April 2: a visit to the brompton oratory

I went to the hyper-Catholic Brompton Oratory the other day for a service that we thought was Benediction. It wasn’t, but some non-descript ceremony that entailed fetching the Monstrance from the top of the altar, bringing it down to the celebrant priest, presenting it to him in a rather pernickety way and then him showing it to us in the congregation. One of the attendants then scuttles back up the thickly carpeted stairs and replaces it in its little exhibition pod behind a little velvet curtain which he rustles back and forward in the show of it, a bit like a Punch and Judy man before he gets Mr Punch out on stage.. We were actually lucky to get so much of a performance. The Brompton Oratory must be the most traditional, not so say reactionary, of the Roman Catholic churches of the entire country. Back in the late Sixties or early Seventies, just after the mass changed from Latin to English, a papal edict came through telling all churches to construct or buy in from Ikea a little table where the priest could handle his chalice and silver plate with communion wafers in full view of the gathering rather than with his back to them which had hitherto been the way, the real relationship being between God and the Church, not God and the people. The Brompton Oratory eschews these new fangled ways and keeps us mostly excluded from the action. It is also one of the few churches to sometimes host the mass in latin. For a multi-cultural Catholic congregation with some of them having no English, you could argue that this is actually a demotic and democratic gesture rather than a high-handed one. The use of latin was always justified, I recall, with the line that wherever you are in the world you would experience the same mass. This principle was, of course, picked up to great commercial effect, by less venerable institutions, the prime example being Macdonalds where the Big Mac should be identical the world over.


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