I’m on a mission to find out more about how different traditions approach evangelism, so I’m catching up with Father Kyle McNeil, the priest of St Andrew’s Blackhall and St Mary’s Horden.
Before I can understand Anglo-Catholic evangelism, I need to understand more about the tradition itself.
Today I’ve come to St Mary’s for midweek Mass. It happens to be the Feast of St Mark, the day in the church year when we remember the Gospel writer. He was an evangelist. It feels like it’s meant to be.
As I walk in to the very beautiful and striking church on the green, I spot Fr Kyle. We greet each other in whispers. I don’t know who starts it, but we both do it. I’m not sure why, but there’s just something about the place. It seems fitting to lower our voices from their (OK, my) usual decibel.
I take my seat and my eyes wander over the statues of the Virgin Mary and the beautiful architecture, and then something really gets my attention. Fr Kyle comes out of the vestry to begin the service, wearing a very smart, white lace garment called an alb. It’s like a surplice but longer and with sleeves (I had to look up the word, so for those of you for whom these religious words are also a mystery, it’s a “white linen vestment of ankle length, worn over a cassock”). He’s also wearing a square black hat with bobbles on called a biretta. These things are very eye catching, and to someone unused to seeing them, they also seem strange. But a far better word for strange is special. He’s dressed in very special clothing, because he’s about to do something very special. He’s about to lead us in worship.
I think I get it for the first time.
A bell rings from somewhere. I’m hoping there’ll be incense too, but alas there is none. I later learn it’s because incense is used at Solemn Mass – services that include chant and hymns on Sundays and major feast days. This Wednesday, like most weekdays, was a shorter, said service (sometimes called ‘Low Mass’).
I turn to my service booklet and to my delight it’s full of helpful instructions and guidance. Even certain words have their meaning explained, like “brethren”. It’s hands down the most informative service booklet I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.
As we go through the service I don’t catch everything the priest says. It seems some prayers and words are private in some way. I don’t get to join in. At other times, he’s saying stuff perfectly audibly but not according to the words in the service booklet. He’s saying extra stuff from the Missal – another book that only he has sight of. I’m not used to this. Usually the churches I worship in have pretty much everything typed out in the booklet or on a screen, or they’re fully public messages for everyone. He’s also really, really far away at times, and I’m sitting near the front.
This perturbs me a bit. Like a super energetic toddler, I just want to be involved in everything. I want to hear and see and smell and experience every bit of worship. I love the mystery of Anglo-Catholic worship because it’s a sensory delight, but it seems today it’s more mystifying than mystery. What’s he saying? Who are all those saints he’s listing? What’s he doing now? He’s so far away up there at the altar. Over lunch (a great steak pie and veg that Fr Kyle throws together back at his vicarage), he explains to me why it’s OK that I’m not involved in everything.
“The Catholic understanding of the Mass is the re-presentation [he pronounces it like this because he means the presenting again, rather than the usual way we say representation, though in a sense both words work. I love it that Fr Kyle is a self-confessed pedant like me] of Christ’s sacrifice from Last Supper to Resurrection. There were parts of Christ’s last days when he was alone, doing things privately, praying intimately to his Father. And some of it was fully public, as he hung upon the cross. The priest is standing in his place. As a priest, some of what I do is personal, intimate, and some is public for the whole congregation to see”.
It makes perfect sense to me now. My inner child who wants to have sticky fingers in every pie whilst having a good nosy round at everything that’s going on, is placated. I’m reminded of the words “Great is the mystery of faith.” Indeed it is. And I like that.
Back in the church we’re getting to the bit in the service where the priest delivers a homily (talk). It’s all about evangelism, of course, because not only is it the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist, but he’s got a visiting evangelist who’s come along especially to discuss evangelising. It’s evangelism-tastic. He encourages us, the congregation to share our faith in simple ways with our friends and neighbours and reminds us of the perils those first evangelists faced and lengths to which they went to share the Word. It’s really uplifting and, I admit, unexpected. I wonder what it would look like in practice as I stare at the backs of the heads of the other worshippers.
The service is over and I’m treated to wonderful hospitality in their church hall. I can see that the social side of church life is very important to these people. Friendship groups bond over tea and biscuits and Fr Kyle does the rounds, visiting different tables and catching up with his flock.
After enough shortbread, we go for a walk around the parish boundaries so that I can get a feel for the context in which this Anglo-Catholic priest ministers (ex-mining coastal village, high unemployment, lots of empty houses, pretty tough for everyone) and then we go back to his for the aforementioned lunch and a long chat.
I comment on the service booklet and how good it is. He says it’s partly about hospitality; something very important in his tradition. It explains things well enough for people to be comfortable with the mysterious environment that is Anglo-Catholic worship. “But,” I note, “it doesn’t have everything in it does it?”
“No,” he says. “That’s so you can look up from the words and let the experience wash over you. You’re not tied to the script. Often in C of E service booklets every word of liturgy is typed out. But this is often deliberately not done in churches of the Catholic tradition. If you’re tied to the book you’re being short-changed. There’s things to see and experience. Today the church vestments were red as we remembered St Mark. Tomorrow night it’ll all be gold for our dedication festival. There’s a lot to take in: you miss that if every word is typed out. If there are words said that aren’t typed out, it encourages people to listen to the words in a different way.”
Again, this makes perfect sense to me. I can’t hear everything he says as some of it is intentionally private, and I can’t follow some bits that I can hear so that I can concentrate better with my head and eyes up. I am not a slave to the words of the service book.
This leads him onto his second point about hospitality; community.
“Not being able to follow everything creates spaces for people to experience the mystery. But it can make a newcomer confused, and this is where it’s important to show people what to do, explain where they are in the order of service. Placing the mystery in the context of community. Getting that balance is very important.”
“That sounds good.” I say. “Does it actually happen?” Fr Kyle hasn’t been in post long so perhaps it’s an unfair question. He diplomatically answers that, as with all things, it’s a work in progress. “It’s aspirational.” He says.
I think it’s a brilliant sentiment though; experienced members encouraging and guiding those less experienced. Sounds to me like sharing one’s faith. Which brings me back to why I’m here. Evangelism…