The Worship of God: a Commercial Enterprise?

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.


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.
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.

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.

I remember fondly Palm Sunday in my childhood parish in St Kitts. During the previous week, the churchwardens would climb the coconut palm trees in the churchyard, and cut palm branches from them and some of the shorter date palms, which they would then divide up into fronds for the people to carry in procession. Parishioners would gather to help with the effort, and whole palm branches of the fan variety were placed behind the altar Cross and decorated the interior of the church. Other fronds were used to decorate the processional Cross, with the longer variety tied to the sides of the pews to form arches of palm over the aisle. While people on the inside were doing this, others of us would sit outside to make palm Crosses to be blessed and distributed to the people, for them to carry in procession and take home afterwards. Each year, more people came to help. It was a time of fellowship and conversation among people who otherwise might see each other briefly on Sunday mornings but never really get to know one another. Not only that, but there was a sense in which, as we sat there, preparing this greenery, we became the Hebrews who, honouring their coming Lord, tore greenery from the trees that were about them in readiness to greet Him. We entered into that liturgical mystery through our act of preparation, and when Palm Sunday came, those of us who had helped sang with perhaps slightly greater devotion:
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.

The same is true of Ash Wednesday. When I was growing up, as Lent approached each year, we all knew to start taking our palm Crosses back to church so that they could be burnt to produce ash for Ash Wednesday. It wasn't anything remarkable: it was just what we did. It was a small thing but it was simply part of the reinforcing in the minds of the people of a sense of the liturgical cycle of time in which we lived as Christians, and was a way of them becoming involved in the production of the physical things of our worship through which we encountered God - this earthy sacramentalism that forms the backbone of Christianity. I moved back to the UK, took my palm Cross back to church, and was asked, 'What's this for?' 'Ash Wednesday', I explained to my parish priest. 'What do you mean?' 'It's for you to burn to make the ash'. 'Oh, I just buy that,' came the reply. That's right - it seems that it is fairly common for churches in Britain each year to pay for a little sachet of ash. Ash! One of the easiest things to make around the house. And they pay money for it! It's ludicrous. So now, on Ash Wednesday, clergy emerge with a bowl of mysterious ash. The people have no awareness of what it is or where it comes from. It has no relation to their experience. It just appears. Well, I had none of that when I was sacristan of a later parish of mine. I burnt the palm Crosses in a biscuit tin. It took five minutes. With a few seconds of pestling, we had a fine ash - no problem. I just don't understand what the difficulty is.

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.

7 responses:

Laura said...

Michael-I just wanted to say I consider this a fantastic piece, with much food for thought. I am pondering and will give my unworthy thoughts later (if I am allowed!)

Anonymous said...

You have inspired to order a copy and I did so five minutes ago. I remember getting sight of one whilst training for the priesthood at Chichester and have lusted after a copy ever since.

I am now all spent up for Christmass as I have also ordered a stichar from Russia today.

Who knows the book make come in very useful if the Western Rite ever makes it to Yorkshire!

John Konstantin

Michael said...

Laura, thank you, and welcome, my new friend! I'm so pleased you've decided to follow and post. Of course you're allowed and encouraged to post back.

To be honest, I only said as much as I did because I had been thinking about Palm Sunday and though it terribly unseasonal, so felt I ought to pad it out a bit, and the thoughts just came.

Another that came to mind afterwards is the Paschal Candle, used in the Pascha celebrations of the Western Rite. The rite calls for five grains of incense to be inserted into the candle in the form of a Cross, symbolising the five wounds of Christ, no longer signs of suffering and death but now glorious symbols of our redemption. So incense is inserted to show that those wounds are fragrant with the sweetness of paradise.

So far, so good. Then you look at what the ecclesiastical suppliers have done. Incense is hard. Cold cancle wax is hard. Therefore, unless holes are previously dug into the wax, it can be difficult to insert the incense grains into the candle during a service. Their solution? These or these. Wax-topped pins with an incense grain in the middle or brass receptacles with a screw-top and a small compartment where you put the grains of incense, then the spikes get inserted into the candle. The result, people don't ever see the incense and only ever see the pins, so you will hear people commonly referring to the "five nails" that are inserted into the candle. And who can blame them? That's all they ever see, remaining unaware of the incense that these things contain and compltely missing the whole point of the fragrant and glorious wounds.


Very well. I'll stop my whining now. It's just that, even as a child, I had such a fascination with these things that I really dislike seeing these barriers set up to people's comprehension for no other reason than convenience and money.

John, good to see you back here again. You will love The Parson's Handbook. I may well follow this up with a post quoting my favourite bits. I love his little tirade about the length of candles and "the natural tendency of tasteless people". The man was a genius.

Well done on the stikhar. Was it from Istok?


Anonymous said...

It was from a women called Katia and at an unbelievable price (not as much as the prices on the website). The fabric is a brocade known as Athos but it goes by the name of Jerusalem Cross on other websites. It is essentially a deacon's stikhar but in the interests of economia and the fact I am not a deacon I have got it at an extremely good price.

Martin Shorthose said...

I am quite cheered by your writing since much at our church in Audley is done as it apparently should be. Our Romanian brethren are always keen to supply greenery for procession and decoration although we do buy dead palm crosses. (I challenge your origami skills to come up with a design for a three-bar palm cross!) I would love to find green palms for waving but Staffordshire is somewhat devoid of palm trees.
I addition, we have two bread bakers, a candle maker, an oil lamp filler, some cleaners, enthusiastic bier decorators, a seamstress who has made priestly robes and another group of Romanians who have recently re-covered all the church cushions on pews and made matching runners to dress the icon stands and lectern.
How blessed are we?
Not totally free of expenses, we do buy commercial lamp oil as it is odour and smoke free (essential in our tiny building).
Regrettably it is never possible to include every member of the congregation in the list of those who do, but I think we have a greater proportion of doers than others.

I will have to find a copy of the Dearmer, it sounds like a bit of a hoot!

Do you think that one day we will have our own forms of music in the UK?
We all seem to use Russian or Greek music and tones unless of Western Rite which I have never witnessed but feel unnerved by.
I wonder what an English Obikhod would sound like?

Keep Blogging!

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...


I thoroughly enjoyed this post and simply must now get round to buying the Dearmer books :-)

Michael said...

Oooo! Her work looks amazing, John. I think I have fallen in love with her black vestments, (a particular weakness of mine, especially when seen in concelebration).

Martin, good to see you here again. I hope you have got over the Great Bacon & Egg Scandal of 2010.

I'm really pleased to hear that you do things as you do at Audley. I think it's a struggle for us in Wallasey because we existed so long in a private home. In that situation, there's only so far that people are willing to go in doing things before they feel that they are intruding, so it isn't really anybody's fault that our parish doesn't yet have a culture of large numbers of people going to church the day before big feasts to clean and decorate, and such like. I suppose it's just something we have to work on over time. Slowly, things are building up.

I'm not sure about music, Martin. It's difficult. The obvious answer would be western plainsong, which has its system of eight tones, like most ancient church chant. It is indigenous and part of our history and heritage, and in origin it is Orthodox. I love hearing it, I love singing it, and once people get past their initial fear at seeing the different notation, they begin to realise that it is actually much easier to read than modern western notation. The problem is that it belongs to a rite that is no longer prevalent in Orthodoxy in Britain: the Roman Rite, which has always been more austere than the Byzantine Rite, and especially the Slav-Byzantine Rite that we in the Russian Church follow. I said to a friend recently that much of our bold and quite boisterous music, if used in the Roman Rite, would sound quite vulgar, while using the sombre tones of western plainsong in the Byzantine Rite would sound weak and limp. If you have ever heard John Tavener's setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, you will know what I mean. There's nothing unpleasant about the music: it is simply that the feel of it is suited to the austerity of the Roman Rite - it has a western liturgical feel, and when used in the Byzantine Rite, there are points where there should be a degree of oomph and it just isn't there. I find it quite frustrating to listen to for that reason, screaming at the CD-player for the choir to open their mouths and bellow a bit more.

So I think that, for now, we stick with what we have, and perhaps it will naturalise after decades/cemnturies. Besides, who would ever want to lose the Kievan stikhera tones 2 and 3? (drools)

Thank you, Elizabeth. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Do buy TPH. He wrote other things, including, I think, a preparation for children for communion and other quite sensible things but TPH is what you want to make you smile. Much of it is simply good sense, supported by good arguments presented in a matter-of-fact way, but every now and then it is easy to see where he feels very strongly about some point or other, and that's when he is at his best.

As it happens, not having read it for some time, I just checked and see that he does address the matter of palms, (in quite a sober manner):

Dried date-palms are not a beautiful decoration for the altar, and the appropriateness of using bleached and dead leaves of this kind may be questioned. If they are used at all, the 'flowers and branches' of the liturgies should be used as well. Willow and yew, for instance, look much better about the altar and screen than the long palms which one often seen propped in awkward curves against the reredos. The word 'palm' was anciently applied to willow and yew indifferently; and their use, at least out of church, has never dropped in this country. Box and flowers were also used.

Post a Comment

Comments from unregistered users are welcome but please do identify yourself so as not to comment anonymously. Thank you.

©2009 All of Creation Rejoices | by TNB