Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Our Prayers for Christian Unity

The Clergy and Choir of St Paul's Cathedral joined us last Friday to celebrate Evensong at Westminster Cathedral, the first of our annual exchanges to mark the week of prayer for Christian unity. Thanks to Fr Tim and our Valladolid student Anthony for the photographs.

The exchange is now firmly established in our calendars - our own Clergy and Choir will celebrate Solemn Vespers at St Paul's later today. From the first years, when we marked the event with reserved and polite nervousness, to today when our firm and familiar friendship is evident, this event has perhaps mirrored something of our own attitudes to Christian unity. At first small steps seemed momentous, like walking on the moon. Our welcome in those days was tinged with panic; what if they did this? How would that be perceived? We had a strong consciousness of breaking new ground, of taking risks. Now, with an ease of relationship, perhaps also something of the urgency of unity has gone; we have slipped into a comfortable pattern of liturgical exchange. It is enough that we have this annual event to show our commitment to unity.

In truth, Christian unity seems a more abstract and impossible goal now than in the past. Recent events, particularly, within the Anglican Communion have rendered the vision of a united Christian Church almost inconceivable.

I was struck, however, this year by the uncompromising tone of the some of the gospel passages we have used at Mass this week: "A kingdom divided against itself must surely fall"; "Father, may they all be one as You and I are one." That these words come from the mouth of Our Lord is reason alone for us to continue to strive for unity. Our annual exchange may be an undemanding and unthreatening way of expressing our commitment, but it does express that commitment. It is a beginning, an openness.

The annual exchange between St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Cathedral reminds me that it is good and important simply to pray together. For all the talk, theological discussions and declarations, to stand alongside Christians of other traditions and pray with them is a powerful and essential act. Prayer, among other things, shows us the world as it is before God, and so our joint prayer this week reveals both the distance travelled and the distance yet to travel. It also admonishes us that our modern world will not pay heed to a Church divided; disunity scandalises the pagan as much as the believer. When Christ's Church can speak with one voice, then it will most persuasively proclaim his Gospel.


Anonymous said...

The evensong was indeed memorable with a beautifully crafted sermon from Canon Martin Warner which linked to the lovely anthem by John Rutter on the Light is invisible. These events are important and remind us of the importance of prayer for unity. Not just for one week of the year! I have been most impressed by the prayers for the week prepared in South Africa which I found on the Vatican website. Alas they have not been used at any of the services I have attended this week perhaps because they address the issue of the silence about HIV/AIDS. Or perhaps people just don't know about them?

Mark Langham said...

I will look up these prayers; they sound very interesting.

Andrew said...

Father, thank you for posting such beautiful pictures. The baldacchino and high altar are beautiful indeed. Do the Anglicans celebrate their Eucharist on the High Altar ad orientem or versus populum?

I'm also curious as to why you're only the fourth person to incense the High Altar. The Anglicans also use incense in their worship, surely.

Perhaps you can enlighten us with a bit of trivia? =)

Mark Langham said...

In fact the High Altar and baldacchino are very recent addtions - only being added to the Cathedral in the 1950s.

The Anglican communion is diverse, and while High-Church Anglicans would have no trouble with incense (and indeed encourage it), Low-Church or Evangelical Anglicans would not tend to use it in worship. The previous Anglican Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, did use incense on three occasions (as he himslef confirmed to me), but was criticised by some for doing so. Perhaps, inevitably, the retired Dr Leonard is now a Roman Catholic!

I'm not sure if the Eucharist was celebratedon the High Altar orginally, but for many years now, a temporary altar has been used beyond the choir in the nave.

Peter Simpson said...

I am surprised to read that the Dome Altar is only temporary - I really like it, and feel that it provides a perfect setting for the celebration of the Eucharist - not unlike the Papal Altar in St Peter's, Rome!

In my opinion, the Dome Altar and High Altar in St Paul's Cathedral happily co-exist much better than do the Forward Altar and High Altar in Westminster Cathedral!

I hope the new Dean of St Paul's Cathedral will help ensure that the Dome Altar is permanent.

Andrew said...

Thanks for the clarification and information, Father.

Is the Mass still celebrated on the High Altar at Westminster Cathedral?

It's such a beautiful altar and the baldacchino is magnificent.

I've seen photos of the Tidentine Rite celebrated on it but besides that, I haven't come across any.

Perhaps the late Cardinal Hume used to do it? When was the freestanding altar added?

Thanks again Father, for your patience in entertaining my questions.

God bless!

Anonymous said...

The link to the prayers is http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/weeks-prayer-doc/rc_pc

Anonymous said...

Andrew, I remember daily mass at Westminster Cathedral still being celebrated at the high altar ad orientem around 1975. It was beautiful to see the priest and deacons going up to the altar. I would bet, given the effect of Pope Benedict's clear and well-argued views on younger clergy and many young laity, that we will see this again at the cathedral in the new rite within ten years. Who knows?

Mark Langham said...

Mass is celebrated at the High Altar facing eastwards only by the Latin Mass Society, at their twice-yearly Mass on the main sanctuary. we did experiment for six months saying Mass facing westwards at the High Altar: the results were inconclusive, and the difficulties and expense of adapting the altar precluded it.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in your experiment of using the high altar for westward celebration. What was done with the crucifix and big six candles? Surely they needed to be repositioned otherwise they would block the view. Where were they placed? Was it possible to see the priest behind the altar? I imagine that he was dwarfed behind the altar as it is so large compared to the nave altar, and so distant from the congregation. Even if the expense of adapting the altar would be great, surely this would be the preferable option for adapting the sanctuary to the new rite. Are there any photos available from this time?