Mass for the City, St. Peters Eastern Hill, Melbourne
contemporary contemplative Eucharist / 2015
Thursday August 27, 2015
(Followed by: Thursdays Sept. 3 and 17)
Background: I had been to a service at St. Peter’s on a previous Thursday night, which was called Mass for the City. It was, however, also the Feast of the Transfiguration and was an extremely elaborate “high” Anglican Mass, with three priests and Bishop in attendance, a seemingly memorized musical liturgy, clouds of incense, and great spatial separation between all categories of participants as the sparsely seated congregation faced forward on hard wooden pews. So, I returned to St. Peter’s for another “Mass for the City”, hoping to find a contrast between an archaic high Anglicanism and the evangelical liturgy I had seen the week before in Bendigo. I was in for a surprise.
Experimental liturgy: The Mass for the City, it turns out, is an intimate, experimental liturgy designed to counteract the off-putting nature of the usual service held in St. Peters on Sundays. It is the brainchild of Fr. Richard Wilson, who is an Assistant Priest at St Peters, and who has a deep interest in contemplative practice, especially from the Benedictine tradition. I spoke with him several times, and returned to this service twice after the initial visit. One of the first things Richard explained is that most Anglicans would not even recognize the Sunday service at St Peters as it is currently enacted. It is essentially a “museum” preserving a very antiquated form, which is excruciatingly non-inclusive in numerous ways. So, he started an alternative on Thursday evenings. The practice is in its infancy; sometimes no-one shows up. He said he would prefer not to wear vestments, except that people might not even know that a worship service was happening, without a visible priest in attendance. There is no music. But yet the experience is very full. Here are some of my experiences:
Entrance and invitation:
I walked into the church 15 minutes before the scheduled 6 PM start of Mass for the City, Thursday evening. It was sunset outside with a high level of traffic noise, booming rush-hour swirling about in the Melbourne CBD. The church was cold and slightly alienating, restrooms closed and barred over, the interior completely empty with a deeply ingrained lingering smell of incense. It is a cavernous church with few comforts, tightly grouped forward facing hard wooden pews, and many decorative icon-style paintings indicating a love perhaps for the old ways. It is not a place of light-celebrating windows. My footsteps echoed on the stone floor. I walked toward the altar, and someone greeted me from a tiny side chapel. It was the priest, Richard Wilson, who then invited me into the tiny chapel, and in a very friendly manner introduced me to his project called Mass for the City. He explained that this gathering is intended as a blessing for all those who work in the city and also to be a refuge and inclusive of people who might need a spiritual break at the end of their hectic day. He went on to say how the high mass that is normally conducted in St. Peter’s would be unrecognizable even to most Anglicans, and that he wanted to start a more stripped down, contemplative practice. He and the very few others participating are interested in the Benedictine practice and are following some of those principles in their liturgy and extended missional works, which include work in East Timor, and plans for walking pilgrimages. He explained that the Gospel will be shared among the participants, and that he has reduced the mass down to its absolute minimum, allowing space for reflection and personal prayer. While he talked, the sunset and the church became darker. He explained that frequently he has held the mass all alone with no one in attendance, and that doesn’t bother him because he expects this new liturgy to take five or more years to develop. I felt welcomed and was put at ease by the one-to-one conversation and his care in explaining and inviting me into the practice.
Space, sound, text:
The small chapel is bare and whitewashed. It has a kind of echoing resonance due to the ceiling being higher than the walls are long. There are bright, contemporary, small stained-glass windows set high in the wall. The sacramental table is practically bare except for a single cross lying on the surface, and one candle in a brass candlestick. The table has a simple white cloth on it. There is seating for about six people, simple ordinary padded chairs. The chairs are in a tight semicircle, with the table finishing the circle. Fr. Richard explains that he would not ordinarily wear a robe except that someone needs to preside. He explains that if there are enough people, he will not even read the Gospel, but rather share it around. There is audible clatter of evening tram noise and traffic coming from right outside the wall of the chapel. One more person walks in and introduces himself. It is Krystian Seibert, an economist who works in philanthropy; we will be three in this service tonight. There is a nicely designed, simple printed prayer sheet to map out the service. The three of us sit in meditation for some time. The gathering and greeting is much distilled though recognizable in Anglican structure. Krystian and I answer in call and response with Richard leading. Voices are quiet and conversational. I feel a kind of attentiveness - in contrast to the feeling of sitting in the pews - this is the feeling of being a co-creator of what is unfolding. The printed material created by Richard is typeset in elegant sans serif font with plenty of white space creating the same kind of reading environment that we are experiencing in the room. There are no Old Testament readings; instead, they go directly to the Gospel: this is the most unusual part of the service. From prior Anglican experience, I am used to the gospel as centerpiece in the service being read by the most “qualified” person in the room (an ordained priest) while everyone else listens. Here, by contrast, the gospel is equally weighted with silence, and is said in turn by the three of us. There is no sermon. Instead, we reflect inwardly around the gospel readings and for an extended period after the gospel. The Bible is shared and passed hand to hand. During the gospel “silences” I hear a kind of phantom hymn – (strange but true) - something that is buried in the traffic sounds outdoors and also emanating from our readings. I realize how chaotic the act of reading actually is: I only truly “hear” fragments of the gospel at any one time, even if I am the one reading. This is a revelation. And to understand is even more fragmentary than to hear. It is a kind of gift of this barren yet deep liturgy. The gospel, un-interpreted is a deep Mystery that is at times rough and uneven territory. I reflect on its texture in my mind. Prayers for the People are said with a distinct slant toward the welfare of the city and toward the human condition outside of the city. It is implied that we, all three of us, will speak spontaneous prayers, which we do. I surprised myself – I think I was unsettled by the roughness of the Gospel text – and found myself expressing gratitude that we are hearing tram noise outside our walls rather than gunfire. We exchange the peace in a very quiet formal manner and the table is prepared. It is a minimal preparation minus many of the passages normally spoken in the Eucharist, however it is the fullest part of this particular liturgy. I liked the phrase “because your son broke bread with those whom others scorned and when the multitude were hungry he fed them abundantly”. We close with a post-Communion prayer: to a troubled world, peace from Christ. To a searching world, love from Christ. To a waiting world, hope from Christ.
Reflection: Spiritually, this was a profound experience for me. Simplicity and intimacy came together with a kind of easy seriousness, that allowed me to both shed the buzz of my day and also focus inward and outward. The silence, which I felt as “negative space” or a “presence of an absence” (space and sound – the city itself – fulfilling the expectation of music and choral response) framed the recitations and readings. The city spoke in various ways during my three visits; one day there was loud shouting outside, another day rain, and always the loud clatter of trams. It was only a 30 minute liturgy but it carried great potential for meaning. The gathering of three was small, dignified, and welcoming. It was somewhat intellectually framed and adult oriented, but I can imagine that eventually a variety of age groups will be there. I can’t see a 6 pm time slot being terribly child-friendly, though. This small group are also interested in doing contemplative walks and pilgrimages, reading from the medieval mystics, doing serious missional work overseas and in Melbourne, and reading contemporary devotional texts together -one Japanese text was discussed. If there was anything confronting about this experience, it was my initial entry into the very large cavernous church space and having to make my way back to find the more intimate chapel. I was very aware of layers of space and sound: the booming city-space, surrounding a church-space, a capsule of stillness and decorative symbolism, containing a chapel-space, enclosing (and opening!) an interpersonal-space – the “we” – and pointing to an interior mind-heart space: Word, reflection, one’s own body, sitting with others. There was also a feeling of heightened responsibility and engagement once I knew I would have a role in the liturgy. I can see where Fr. Richard is going with this - he’s looking for a more participatory Christianity. This work seems in line with what liturgical theologian Stephen Burns describes as an ecumenical movement to embrace Benedictine and Orthodox influences. Thursday night is a difficult time and I am particularly impressed with Richard’s dedication to this idea right at “peak hour” of the day. I will return, when I can.
A few questions: On participation - The gender and economic profile of this tiny gathering seems at the moment to be skewed toward male, professional, intellectual class. How could this practice invite the female voice, the younger person, the non-English speaker? It might be good if one day, we arrive to find a woman in meditation, as Richard is doing now. Even though the practice attempts to subvert the St Peters tradition, nevertheless church architecture prevails and the solemnity of the space exerts a heavy pull. Perhaps Mass for the City could happen at different locations, from time to time? On public service: the intention of this Mass is clear and open. In its quiet, somewhat abstract way, there is a reaching out to touch lives beyond the church, beyond the gathering there. Prayer is projected outward. Individual voices are invited – it is a feeling of an extended conversation. I would be very interested to do a pilgrimage walk with this group in the Australian landscape: the impulse of this gathering seems to leading toward what Gerard Moore describes as “an Australian Anamnesis” – a knowing and sacramental communing with Place. To do so might mean moving out of the physical church shell, letting the landscape and its histories speak.
St Peters Eastern Hill, Melbourne - photos by Catherine Schieve
Burns, Stephen. Worship In Context. Werrington, Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2006.
'Interview With Fr. Richard Wilson'. Interview by Catherine Schieve. In person. St. Peters Eastern Hill, Melbourne, 2015.
'Mass For The City'. Church Service, St Peters Eastern Hill, Melbourne, 2015.
Moore, Gerard. 'Sacramentality: An Australian Perspective'. In Christian Worship In Australia: Inculturating The Liturgical Tradition, Stephen Burns and Anita Munro ed. 1st ed. Strathfield: St Pauls, 2009.