Iâ€™m on a mission to find out more about how different traditions approach evangelism, so Iâ€™m catching up with Father Kyle McNeil, the priest of St Andrewâ€™s Blackhall and St Maryâ€™s Horden. Â
Before I can understand Anglo-Catholic evangelism, I need to understand more about the tradition itself.
Today Iâ€™ve come to St Maryâ€™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 itâ€™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 donâ€™t know who starts it, but we both do it. Iâ€™m not sure why, but thereâ€™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. Itâ€™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, itâ€™s a â€œwhite linen vestment of ankle length, worn over a cassockâ€). Heâ€™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. Heâ€™s dressed in very special clothing, because heâ€™s about to do something very special. Heâ€™s about to lead us in worship.
I think I get it for the first time.
A bell rings from somewhere. Iâ€™m hoping thereâ€™ll be incense too, but alas there is none. I later learn itâ€™s because incense is used at Solemn Mass â€“ services that include chant and hymns on Sundays and major feast days. This Wednesday, like most weekdays, was a shorter, said service (sometimes called â€˜Low Massâ€™).
I turn to my service booklet and to my delight itâ€™s full of helpful instructions and guidance. Even certain words have their meaning explained, like â€œbrethrenâ€. Itâ€™s hands down the most informative service booklet Iâ€™ve ever seen, and Iâ€™ve seen a lot.
As we go through the service I donâ€™t catch everything the priest says. It seems some prayers and words are private in some way. I donâ€™t get to join in. At other times, heâ€™s saying stuff perfectly audibly but not according to the words in the service booklet. Heâ€™s saying extra stuff from the Missal â€“ another book that only he has sight of. Iâ€™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 theyâ€™re fully public messages for everyone. Heâ€™s also really, really far away at times, and Iâ€™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 itâ€™s a sensory delight, but it seems today itâ€™s more mystifying than mystery. Whatâ€™s he saying? Who are all those saints heâ€™s listing? Whatâ€™s he doing now? Heâ€™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 itâ€™s OK that Iâ€™m not involved in everything.
â€œThe 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 Christâ€™s sacrifice from Last Supper to Resurrection. There were parts of Christâ€™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 seeâ€.
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 thatâ€™s going on, is placated. Iâ€™m reminded of the words â€œGreat is the mystery of faith.â€ Indeed it is. And I like that.
Back in the church weâ€™re getting to the bit in the service where the priest delivers a homily (talk). Itâ€™s all about evangelism, of course, because not only is it the Feast of St Mark the Evangelist, but heâ€™s got a visiting evangelist whoâ€™s come along especially to discuss evangelising. Itâ€™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. Itâ€™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 Iâ€™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 itâ€™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. â€œBut,â€ I note, â€œit doesnâ€™t have everything in it does it?â€
â€œNo,â€ he says. â€œThatâ€™s so you can look up from the words and let the experience wash over you. Youâ€™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 youâ€™re tied to the book youâ€™re being short-changed. Thereâ€™s things to see and experience. Today the church vestments were red as we remembered St Mark. Tomorrow night itâ€™ll all be gold for our dedication festival. Thereâ€™s a lot to take in: you miss that if every word is typed out. If there are words said that arenâ€™t typed out, it encourages people to listen to the words in a different way.â€
Again, this makes perfect sense to me. I canâ€™t hear everything he says as some of it is intentionally private, and I canâ€™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.
â€œNot being able to follow everything creates spaces for people to experience the mystery. But it can make a newcomer confused, and this is where itâ€™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.â€
â€œThat sounds good.â€ I say. â€œDoes it actually happen?â€ Fr Kyle hasnâ€™t been in post long so perhaps itâ€™s an unfair question. He diplomatically answers that, as with all things, itâ€™s a work in progress. â€œItâ€™s aspirational.â€ He says.
I think itâ€™s a brilliant sentiment though; experienced members encouraging and guiding those less experienced. Sounds to me like sharing oneâ€™s faith. Which brings me back to why Iâ€™m here. Evangelismâ€¦