Page 10, 16th June 1978

16th June 1978
Page 10
Page 10, 16th June 1978 — Liturgy of theatrical splendour
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Liturgy of theatrical splendour

ONE of the wonders of Jerusalem is to attend the liturgy in the Cathedral of the Armenian Quarter in the Old City. It is of unashamed and theatrical splendour, and conducted by men of very moderate means.

The church, hidden within courtyards, is old and small and battered and tiled. But the Mass is a gorgeous and dramatic ritual in which, at the most sacred moments, a sort of theatre curtain is drawn across the front of the altar.

There is a choir, standing in the nave in cream-coloured cassocks, young and tough and looking rather dangerous, singing with a sort of raucous, throat-straining glory that has nothing to do with mellifluous plainsong.

Candies wink all over the place. The congregation is restless and devout and, somehow, tragic. It is a rare experience of religion in action and it commands respect.

I mention this Mass because the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all the Armenians. His holiness Vazken I, is in London visiting the 10,000strong Armenian community. Dr Coggan visited him in Soviet

Armenia during his recent trip to Russia.

The Armenians once had a splendid kingdom which straddled the present frontiers of Iran, Russia and Turkey. They were converted swiftly to Christianity by St Gregory the Illuminator. And he was new to me too.

He came from Caesaraza in Capadocia. He was kept in a pit for 14 years while on the mission in Armenia until he healed the king and became head of its Church. He died in a cave about the year 322, The Armenians very carefully cut themselves loose from all the other Christians at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. They declared for Monophysitism; that is to say they believe in the single nature of Christ and they excommunicated everyone else.

But their Church was so much a national institution and they were so marvellously, fiercely, confidently proud that they never joined up with other Monophysite Churches. They were fortunate in their Church. It is one of the chief reasons that they have kept a national identity in their diaspora.

The trouble is that their kingdom disappeared early and, like Poland, they were overrun again and again. The Turks feared and hated their longing

for national identity and in 1915 began one of the most appalling, cold-blooded and politically motivated massacres in history. As a result there are only about 100,000 Armenians left in Turkey.

They developed arts and architecture of their own. They have a considerable literature. Lord Byron admired their language but did not speak it. They have kept some of their national treasures, like an amber sceptre in Jerusalem and some precious illuminated books which suddenly appeared on the market a few years ago and had to be rather embarrassedly returned.

They put no water in the wine for their consecration. They use leavened bread on their altars. They wear Roman-style mitres and their priesthood seems to have more grades than the British nobility.

They have two churches in London, one of them lent by the Anglicans. And at major ecumenical occasions you can recognise them easily. Their bishops and priests are clad in voluminous black robes, usually carry staffs and wear on their heads silk cloths that can only be described as pixie hoods.

Their chief Patriarch now is a Soviet citizen and two-thirds of Armenians no longer live in Armenia there. His authority over the whole Church is largely nominal, He is elected by a rough and ready democratic process.

Like the Jews, they are a singularly gifted people and, like the Jews, the miracle about them is that they have survived. There are about four million of them in the world. There should be more.

I cannot think why more fuss has not been made of a man who represents so great and terrible a history. It must be at once a proud and unhappy thing to be an Armenian.

Literature in the porch

MOST churches have at least a rack at the back where you can buy suitable pamphlets. Generous priests provide a shelf or table • where you can buy the Catholic newspaper of your choice. Far be it from me to suggest which it should be!

In fact this selling and buying is a genuine part of the apostolate. A reasonably intelligent man is unlikely to remain a practising Christian unless he fertilises his faith from time to time with some reading, some reminder of its intelligence, its activity, its condition, its significance and its glory.

Our church is a small one and we make do with a few books and pamphlets. A large church like St Peter's in Winchester has a turnover of about 1400 a year and sometimes loses money on it. Nor do they sell every one of their Catholic papers.

People. I fear, tend to help themselves without paying, which is sad, but perhaps such people are the most in need of such reading and one likes to think of the churches slowly filling up with literate and repentant thieves.

A large, busy church with a manned and well-publicised bookstall can turn over as much as 15,000 a year and more. Westminster Cathedral has a genuine and excellent bookshop literally within its walls which is always fun to visit.

The other day I got in touch with the priestly sales manager of the Redemptorists at Chawton (Jane Austen's village) in Hampshire. They are highly professional about the whole thing and have made it an aspect of their vocation.

Pope Paul would heartily approve. After all it was he who instituted Mass Communications Sunday, or whatever it is called, Though I must confess that I have never seen it regarded with anything but faint hostility by the clergy and bewilderment by the laity.

It has not developed into a great annual popular festival culimating in the solern incensing of the CTS rack. Pity!

Anyway, Chawton is the place to go to for advice and for books. I asked what sold best. Of course there is the Collins Missal which is a rare masterpiece of printing and design. That has sold 93,000 copies, which seems surprisingly small.

Collins also produces the Fontana range, and if you don't know about these paperbacks you really are slipping,

1 was told that books and pamphlets of prayers and about how to pray now do best. A magazine-style publication called "Your Faith" has sold a quarter of a million. "Reflections" by Hugh Lavery and "Healing" by Francis McNutt, who are both priests, have gone like bombs — and bombs in England, as opposed to America, mean success.

They are just distributing — today, I think — "Pope Paul and the Spirit" by Edward O'Connor, which is a study of the Pope and the Charismatic Movement, and they think that will be a best seller.

Of course some families feel no need of books in their homes. And some people in the sacred name of inflation have altogether given up newspapers. Not altogether for selfish reasons, I find this sad and dangerous.

Even Carthusians, who are perhaps the most out-of-theworld among monks, take at least one newspaper which is read by the Prior and the Guest Master.

I was told this at their East Sussex house at Parkminster, and their light-hearted reason was that they had to know whether or not they were at war! Just as well. A casual bomb fell on them in the last war.

But as you treasure your Faith or feel it slipping idly away, I think you are bound to read about it. Those booksy corners in the porch are a fearful nuisance to maintain, and they are sometimes a liability. But they really are an essential part of the work of the Teaching Church.

which is as dreadful as "relevant" or "meaningful" or "involved" — one must not ignore the sermon.

I happened to hear a splendid sermon the other day. It was dramatic and low-keyed. The sentences were well turned without being showy. Gently and pleasantly, people listened.

It was about prayer, and the priest was making the same point that I made above about reading. Active prayer, of pure worship, of intercession for neighbours, of intercession for oneself, is absolutely essential. It is an almost startling conception to the outwardly dutiful Catholic.

But teaching is a devilishly difficult art form, and it has lost its confidence and accepted form just now. People no longer look forward to the sermon as the Georgians did, St John on Patmos got away with telling his children to love one another over and over again until led away by a deacon.

Bossuet would be quite intolerable now. Wesley would seem over-emotional and threatening. The Scots school, which led to a careful exegesis ending with "forty-fifthly and lastly ..." would empty even an island kirk.

Fr Vaughan's "Sins of Society" would be thought cheap Sunday paper stuff. The Ferverino is out. You cannot any longer turn out the lights in church and preach about Hell.

Yet there is no set nor recommended style for a sermon. Many bishops strongly object to sermons being read, though St Leo the Great, John Donne and Ronnie Knox all wrote theirs.

Of style, there is the exquisitely mannered sermon. I think I can remember the late Archbishop David Mathew' preaching at Oxford on Bishop Challoner. He began then: "Not for him the gilded cornucopia." It's the sort of lead that would rivet the attention of the most preoccupied housewife, and I don't see how I could have made it up.

Then there is the sermon that contains such concentrated thought and argument that you have to listen. A sermon by Fr D'Arcy was a sort of revelation, though extremely difficult to remember.

There is the sensible, unadorned, spiritually confident sermon of the wise old priest and the terrified sermon of the young one who is almost certain to go on too long. There is the nerve-wracking sermon by the man who has finished but does not know how to round it off.

There is the omnibus sermon which some use at Midnight Mass when the most unexpected Catholics come out of the woodwork and the priest tries to say everything.

There is the teaching sermon, difficult because you must encompass the educated and the children, but it is too seldom attempted. I once heard a splendid one on the Monophysites and my wife realised that, unconsciously, she had been one all her life. And the worst sermon I ever heard was delivered by a rough priest who was so patently good that one listened in awe.

And, of course, brevity is here the soul of eloquence. A good many years ago now, I told a visiting priest a black lie and said our sermons lasted about three minutes. And he preached for three minutes flat and it was a sour de force that no one has forgotten.

I know how difficult sermons are. I have preached some myself in Anglican churches and I no longer sit and think I could do that better — which at least is some form of spiritual advance.




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