Symmetry in the sanctuary

I have tended to take care not to focus excessively on the Anglican Communion Crisis. It has clearly become important, however, that this pre-eminent liturgy blog outlines the issues and informs readers about what has been highlighted by Fr. Montgomery as being what is primarily wrong with the Anglican Communion today: the lack of symmetry in the sanctuary.

Central to this lack of symmetry is the Anglican tradition that the Gospel candle never burns alone. The Gospel candle is the one on the altar on the liturgical North. The other is the Epistle candle. The Gospel candle has normally been lit last and extinguished first. This has resulted in the Gospel candle normally becoming longer than the Epistle candle as it is burning for less time than the Epistle candle.

Confusion entered the liturgy in the bewildering 1960s when priests increasingly started to face the congregation across the altar. Previously, the Gospel candle was the one on the left for everyone. In churches properly orientated the debate was less heated. There one could argue strongly that the Gospel candle was the actual Northern one. But in many others, where the church did not face East, parish committees and even international commissions debated: Was the Gospel candle the one on the priest’s left or on the congregation’s left? Chaos has ensued ever since.

The origin of the concept of a Gospel candle was the Northern Hemisphere proclamation of the Gospel to the heathen North. With the unplanned expansion of the Church of England with the British Empire and beyond, questions arose whether in the Southern Hemisphere this should be reversed and the Gospel candle be the one on the South, or even whether one should agree on the most heathen local area and have the Gospel candle as the one closest to that. Bitter disagreement and impaired communion have been almost inevitable.

Outside of church, the world is increasingly uninterested in which order candles are lit. Inherited legislation about candle lighting is more and more being removed from state regulations so that people are deciding for themselves how to light candles or even whether to light them at all. This acceptance and inclusiveness of variety is part of the new debate. There is even debate whether this is adiaphora or not, particularly with there being no mention of candles in the creeds.

Many are bringing the “world’s” progressive attitudes back into the worshipping community. They are questioning the inherited Anglican tradition and arguing for a revision of the practice. Some are even maintaining that their revisionist position draws on rediscovered and renewed deeper values within the tradition. What has drawn the issue to breaking point for the Communion is that many have moved beyond discussion to actually altering practice.

The Anglican Asymmetrical Altar

Some are lighting both candles at the same time (ACNA – All Candles Now Alight) – arguing that this upholds the tradition in a new contemporary context. FOCAfoca (First on candle always first off candle always) is not arguing about which candle is now the Gospel candle, but wants both candles the same length by first putting out the candle that is lit first, whichever that might be. GAFCON (Gospel Always First Candle On – No!) never lights the Gospel candle first. TEC (Taller Epistle Candlesticks) is possibly the most radical in balancing the look of the length of candles by actually altering the height of the Epistle candlestick. Great confusion is also resulting from another group claiming they are actually the truer Anglican version of TEC. In this case they are Trimming Every Candle. These have within their confederation different approaches to lighting and dousing candles, but compromise by trimming every candle to the same height after each service.

The Anglican Ordinariate follows the Italian practice of using electric candles switched on by a single switch. ACC (All Candles Circulating) keep to the tradition of not having the Gospel candle burn alone, but manage the balancing of heights by swapping the Gospel and Epistle candle after every service. The Sydney Archdiocese is saving money after its financial crisis and being principled in refusing to use candles at all on the communion trolleys from which they administer.

For years now, Anglican primates have refused to celebrate communion together because of the lack of agreement. Bishops have boycotted conferences. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been accused of surreptitiously holding one position privately while maintaining another one publicly. Some think he is playing an extremely complex long game by holding to an improbable solution publicly for so long his private position will finally inevitably triumph. The Archbishop of Canterbury has also reduced membership status on committees of anyone who allows the Gospel candle to burn alone. Their status is reduced from voting to consultant on committees that he controls. Most people cannot see the importance of this, as within the Anglican Communion, these committees actually have no real authority, but are simply consultative in any case.

Within the Church of England it is unclear whether a simple or two-thirds majority is appropriate as a General Synod vote on this issue, and some suggest that it needs an Act of Parliament. In New Zealand, where there is increasing popularity of reversing the order of the Ministry of the Sacrament and the Ministry of the Word, there is now experimentation with lighting the candles at the end of the service and extinguishing them as the service begins. Should any future court cases eventuate over property here, the Act of Parliament that assigns the property to those following the formularies will clearly hand any non-earthquake damaged buildings to the three parishes still following the agreed worship regulations.

It is clearly time to determine the mind of the Anglican Communion on this vexing problem central to the promotion of the orthodox (meaning firstly “right worship”) gospel.

There will be a motion put to Lambeth 2018. A commission of experts has been called. They are working on what will be called the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha Report. After the 2018 Lambeth Conference successfully passes the motion, there will be an international meeting at Brussels of all remaining primates. They will issue a Diet. The Diet of Brussels is anticipated to be a healthy balance to the previous confessional diet.

It is realised and acknowledged by all that Jesus does not specifically mention altar candle lighting order in the Gospels, and that some of the biblical references used to argue both sides may be based on mistranslations, but a hermeneutical hui will be called in Aotearoa-New Zealand to inaugurate a world-wide careful, scholarly examination of the original texts.

Candles are being discussed at every level from international to home Bible study groups. Resources are being produced.

Every significant Anglican budget now has a line to finance meetings, flights, and the production of documents. Sadly, some churches are resorting to the courts of the land as people are border crossing and stealing each other’s candles.

At stake some see that there is nothing less than the dangers of an alternative gospel taking over the life of the church, a gospel in which the divine and human nature of Christ are no longer of equal status. Others argue for a Reformed interpretation of the candle symbolism as alluding to Latimer burning more quickly than Ridley. All sides of the debate are heated and currently there appears to be no consensus.

Calls for a moratorium until a new Communion-wide agreement is reached have been broken on all sides as people say they have no choice but to make decisions about lighting candles in their local context. Meanwhile a proposed Anglican Covenant is being debated but none of its clauses actually deals with the presenting issue of candles.

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