by JOHN O'KEEFFE
NURTURED like so many of the Catholic generation born in the mid thirties on the Garden of the Soul, piety, the Rosary, the good old Douai version of the Bible and the blessed murmur of the Latin Mass, the thought of my first foray into a folk Mass left me with mixed feelings.
It conjured up visions of with-it clerical sycophancy that confuses the Almighty with the All Matey, the blatant vulgarities which the electric guitar performs as no other instrument can and gimmicry substituted for liturgical traditions which with all their faults succeeded in lifting the hearts and minds of us and our forefathers to the things of God.
The fact that hundreds come every Sunday to the folk Mass at St. Aidan's, Coulsdon, Surrey, certainly indicated it was popular. Yet a sympathetic critic priest described the famous 11 o'clock Sunday Mass generally presided over by Fr. Kenneth Allen, the parish priest, as a "pop Mass." Another critic, not benevolent, hinted darkly at "parody."
In fact, the work of the Coulsdon parish under its priest's guidance is already famous and any such negative thoughts as I had evaporated almost as soon as the Mass began. Even before this the atmosphere on entering the church was reassuring, something of a change from the fussy mausoleum. railway station air of impersonality that clings to most of our churches where we gather as an ostensibly celebratory community.
First, there was no command performance for the benefit of a visiting journalist the existence of whom all but a handful of the congregation were blissfully unaware. Yet there was a busy air about the church betokening expectation, not mere excitement.
The resonant twang of the electric guitars in the final rehearsal in the choir loft was soft and not intrusive as the church began to fill rapidly with a predominantly youngish congregation. "You'd better reserve yourself a seat at the front," said Fr. Alien.
The choir was composed of teenagers and those in their early twenties. Long-haired youths and mini-skirted girls predominated. The choirmaster, Steve Church, red haired and red bearded in the casual attire favoured by his age group—he's 22—was put• ting the finishing touches to the rehearsal. He is a practising Anglican who now attends St. Aidan's pretty regularly with the wholehearted approval of his vicar.
At 11 o'clock the tall figure of Fr. Allen, preceded by a procession of some 20 altar servers, entered the church as the near capacity congregation ably supported by the choir sang a hymn composed by Steve Church called ""1he Invisible Man."
The title may be a mite unfortunate, reminiscent of an H. G. Wells fantasy. but the tune was catchy and dignified and its message exactly the same as Francis Thompson's "Hound of Heaven" singing of the Love of Christ which will not let us go and saying: "I only burn when I'm not inside."
Fr. Allen's sermon was brief, chatty without being patronising, but dispassionate and factual. The main part of his address was devoted to the Wood Hall Conference of priests. He outlined the problems of the ministry and the form the conference would take, asking the prayers of the congregation for its success.
He announced that there were extra copies of a magazine carrying an interview with the controversial Cardinal Suenens. He announced two talks devoted to the still evergreen 64,000 dollar question, that of Catholic schools.
The first would be by a speaker who would defend the advantages of separate denominational schools and a week later there would be another speaker raising pertinent questions that should be asked on how advantageous they were to the Catholic community.
He knew the World Cup was on television, and he had no intention of threatening congregation members, but if they did not come and decisions concerning schools were made in the absence of those who failed to turn up, they should not be surprised.
The Offertory was accom• panied by a simple, moving Negro spiritual called "Kumbay-ya," its repetitive theme being built up to a nicely gauged crescendo by the guitars and the choir, and a moving experience it was. The common hymns were also modish, catchy and to the point.
Several hymns were necessary as the vast majority of the congregation went to Communion, distributed by three priests. The hymns were "Answer Me the Mystery" and "The Sound of Silence."
It was at this Mass that I saw one of the thorniest of innovations, as far as an
Anglo-Saxon culture is concerned anyway. carried off reasonably well—the kiss of peace. At St. Aidan's it started with Fr. Allen shaking hands with the altar servers and then spread out through the congregation.
It was not universally carried out by any means; many are still hesitant. "Come back and see it in a year's time," said Steve Church after the Mass. Two delightful children on either side of me had no qualms and shook hands with me with the relaxed aplomb as only the very young can.
The Mass drew to its close, and as Fr. Allen and the procession of altar servers left the sanctuary, choir and congregation raised the roof singing: "We Shall Overcome." We then adjourned to the parish hall where refreshments were available, including a bar.
The to-ing and fro-ing and general hubbub in the church hall contrasted favourably with some of the tatty church clubs which have attempted to build community via generally sub-standard club facilities without sufficient attention to the liturgy which in theory at least unites the members of the local church one to another.
The present form of folk Mass has been evolving over two years. It started some four years ago with its roots in the Gelineau psalms. Fr. Allen explained that when it came to trying to incorporate attitudes to contemporary problems such as race, poverty, etc., he found that the Westminster Hymnal as well as Hymns Ancient and Modern were inadequate. Gradually the folk sound of the sixties and seventies became the norm for that Mass.
Even so he has eschewed the spiritual fascism to which some of the avant garde clergy are as prone as the backwoodsmen of imposing one sort of liturgy on the whole parish. The nine o'clock Mass, although missa normativa is accompanied by many of the classic Latin hymns.
Fr. Allen (25 years a priest this year and he doesn't propose to celebrate it) admits the folk Mess is not everyone's cup of tea although he knows of only a small handful who have left his church for neigh• bouring parishes. "I am pleased that they can enjoy this freedom," he says.
Steve Church's approach, although low key, is exacting. He will not audition volunteers because he thinks this makes them nervous. He fits them into the choir and then gently dispenses with their services should they not prove suitable.
To sum up, the Coulsdon folk Mass is as reverent as any and compared with many lifeless renderings of the Mass in the average parish, more reverent than most. It is not gimmicky and the pulpit approach is an obvious attempt to get the parish to do things to elhcr.
After coming away from St. Aidan's I was not conscious of loving the Tridentine Mass less or many of the old practices such as Benediction which have largely gone to the wall. To those who, like so many of us, are still floundering a ith the liturgical changes and hankering for the preConciliar halcyon days, I say. take a trip to St. Aidan's or another of the all too few parishes like it; it will do your heart good. I suspect the soul will benefit. too.