by Douglas Brown
,AST Sunday morning the B.B.C. televised what the Radio Times had announced as "Eucharist from the Chaplaincy Centre of the University of Lancaster," Since the three chaplains who took part were respectively Catholic, Anglican and Free Church. the service must have been the most boldly ecumenical occasion ever witnessed by viewers throughout the country.
It was nothing less than the Lord's Supper being celebrated in the same building, and under one direction, by representatives of all the major Christian traditions in England.
The chaplaincy centre at Lancaster is architecturally ingenious. it is a church with two simple chapels, each containing an altar. One altar is Roman Catholic, the other not. The central space between the chapels contains the pulpit, and is designed for worship in common
On Sunday the service began in this central space, taking, after some introductory words by the Anglican chaplain, very much the form of what we Catholics now refer to as the Liturgy of the Word. Two students and a professor. each representing a different denomination, gave the three readings, and the Catholic priest, Father John Turner, in his capacity as senior chaplain,
preached an admirable ecumenical sermon.
Then at the Offertory the congregation separated, the Catholics approaching their own altar and the rest the other. Father Turner proceeded with the Roman Mass according to one of the new Canons, while the Revs. Paul Warren (Anglican) and Donald Parsons (Methodist) con
celebrated, if that be the right term. under the "alternative form" of Holy Communion now permitted in the Church of England.
Finally, after each member of the now divided congregation had communicated, he slipped back to his former place in the central concourse. When all were thus reunited, the three ministers walked solemnly to the middle and offered each other the kiss, or rather handshake, of peace. After a hymn the Methodist minister said a word or two, and the three together gave the blessing.
Such a service could hardly
fail to move any Christian conscious of the rents that men have made in the Seamless Robe of their Master. To see so many earnest young men and women present, and to listen to their splendid singing, provided a forceful and salutary reminder of those truths which they unitedly hold.
All the same, there was a slightly disturbing element of dare-devilry about the occasion. A Catholic would be aware that the Bishop of Lancaster, in authorising Father Turner to take part in it, had strained the new ecumenical rules to the utmost, while an Anglican would have to admit that Mr. Warren, in sharing an altar with a clergyman not episcopally ordained, was jumping a gun which the General Synod of the Church of England had not yet fired off.
There was thus a certain tension in the air, and the elaborate inter-denominational courtesy, sincere as it no doubt was, made it seem as if each officiating minister was walking on tiptoe, lest he should tread on the corns of the flocks that were not his own.
in spite of this, I have no doubt whatsoever that, within the closed society of a lay university, a Christian experiment like this is eminently worth while. My doubts arise when it is presented to a wider audience as a purposeful demonstration of the underlying unity of those who profess and call themselves Christians.
Visually, the two most dramatic moments of the service — the hiving off of the congregation to their respective altars and the somewhat embarrassed handclasp of the three ministers at the end (each trying to double the parts of the Prodigal Son and his forgiving father) — were much more symbolic of division than of unity.
Yet during the sacramental part of the ceremony, as the camera panned back and forth from one altar to another, much the same acts seemed to be taking place on both. and it would have needed a very Quick theological ear to detect from the snatches of words caught by the microphone any difference of intention between the officiants. All this, one fears, must have left the great viewing public more puzzled than edified.
A pagan neighbour of mine — not a scoffer, but an earnest
seeker after truth — happened to view that same programme. On him. at least, its effect was disastrous.
"What an odd lot you Christians are!" he said to me later over a pre-lunch drink. "The theme of that service was love. and love centred on a divine event that finds its highest expression in this world in the eucharist. All three gentlemen were very clear about this
"Yet when they presented me with two different eucharists their argument collapsed completely so far as I was concerned. It was snore absurd than Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. It was Hamlet with two Princes of Denmark."
If my friend were to visit the University of Lancaster he might eventually conclude that the readiness of young people there of differing theological views to meet together occasionally under the sign of the breaking of bread helps to mark them out from others as followers of Christ.
But he would have to live among them to be sure of this. At the moment, by courtesy of the Religious Affairs Department of the B.B.C. he only has a vision of empty chairs in the middle of a church, and worshippers, at the supreme moment, turning their backs on one another.