sister in Christ’s family (By the way, half of the family were Roman Catholics – who loved it all and shared in the Eucharist – by invitation)

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Rev. Bosco Peters Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.