At St Barnabas, you will see, hear, and smell things not quite typical of every Anglican church – things like incense, careful ritual, or the priest and people facing east together rather than facing each other. These are all part of our rich inheritance of sacred worship. Anglo-Catholics are Anglicans who emphasize the catholic nature of Anglicanism. A ‘catholic’ is a Christian who holds to the canonical scriptures, creeds, councils, sacraments, and apostolic succession that united the whole church prior to 1054, when the Eastern and Western churches divided and no longer understood themselves obedient to a single form of governance.
Anglo-Catholicism grew as a movement of spiritual renewal in the Church of England in the mid-1800’s. The movement looked to the spiritual gifts of the church’s catholic past in order to breath new life into the church and society of the present. Anglo-Catholicism is awake to the mystery of Christ’s presence amongst us and to the unfathomable riches of God’s grace. It was and continues to be a counter-cultural movement, standing in witness against the forces of division and injustice in our modern world, and against everything that destroys the beauty of God’s image in all persons and his goodness in all of his creatures.
Rituals sometimes have a reputation for being ‘empty and meaningless.’ But people have always used rituals to give shape, meaning and order to every aspect of their lives. Think of a birthday party, or the simple handshake, which not only signifies but also actualizes the friendship it symbolizes. The ritual of worship engages us in the fullness of who we are as human beings alive in the grace and love of God.
When priests, deacons, and servers wear the sacred vestments, it is a sign that they are stepping into a defined role in worship. The vestments obscure their individual personalities so that we may concentrate on their function and on the service and not on the individuals involved in it. At another level, sacred vestments serve as a reminder that the ministers of the Eucharist are engaged in no mundane activity, but rather are treading on holy ground and handling holy things. Vestments are also colourful, playful, and beautiful. We wear them because they reflect our love and our joy in God.
In fact, the priest is not turning from the congregation, but turning with the people to face together in the same direction. St Barnabas is built in the traditional manner, oriented eastward, so facing the rising sun, which symbolizes Christ’s rising from the dead and so also the direction of our hope for his return at the end of time. When the people and priest turn to the east to pray, they are addressing God in Christ as one body together. Sometimes, for example for blessings, the priest faces the people to address them ‘on behalf of God.’
Jesus would have been familiar with the use of incense in Temple worship. In the ancient world, when expecting an important guest into one’s home, people would purify the air by burning incense. Since we believe that Jesus Christ comes into our midst during the celebration of the Mass, we cense the altar, the ministers, and the whole congregation as a symbolic purification anticipating his arrival. The rising smoke, furthermore, is said to symbolize the rising up of our prayer. Lastly, we come to associate the smell of incense with the joy of worship, as we engage all of our senses in worship.
To worship is to listen for God. In our hurried times, patient listening is an art that we are in danger of forgetting. And an important part of the mission of our parish is a retrieval of the spiritual gifts of the church’s catholic past, to aid us in learning to listen again. From the late Middle Ages, composers have set the texts of the Mass to music to be sung by a choir. We are invited to meditate on the texts as the choir sings them. The beauty of this music often opens depths of meaning to us that the words alone cannot.