Monday, December 02, 2013

The Little Things

Bracing ourselves for the trek home from Thanksgiving dinner -- twelve hours of driving with a carsick kid -- we felt the need for some spiritual refreshment.  So it was that we dropped into a little Anglo-Catholic church in the North Country last Sunday.

It's a lovely little nave, decorated in excellent taste -- as simple as Anglo-Catholicism allows, with dark wood furniture highlit by plain white walls and ceilings, small and lovely stained-glass windows, a few decently-written icons, and the cloying brasswork kept to a bare minimum.

On our last visit, many years ago, the rector had been a stuffy old man who preached a sermon the mediocrity of which was mitigated only by occasional interjections of intense social conservatism.  During coffee hour, we overheard the old duffer sharing some historical tidbits with the altar boy, all about dogs and cats sleeping in the roofs of thatched medieval cottages -- a series of utter falsehoods which we recognized from one of those asinine chain emails that right-winger share with each other and believe because they trust each other, regardless of the facts.

We hadn't felt the need to return.  We've got a church up that way, at least in the summer time.

But we're glad we went back on an early-winter Sunday.  The new rector is a conspicuously young man, no less genial than his predecessor and seemingly less prone to sharing either political opinions or false history.  Although the shade of Austin Farrer need not look to its homiletic laurels just yet, his sermon was earnest and sincere.  We liked the guy, and pray that he will enjoy many happy years in his post.

This being the start of Advent, the liturgy had been adapted nicely.  The Great Litany was sung in place of the Introit, Kyrie and Gloria.  (We enjoy singing the Litany, and wish that it were more common.)  The clutter on the altar had been reduced, although it was still more than ample. A brief Marian devotion followed the dismissal.  The paraments and vestment were a simple and elegant matched set, hand-stitched by a member, indigo trimmed with violet.  Because the chasuble was quite full, our pew-companion did not even see the maniple, but we certainly did.  We notice the little things.

And indeed, we couldn't help but notice a couple of very,very little things.  Minuscule things -- and just the sort you aren't supposed to notice in worship, because they distract you.

The rector was wearing gray slacks.  Or maybe brown.  Anyway, they contrasted sharply with the cassock that was hanging down under his alb, and we couldn't help staring at them.  And that, friends, is why your cassock should hang to the tops of your shoes -- and if you don't wear a cassock, then your alb should reach the shoe-tops.  So that you can wear any damn pants you want, or no pants at all, and nonetheless attract no attention whatsoever to yourself.

The rector was also wearing a wristwatch.  And not one of those dinky jobs that they used to call watches during the 20th century, with their 35 millimeter cases and 16 millimeter straps.  No, Father was wearing a typical contemporary sports watch, roughly half a pound of stainless steel, 47 mm or more across, with a solid-link bracelet.  You couldn't help but notice it; they probably noticed it on Mars, too.

Which is why, dear brothers and sisters, there is a loooong-standing custom of removing your jewelry when you lead worship.  Unless it is a bishop's cross or a wedding ring or some other testimony of a particular religious vocation, your watch (or ring, or necklace, or earring) cannot help but  draw attention to your person, and therefore away from your message.  (Cf. Kavanagh, Elements, p. 62.  Luther D. Reed made a particular point about removing expensive fountain-pens, something which has always confused us a little.  Did mid-century surplices have pen pockets?)

Anyway, we don't mean to rag on our new friend.  He sings beautifully, preaches ably, and presides with grace and elegance.  We're just surprised that somebody with such a clear commitment to highly, even self-consciously, traditional worship would miss these basic preparations.  Doesn't Nashotah House teach these things?  

Then again, it is a dismal reflection upon our own spiritual life that, long after we have forgotten the guy's sermon, we will remember his pants.


Pastor Joelle said...

I don't wear a watch anymore now that I take my IPad with me every wear I go. And while I'd never wear a necklace with my alb I do wear earrings. Bright dangling bells on Christmas! And my shoes! Oh Lordy you would be distracted by my shoes.

Father Anonymous said...

Probably, but distracting me sets the bar too low. How many other people can we distract with our stuff?

The irony here is that I have a modest collection of wristwatches -- they, like fountain pens, are one of my un-ascetic indulgences. Nothing expensive, but I do choose them carefully -- and have to remind myself to remove them before worship. So, as usual, I am really just preaching to myself on this one.

Gillian said...

I will gladly remove my watch before worship when I serve in a parish so dedicated to starting worship in a timely manner that all of the altar party and those in the processional, including the rector, are gathered at the appointed place in a timely manner. And when parishioners cease to care if the service goes a few minutes late and causes them to be late for their brunch reservation. (To be fair, I don't get that vibe at my current parish. Did at my last one.) In no parish have I have seen folks reliably queued up ready for worship in a timely manner, except at the Cathedral where we had 3 vergers carrying big sticks to herd us. And I'm sure they were wearing watches!

Father Anonymous said...

Well, okay ... but I usually take mine off just before the procession begins. That is, after the cats have been herded, but before the public part if the ministry takes place. That's why Almy makes those things with a side pocket.

As for people getting bent out of shape because a service takes too long, well, my watch won't make the organist play any faster.

Stan Theman said...

You could do what the Patriarch of Moscow did and just have your wristwatch photoshopped out of the picture, like he did with his Rolex.
Unfortunately, there was still a reflection of the Rolex still left in the "revised" photo and people were left wondering what a man who claims to be poor was doing wearing a watch that costs more than the average Russian's yearly salary.

Father Anonymous said...

Seriously? That happened?

Gillian said...

It won't make the organist play any faster. But it can cause clergy to chop paragraphs out of sermons, delete the Confession, and switch Eucharistic Prayers on the fly. Oddest liturgical "order" I've ever received was from the rector of my previous parish. We'd had a guest preacher who'd gone on far too long (understatement) and I was presiding. I was told to "make like a rabbit" through the Eucharistic Prayer. I switched to Prayer A but didn't do anything more drastic than that. I know what the rector wanted was for me to shift to "Rite III" which is the bare-minimum required bits--he would do that if we were way behind. I think you can imagine my views on that. Since I'm a person who not only has read Elements of Rite but had to stop myself from shouting out "Amen" and "Preach it!" while doing so.

Father Anonymous said...

But ... but ... if we all took our watches off, we'd never think to mutilate the service halfway through. The system works!

For what it's worth, the cruelest ecclesiastical timepiece I know of is in the chapel of the Mar Thoma Seminary, in Kerala.

This is a place where most students are too poor to own a watch in any case. But there is not, as in so many American churches, a big clock over the door, where the preacher can see it and be driven mad.

Instead, there is a big clock behind the pulpit, so that during a sermon it appears (to one's professors, fellow-students, and seminary president) to be right over the preacher's head.

The Clock of Damocles, as it were.