There are those who may be offended by what follows. I fear that this is simply a hazard of saying what I believe to be right and true. Therefore, if you see your own custom criticised here and feel your back arch a little, I would ask you to take a step back from the initial reaction and ask yourself why you feel that way, and whether there might be something about your practice that could be reassessed.
Some of you have known me for a long time, whether as a personal friend of from my participation in a particular online Christian discussion forum, which has a real-life social element through which some of you have met me. Many of you will know that, in my Anglican days, I was a great fan of what is commonly called the English Use. This was the particular liturgical style that sought to restore Catholic elements to the worship of the Church of England, not by simply copying what modern or "traditional" Rome was doing but rather by restoring customs, music, and practices that had been part of the Catholic (and previously, Orthodox) tradition in Britain prior to the reformation, largely in the Use of Sarum and others similar to it. Among the benefits of these customs, were that, being part of the liturgical heritage of these isles, they were often found to be more palatable to the average Anglican than some of the more exotic continental customs which had come to be associated with Anglo-Papalism and other ecclesiologies that many found difficult, and had often continued in one form or another even during the most protestant phases of the Church of England. Also, they were free from associations with some of the sentimental devotional excesses of post-Counter-Reformation Roman Catholicism. Many of these early customs, of course, are once again to be found in the Orthodox Church in our Western Rite missions.
One of the most prominent proponents of the English Use was the Rev'd Dr Percy Dearmer, a rather eccentric Anglican clergyman in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, perhaps best known for his contribution to the production of The English Hymnal, (and authorship of some of its contents), and, even more so, The Parson's Handbook, which is just what the title suggests: a practical guide to the decent and orderly worship of God for ministers and those involved in the running of parishes. In it, he is highly opinionated and wonderfully forthright in the most amusing of ways, and demonstrates before his readers his own unique and refreshing brand of tact. Even those who disagree with his points, (and it is difficult to see how any right-thinking person could), must admit that his written style makes him an incredibly attractive author. I often wish he were alive today because I would love to read his blog, which I imagine would have a myriad of followers and receive regular comments, (unlike my own humble offering cough, hint, cough). In fact, my friends and I used to jest that, occasionally, it might be edifying to the people were we to occasionally forgo the Sunday Epistle and simply read an excerpt from The Parson's Handbook.
My intention here is not to elevate Dr Dearmer to saintly status, (although his former parish of St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, which still implements some of his principles in its worship, is affectionately known as the parish of Our Lady & St Percy), but rather to focus on one of his more memorable points of sound advice, this one pertaining to vesture:
The pre-Reformation surplice, like that which has continued down to our own time, was very long and full. In the nineteenth century, however, a short garment, very undignified and ungraceful, came into fashion and still lingers in some churches. To wear a thing of this sort is scarcely to obey the Ornaments Rubric; it is as if a boy should wear a bathing costume at a cricket match when he was told to wear a suit of flannels.This touches on something that I have been thinking about since a conversation last weekend of which I was reminded by an exchange in Another Place yesterday. The discussion was about an element of Palm Sunday but the subject has wider implications for much of the rest of the liturgical year, the approach individuals take to the worship in their parishes, and actually the common life of parishes as well: it is the commercialisation of worship.
A further cause that has led to the gradual cutting down of garments is the rage for cheapness, and the desire of the tailor to save as much material as possible. Before vestments became a commercial article, they remained full, on the Continent as well as here. Now the worship of Mammon has so far intrenched on the honour due to God that the sweater has his own way with us, and it is considered seemly for a minister to appear in church in the garment called a 'sausage-skin', a so-called surplice that is not only short, but is entirely deprived of gathers, so that a few extra half-pence may be saved from the cost of worship.-The Parson's Handbook, 12th ed.
How many of us have at one time been subscribed to the catalogues of ecclesiastical suppliers? We receive their e-mails, their printed catalogues come through our doors, and we all know their websites. Please do not misunderstand me. They are incredibly useful. In many cases, these are the only places from which we can acquire many of the accoutrements of our worship, especially if we want items that are produced by those who are skilled and have given of their ability, time, and labour to produce a worthy offering. Often, making and selling vestments, liturgical books, communion vessels, and such like, is the means by which parishes and monasteries support themselves and enable themselves to continue their work. We shouldn't begrudge them what we can give. After all, the Saviour tells us in St Luke's Gospel that the labourer is worthy of his wages.
However, we have now reached the point where many of these suppliers have become the source of simple things that were once commonly home-produced in churches, and whose production in some cases was a community effort, building the family of the parish. These things would put the people more in touch with the liturgical cycle of the Church, through which time is sanctified, making it less of a theoretical concept discussed by the cognoscenti and more of a reality in the lives of the people.
The children of the Hebrews, carrying palms and olive-branches, went forth to meet the Lord, crying out and saying: Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!Then I moved back to the UK, and back to my family parish, where I was disappointed to learn that none of this communal preparation took place, but that instead the palm Crosses were bought from a shop! Yes, it seemed that one could purchase palm Crosses (in plastic packets each containing fifty) from ecclesiastical suppliers and have them sent in the post. Not only had this experience of entering into the mystery of Holy Week been reduced to a commercial exchange of money for goods, but imagine my horror when I saw that what we got for our money looked like this:
Forget fresh, vibrant greenery. Instead dead, dried out plant matter, often crumbling with decay, was deemed to be a worthy offering in service of God, and nobody seemed particularly bothered. In less slovenly times, the custom in Britain was what I had known in St Kitts, and what it is to this day in Russia, which was to decorate the church and have the people take with them fresh greenery in procession and then to their homes, according to what was available locally: palm, box, willow, and such like. Even the prayer for the blessing of the "palms" acknowledges flowers and other leaves. In the same way that the Hebrews took what they had immediately to hand, so did Christian people, wherever they happened to be. That is, until ecclesiastical suppliers started to send us seasonal catalogues, convincing us that we really must have the Real Thing, and that what we did would be somehow inauthentic if we were to use anything other than actual palm, which they could import for us from other parts of the world, where it had been cut months, even years before. And like mindless drones, the poor fools who received these catalogues bade farewell to their good sense, and in exchange for ease and convenience, sacrificed part of the community-building and wonder-invoking activities of the church year. Gone were the days of people coming together to prepare for, and to enhance the worship of their churches. Now, with a behind-the-scenes financial transaction, it all just happened, as if by magic, and there was no longer any need for anybody to get involved.
These are all experiences from my Anglican past but let us not think that we Orthodox are immune to this sort of nonsense. If only it were so! We may like to console ourselves with the thought that our bread for the Eucharist is usually baked fresh within the parish rather than purchased en masse in little plastic tubs but this on its own means nothing. I have seen those dried out palm Crosses used in Orthodox churches, where we really ought to know better. (I am pleased to report that my icon corner is currently graced with the pussy willow that I received fresh and green last Palm Sunday.) Then there are the oil lamps before the icons: an ideal opportunity for somebody - perhaps someone who laments not having very much money to give to the church but takes comfort in being able to dedicate his time - to offer a small service in maintaining them, trimming or replacing the wicks, refilling them with fresh oil, cleaning the glasses when necessary, and so forth. In how many of our churches is this action replaced by quickly popping some tealights into coloured glasses? And why not? After all, they're convenient and quite cheap at the supermarkets, and we don't have to deal with any of that nasty mess on our fingers, caused by the oil, which has no special place in the history of Christianity or in Holy Scripture, does it? How many of our parishes have tailors and seamstresses whose gifts are not put to the service of the church because our default setting is to order our vestments and hangings on the internet? Indeed, how many of us have even checked if these gifts exist in our congregations?
There is something about this commercialisation of our worship that is detrimental to the very fabric of communal parish life. People seem less inclined to come and help to prepare for things because, through no fault of their own, they have lost, or have never had instilled, the sense of ownership of the liturgy. The liturgy of the Church is something they attend but is not something that they think of as their own in the way that it ought to be and more commonly was in former times. They become accustomed to someone behind the scenes paying some money on behalf of the church, and it all just happens. The result is a reduced awareness of our common liturgical life, and a fragmentation of our fellowship as we are robbed, one by one, of our opportunities for coming together to make our worship our joint effort, and the fruit of our labours. Try organising a cleaning party at church, or a greening party for Palm Sunday or Pentecost, or even have people come to prepare the tomb for the services in Holy Week and Pascha. A handful of people may come - usually the same few each time, and often at personal expense or inconvenience - but generally it falls to one, perhaps two people, or it is done by artificial means, or not at all.
All of this is to say that I fear Percy Dearmer may well have been right, and that his words are truer now than they were in his own day. The sweater has had his way with us and, whether we like it or no, we in the Church have become slaves to commercialism, even touching our worship.
May the Lord have mercy upon us.