Them and Us

I like Americans. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of that fact and would probably be indifferent if they did. However, I am very conscious that, although we speak the same language (more or less), our ‘thought worlds’ are different. A politician’s ability to speak French marks him out as one of a privileged elite in the States; here an inability to do so marks him out as a bit of a liability. We value what’s left of our welfare state, believing that everyone should have access to healthcare and education irrespective of an individual’s ability to pay for it; in the States that’s often condemned as creating an ‘entitlement culture’ at odds with the pioneering spirit of self-help and advancement. As with Americans, so with some of our nearer neighbours. The Scots member of the community has often interpreted for me ‘what is really being said’ in some of the more surprising statements about Scottish independence.

We have the same problem with liturgy, except that it’s worse because we are handed a text which needs the mediation of a human voice to disclose its meaning, and every voice interprets. I was thinking about this at Mass yesterday, when a different priest celebrated Mass here in Hendred. The words and gestures were ostensibly the same, but a completely different kind of celebration took place because the priest gave them a slightly different emphasis. Sometimes liturgical ‘discussions’ end in an unholy row, with all participants claiming that theirs is the ‘right’ (=only admissible) way of saying/doing anything. The world is divided into them and us, with us the good guys and them the baddies. I doubt if it is so simple. Perhaps we need to think harder about the meaning of the words before we assume that we know what is being said.


14 thoughts on “Them and Us”

  1. There is real truth in those words, particularly when different Priests take services. I tend to get more through a slower, more reflective style, than one, where the words seem rushed. As if the celebrant is in a hurry. They seem to lose a sense of reverence and interpreting their meaning in mind and heart, seems harder.

    I went to a Mass at Aylesford Priory last week, the first time I’d been to a Catholic service, where the New Missal was in use. Confusion resulted, although the outcome was the same. A worship experience which provided a sign for me at least on my vocation journey.

    I’ve become much more familiar with the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship, where little changes although Common Worship can sometimes be an adventure with the use of alternative liturgies authorised in different services. I suspect that sometimes we need change and adventure in liturgy to be alongside our settled pattern. After all, it’s all about our sharing in worship that glorifies God.

  2. See where you wrote the words and the gestures were the same? That, in the UK, is something one can never take for granted as a lay Catholic. You never know what you’re going to get when you walk into a parish not your own. I didn’t know what to expect in one parish that was my own, and in the other I stuck carefully to the early Mass on Sunday because that was the only one where one knew what to expect. (On weekdays priests seem less enthusiastic about making things up, though even then there have been some horrible surprises).

    Also, having spent a year in one enclosed monastery and a month in another, I found there are things that didn’t bother me in the celebration of Mass there that are very grating “in the world”. Messy secular life (I know religious life isn’t all swanning about being serene) leaves one gasping sometimes by the time one gets to Mass. Perhaps more organised people with a better habit of prayer don’t find this. I am lucky living where I do, that in every parish the words and gestures will be the same. But in the UK, it was a nightmare.

  3. I think that if God had wanted us all to interpret words, or anything else, exactly the same way, he might have created us all as clones with the same thoughts and thought processes.

    That he created us all as individuals, each with unique thoughts and ideas both an example of his infinate creativeness, and an expression of his love for us by giving ust the ability to learn from differences.

  4. Thank you for your comments. I’m always fascinated to see which elements of a post readers will pick up on, and to my delight, you’ve each chosen a different one. That is what makes blogging so interesting.

  5. The way liturgy is conducted means a lot to me. I encounter quite a variety of liturgy as I lead services on the Methodist circuit, and occasionally in a URC church, as well as is my own Anglican environment.
    A change of parish priest/ minister always brings a change of liturgical style, which is often hard to cope with. As I get older (!) I find myself irritated more and more by worship leaders who can’t leave the set liturgy to speak for itself, but must keep adding bits in and explaining everything. Sometimes it leaves me with the feeling that we’re being viewed as a class of children, rather than a worshipping community. Periods of silence, when you can just rest in worship are also important.
    Of course, sometimes you need explanation and guidance, especially if you have lots of people who are new to the church or to worship, but you also need to leave people space to interpret the liturgy in the way that makes sense to them.

    End of rant! 🙂

  6. Your observation about the difference of attitude towards politicians who would speak French caught my attention. Here in the US, you are correct, it a politician made a point of being able to speak a second language, they would be seen as “elite”, and right now we have a large segment of the population who label anyone who is educated beyond the basic BA/BS level as elitist and out of touch with “real Americans” I find that to be a scary idea. My parents generation, who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in WWII worked hard to make sure their children could go to college and not have to work at manual labour the way they did. And now, in some circles, that is seen as a bad thing.

  7. It is curious that those who most reject left wing politics in America are the very ones who would gain the most from such politics. However the notion that ‘in the States that’s often condemned as creating an ‘entitlement culture’ at odds with the pioneering spirit of self-help and advancement.’ Is a little simplistic and even naive – a great deal of self-interest also comes into play and it plays into the hands of a certain flavour of politician and their supporters to portray government help or fair access to services as ‘evil’.

    I was invited to some doleful event at Parliament in November of last year: ‘Is the church addicted to the welfare state?’ There were several speakers there that pushed the idea that the welfare state promoted immorality. During the bun-fight (or more truthfully wine and nibbles) that followed, I chatted with several priests and the like (all Anglican) and they appeared to concur with the Right of Centre speakers – one or two telling me of how in their parishes they had come across teenagers who had purposefully got themselves pregnant so that they could gain a council flat… I smiled at these stories, I was there, after all, in my academic capacity, and so didn’t let on that for many years I had worked as a social worker and know research and my own experience tell me that although I there are those who have got pregnant in the hope of gaining a council flat, these cases are far less common than the tabloids suggest. I was rather shocked that the speakers and the priests see the welfare state as something ‘others’ use – when we all benefit from the welfare state and many have at one time or another been heavily reliant on its services (health care, education and subsidised arts being the ones most consumed by the middle-classes). I thought it even odder that ‘the welfare state’ was seen as the cause of ‘immorality’ in our society in the shape of teen pregnancy, high divorce rates and high levels of single parent families when a little comparative study reveals this syllogism, motivated (I’m sure) by self-interest, just doesn’t work! The inference was low religiosity and a welfare state breed ‘immorality’ – however the USA has far higher levels of church attendance and a weak welfare state, yet also leads the western world when it comes to single parent families, teen pregnancy and divorce… (not to mention violent crime, murder and social inequality). Whereas many of our European neighbouring liberal, secular democracies, have comprehensive welfare states and low rates of teen pregnancy, divorce and single parent families. Clearly these Right Wing speakers were getting rather muddled with their cause and effect, yet their words were eagerly soaked up by some in that Parliamentary Committee Room! And alas, it seems that Christianity is shifting to the Right and its associated need to blame others for what it is failing to do itself.

    To turn to your second point, monastic choirs are often a microcosm of the world – to the untrained ear, the office rings out around the chapel and guests believe they are partaking in the pervasive peace of the monastic life. Whereas those within the choir stalls are aware of the tensions that the discipline of monastic chant readily reveals. The office is, as Benedict tell us, the work of God and it is hard work. Brother So and So will keep stressing syllables he ought not to stress; while Sister Such and Such takes delight in singing louder than her neighbours. A friend of mine, who is the superior of a men’s monastic community, wrote to me a few weeks ago and happened to mention how even the bishop had noticed that such and such a brother is too self-expressive when he is the officient at sext and none. Alas it is part of human nature to believe we, as individuals are right and our neighbours are wrong. It is even sadder that religion in particular is the arena where these differences are most heightened and most destructive. We share much in common with our neighbours, but instead dwell on what makes us different – a clear example of pride! How we overcome this problem is hard to say – humility is of course a start, but learning from and about each other seems the best way forward too…


  8. Peter, I agree that Rick Santorum’s condemnation of Europe’s ‘entitlement culture’ (his words not mine) could be seen as simplistic, and I have a long enough experience of monastic choirs to be able to add several more instances to your observations, but isn’t the point that communicating meaning relies on at least two people managing to be, however briefly and ineptly, on the same wave-length; and being on the same wave-length requires some careful listening?

  9. I don’t always think it is possible to ‘get on the wave length’ as someone else, but I do think it is possible to try and see things from someone else’s angle; or understand another’s circumstances – ‘to understand all is to forgive all’, being the best example of this school of thought. And sometimes we just have to be humble… I have found some of the greatest mistakes I have made in diplomacy have been inspired by religious fervour… There is a curious irony whereby deeply held religious conviction is also the green light to arrogance and conceit.

  10. HA HA! One of the problems with humility is that it cannot be owned for one’s own gratification… A priest friend of mine (tho’ we’ve been friends long before he was priested!) once told me that he is now possesses the humility to pick up loose change, dropped in the street, rather than being too proud to walk past it. I remarked that it was good he could take pride in his humility! I don’t think he realised I was being factitious! And that is the problem with humility, when we are being truly humble, we don’t know we are being humble!

    Re: saying the same thing, different language – in the contemplative community where I was a novice for several years, the community used to hold a local religious community dialogue. This was where other communities from the county (all Christian, but from several traditions) met together, partly to support each other, partly to understand each other and partly just to socialise with people ‘on the same wave length’. A frequent byline to many of the discussions was ‘we’re saying the same thing, but using different language…’.

    In fact the sad thing about much inter-faith conflict is that in reality even those of different religions have far more in common with each other than they have differences. The similarities between Orthodox Judaism and conservative Islam, are more numerous than the differences. Just as conservative Evangelicals have much in common with conservative Catholics, Jews and Muslims and vice versa. Yet ‘difference’ is so important to many that it is the cause of war and violence. The real issue is when we confuse truth with pride of self, ‘love of truth’ with hatred of others and self interest with vocation!

    ‘We must be for ourselves in the long run… The mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering…’ (from Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’)

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