Liturgy: Celebrants, not consumers

shaping the assembly

The coronavirus pandemic has seen a flurry of new activity in Catholic liturgy.

Clergy are streaming live coverage of themselves celebrating the Eucharist and inviting others to join in by watching.

As lockdown eases in some places, the latest desire is to have a system – similar to that used for social distancing in shops – so that people can “receive Communion”.

One group of clergy have gone so far as to issue rubrics on when the presider is to wear or not wear a face mask!

Meanwhile, many Catholics have expressed their sadness, now bordering on anger in some cases, that they cannot participate in liturgy.

Except that is not what they are saying: the form of their complaint is that if the church is closed they cannot have access to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

If they can only have streamed Mass, they cannot receive Holy Communion – and they want this because it is receiving the actual body of the Lord.

And, from their point of view, they are glad that there are many presbyters, and even a few bishops, who are supporting their demands to the civil authorities: they want the right to be able to go into their churches and do what they want.

They want churches in which to pray, so this demand should be fulfilled.

It seems no more standard Catholic practice. What could be more basic that “hearing Mass” and “receiving Communion”?

It also seems to be a matter of civil rights. They see themselves as being deprived, indeed oppressed. Is not freedom of worship mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

What’s not to like?

Other Catholics, clerical and lay, are less bothered by not be able to be physically present at the liturgy.

After all, one can hear all the words, listen to the readings, hear the sermon, hear the priest saying the Eucharistic Prayer and see what he does (sometimes even more clearly than in the church)… So what’s not to like?

It is true that one cannot receive actual communion, but there is “spiritual communion” that provides one with grace even if the wafer is not eaten. Isn’t the end result the same?

Some say they listen more carefully sitting in their own living rooms than when they’re in the distracting building. In privacy in front of the computer or TV, one can be quiet, private and prayerful. Did not Jesus recommend as much?

You see, you hear and you learn, all that is to be learned!

“The worship mall”

Moreover, most Catholics – though they do not admit it in the way members of other Christian denominations do – have the attitude that American liturgist Bryan Spinks calls “the worship mall”: you pick the kind of worship you like.

I hear of people “shopping around” – note the phrase – “on the web” for the Mass they like best. One person I know goes on a web search every morning and samples “streamed Masses” until she finds one she fancies, and it adds spice to life to find another the next day.

Some have found “very good Masses” that just suit them. There is a priest in Ireland who has long had a local reputation for a “quick Mass” and for one-liner sermons on Sundays.

Barely 11 minutes most days and he makes a point of no Old Testament readings! If you like your religion fast and without frills, now that there’s web access, he’s your man!

Many people have become very discerning liturgical customers. Before the lockdown, when they were going to the nearby church, they never realized one could have so many tailored variations!

The web is an individualist’s utopia!

Catholics of the same place or parish now have a choice. Each can go to his or her own space, even simultaneously, choosing the streamed Mass each one wants.

No need to argue here about whether or not there should be badly sung Latin chant or drippy 1970s folk hymns! There is an armistice in the liturgical culture war.

Chacun à son goût. Or, perhaps, de gustibus non disputandum est. Your choice!

New rituals

When one says in a secular context that human beings construct their universe through shared rituals, many sneer and think that is just a theologian trying to smuggle religion back into the public space.

Yes, people used to have rituals, but that was in an older world of pomp and circumstance, now we just “cut to the chase”!

But the virus has seen rituals re-emerge within lockdown. Here in Britain most of us go outside every Thursday at 8 pm and clap our hands as an expression of thanks to our medical workers – I hope for those in care homes also – who are on the front line in coping with the virus.

It seemed to me a bit corny when I heard of it happening in Spanish cities – but now it has spread, literally, to my front door.

The TV channels announce that the common moment is approaching and cover it with scenes from around the country, firemen in one place, a street scene somewhere else, and outside my neighbours have improvised drums from saucepans and wooden spoons.

We are together – but correctly distanced – and we are acting spontaneously, expressing thanks and interdependence. We are being joyful in a vale of tears and expressing that we are a community, not just loners.

It is an attempt – as we say – “to give something back”.

Ritual is conveying that which we could not otherwise convey. It is expressing our situation and we are going out of ourselves to be a thankful community.

There are umpteen little rituals like this that are emerging.

Just take the farewell: “stay safe!” It is a cross between the Gaelic word for “goodbye” which is slán leat(literally: may health be with you’) and the Latin vale (may things go well for you).

It expresses not just “that’s over” (as in “bye bye now”), but says that I am concerned for you in this time and I not only hope you will be well, but want us both to do all that we need to do to maintain that state.

It is a social pleasantry, a wish, but also an instruction about action. It is a ritual boundary marker more similar to the old “Let us move forward in peace” (Procedamus in pace) than to the banal “Cheerio! See ye!” we would have used several weeks ago.


We live in a world of transactions. I do something for you; and you, in return, do something for me. It is the very nature of all commerce. I have something you want, and vice versa, so we exchange to suit our needs and desires.

We should not criticize this process. This is what has built our world. It creates links and fosters peaceful co-operation.

It can, of course, get out of hand when someone corners the market and abuses fair-trading.

People cashing in on the sale of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) or using medical kit as political leverage during this crisis are examples of the transactional nature of human life running amok. But we try to spot robber barons and control them.

However, the transactional nature of our lives – which is the rationale underpinning every shop and every wage packet – can get out of kilter in other ways.

An obvious one is consumerism: I am only alive to the extent that I consume. I am what I buy.

Now the ability to trade becomes an obsession. I reduce everything to its ability to satisfy my needs and “devil take the hindmost” so long as my wants, desires, “needs” (i.e. not what I need such as food, shelter, relationships but “what I really, really want”) are satisfied.

I am the center of the world; it flows into me and is only recognized insofar as it suits me. And so long as you have the money flowing in the opposite direction, there are many out there who want to confirm you in your consumerism (for exorbitant prices, of course).

One giant “free meal”

But there is another danger of transactionalism that can only be understood by those who belong to the great monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and believe that the Creator freely chooses to create and so the whole universe is a divine gift.

It is one giant “free meal” that contradicts the transactional wisdom of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”!

Knowing this – that God is generosity and love – we discover two recurring human errors.

The first is that we think that transactions are all that there is in the universe – this is the theory of the selfish gene. We seek to explain everything in terms of exchanging needs/assets.

For example, love is just an illusion that dresses up a trade-off in romantic terms. No human being is capable of pure “gift love” – to use a beautiful term coined by C.S. Lewis – because only God is without needs.

We humans also know that there is a profound difference between genuine human love and someone who only performing a job.

One has just to look at that kind of love that makes someone who is poorly paid go on caring right now in a care home – and one sees that love is more than trading.

Extracting what I want

But there is a second error we continually fall into as monotheists. We imagine the relationship with God in terms of transactions.

This was fine in the polytheism of the Roman Empire where it was summed up in three words: do ut des. We could render it thusly: “I give to you, some god or other praise and sacrifice so that you give me what I want.”

Sadly, the attitude was carried on into Christianity. The result was to “get Masses said” for particular needs and to make vows in order to obtain something!

Transactionalism not only perverts the Christian vision of the God of infinite generosity – love itself – into a stingy Supreme Overlord from whom we try to extract favours, it destroys our relationship with God.

It is no longer love and praise, in union with the whole people to whom I belong. Rather, it is extracting what I want. And, as befits a transaction, I want the best value going. I want the most for the least cost.

The current crisis has brought us, on the one hand, a very genuine liturgy of a community celebrating thankfulness together. One could say that we are being Eucharistic towards health workers.

But, on the other hand, it has brought us a lot of transactionalism: “I want to receive communion”; “I want my time before a tabernacle”; or “I want my kind of liturgy.”

Two visions: consumers or celebrants?

We see the ritual of liturgy being streamed and we see the ritual on our doorsteps: which is more in line with, and more prophetic of our vision of the universe?

The coronavirus crisis has brought before us many who think liturgy is a matter of what the rubrics allow or what is “permissible”. It has also brought out many people imagining that liturgy is something you get, or which clerics provide.

Perhaps this was inevitable. We have a long history of treating God as “the man upstairs” whose favour we try to corner, or as the policeman who checks off that we have done what he told us to do.

Moreover, much of our popular piety, inherited from a time when the piety of ordinary people rarely touched the official liturgy of the clerics, is deeply transactional and individualistic – and the crisis has made this visible.

And, of course, we know what we like. And we often demand what we like without asking any deeper questions.

But think about that woman who told me – just last Sunday – that she liked “shopping around for Mass”. I suspect it reveals a deeper theological confusion than when she surfs between Amazon and Book Depository to see which has the best deal on a book!

In liturgy we are not consumers, but celebrants. Yes: each of us is a celebrant and not just the cleric who is leading the gathering.

It is we – as a people, not just a bunch of individuals – who are celebrating God’s love.

Think again of the Thursday night ritual. We are all celebrating, we are all celebrants. We are certainly not out there, with our saucepans and wooden spoons, as consumers.

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , ,