THE UNHAPPY DISPUTE between the Bishop of Leeds and parishioners of St Michael's, Nottingley, over the question of where the Blessed Sacrament should most fittingly be reserved, has revealed an ambiguity in the Church's statutory guidance.
The 1969 General Instruction on the Roman Missal recommends the tabernacle be placed in a side chapel, "unless local custom provides otherwise." Mgr Anthony Boylan, the bishop's representative in liturgical questions, argues that "in the matter of the design of a church building the Church is asking us all to make a major shift in our thinking. We must all try to understand that a church is built primarily for the celebration the Eucharist. It is not, as many Catholics still think, primarily a temple for the Blessed Sacrament".
The difficulty is that the status of the Instruction in this matter is by no means clear. Paragraph 276 states that it is recommended (not legally required) that the tabernacle he placed in a chapel (sacellum) as long as it is suitably designed, accords with the structure of the church and is not contrary to the local custom. In most dioceses in England and Wales there has been little controversy. The diocesan administration of Leeds, however, sincerely believes that separating the tabernacle from the altar is a matter of liturgical law.
If this is indeed the case, there can be no dispute. The difficulty is that theological authorities differ widely in the matter; even more tellingly, so does diocesan practice. What is "local custom"? The Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that the tabernacle "be situated in a most wortby,ptace with,t4 greatest himour" (COO 1183). What does that mean?
The major problem of perception involved in removing the sacrament from the Church's principal altar, as the distinguished theologian Dr Sheridan Gilley explains, is that "it actually secularises the body of the Church by seeming to confine the presence of the Blessed Sacrament to a side-chapel". Nevertheless, he stated this week, "there's a genuine ambiguity" over where the tabernacle should ideally be placed.
This ambiguity must now be resolved: Rome must now speak. The abiding presence of the risen Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar is too important a matter to be left clouded in ambiguity and mired in unworthy controversies.