A Jubilee Group Paper

LITURGY AND COMMONWEALTH - Frederic Hastings Smyth

Ted Mellor

with an English note by

John Rowe


A paper presented to the Cambridge-Boston Jubilee Group by Ted Mellor on August 24, 1980

The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, has said. "the Liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows." More recently, a Roman Catholic writer has remarked, "the mass is not an aid to your religion; the mass is your religion."

These are extravagant claims for the liturgy and may seem to some to run counter to our conviction that the Gospel compels us to radical action in the world. They seem, at first glance, to turn us away from the transformation of society and back into the self-contained atmosphere of pious exercises in musty buildings, while the world around us is left to go on unmolested.

It should be remembered, though, that the late Frederic Hastings Smyth, founder of the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth, thoroughgoing Socialist that he was, was given to making no less extravagant claims for the liturgy. From the "Little Red Book" of the Society: "The Society emphasizes an intellectual understanding of the liturgy as the expression in action of the full life of the Church." (emphasis added). And again, "All the elements of the redeeming process of the Incarnation are objectively figured forth in the central Catholic Sacrament, the sacrament of the altar, commonly called the mass."

" The redeeming process of the Incarnation." This is a key phrase for our understanding of the centrality of the Eucharist in our lives. Whenever we fall into the trap of thinking of the Incarnation as a discrete event that began at Bethlehem and ended at the Ascension, our view of the life of the Church and of its liturgy become ultimately irrelevant. The best we can do, perhaps, is to remember something that happened in the past and strive to emulate an absent example.

But the orthodox view of the Incarnation is a far more glorious one. The Incarnation is seen as an ongoing fact, a Divine Reality at the very heart of all mundane existence, confronting us at the very depths of our being through all of subsequent history. Redemption is seen as a process, a process through which all of creation is returning to its Source, to be perfected and glorified in him through all eternity. Let's listen to Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons toward the end of the Second Century:

The Apostle has proclaimed that 'creation shall be liberated from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the sons of God.' And in all and through all the same God the Father is displayed, who fashioned man and promised to the fathers the inheritance of the earth, and led out that inheritance in the resurrection of the righteous, and fulfills his promises in the kingdom of his Son; afterwards bestowing, with fatherly love, things 'which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it risen into the heart of man'. For there is one Son who accomplished the Father's will: and one human race in which the mysteries of God are fulfilled, 'whom angels long to see', and are not able to search out the wisdom of God, whereby his handiwork is perfected by being conformed to the Son and incorporated in him; namely that his offspring, the first-begotten Word, should descend into creation, into his handiwork, and be received thereby; that creation, for its part, should receive the Word and ascend to him, rising above the angels, to be made according to the image and likeness of God. - - Adversus Haereses v.xxxvi.3
"That creation, for its part, should receive the Word and ascend to him, rising above the angels, to be made according to the image and likeness of God." This is the rhythm of Christian salvation, and nothing less than this is the rhythm of the Holy Eucharist. Bearing this in mind, let's look at the actual rite of the Eucharist using, in part, the outline given in the directions of Rite III in the Book of Common Prayer.

People and priest gather in the Lord's Name. From all our various modes of life, out of all our different backgrounds and callings, what is often a rather motley collection of oddities gathers together, called out of the kingdoms of this world, to come together in the Name, in the Power, in the very Being of our Incarnate Lord. We who have been led out through the waters of Baptism begin our liturgy by giving thanks to God who has called us out of the bondage of subservience to the empires of this world into the liberty of those who actively await his kingdom. "Blessed be God, father, Son, and Holy Spirit! And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever!"

Together, we proclaim and respond to the Word of God. The Liturgy of the Word is only now beginning to receive proper attention in Catholic liturgical circles. Until very recently most Anglo-Catholics (and Fr. Smyth was no exception) were inclined either to ignore it or to treat it as a somewhat dangerous side issue. Today, however, liturgists are giving to the proclamation of the Word an emphasis which in former years was pretty much maintained only by evangelicals. For orthodox Christians, however, this emphasis takes place within a thoroughly Incarnational context. The Scriptures are not an alien compendium of rules and regulations laid down from outside. The Gospels speak to us where we are and at every juncture of human history, because that is where our Lord is. In this connection, let's share some thoughts of the late Czech Reformed theologian, Joseph Hromodka:

The Gospel gives the most real insight into the very depths of human life and the most comprehensive understanding of society and history, and especially of the future. The Gospel unites us with the first witnesses of the Old Testament and with the sufferings of the present moment, but it directs our thinking ever toward the future. The Church is not a static institution bound to the established order and furnished with the sure means of salvation. The Church is a community of believers always on the move, who radiate an atmosphere of humility towards the God of holiness and mercy. The Church is ever mindful of man, in all his strengths and weaknesses, in his joys and despairs. All this helps us to believe that he who leads us defenceless to the shadow of his cross, is and will be the final victor. -- The Impact of History on Theology, p. 98
"The Church is ever mindful of man, in all his strengths and weaknesses, in his joys and despairs." And so, following the Gospel proclamation, we pray for the world and the Church. The rhythm of the liturgy begins, now, to move into a new dimension. We begin to realize and act upon our status as a Royal Priesthood, as sharers in the eternal Priesthood of our Lord, mediating all creation to the Father.

It is unfortunate that, at least in the West, the concept of the priesthood of all the baptized has become bogged down in circular discussions of the relation of the laity to the ordained ministry. The Eastern Church, which has a very rich appreciation of the priestly status of all believers, doesn't seem particularly interested in that question. For them, as for the Fathers, the Royal Priesthood describes the relation of the Church to the World. Our intercessions and thanksgivings should be seen as a part of our participation with our Great High Priest in the "liberation of all creation from the bondage of corruption." We identify (as the Spirit gives us light) the needs of the world, lift them up to the Father, and, if we are to be taken seriously, in so doing offer ourselves as mediators and as instruments of the world's redemption. It is a dangerous thing to pray for the well-being of another if we ourselves are unwilling to allow ourselves to be used, at whatever cost, as the means of that other's well-being. In the Christian tradition priest and victim are one and all good is common good.

This intimate connection between intercession, mediation, and self-oblation is vividly expressed in the Eastern rites where intercession is made during the offertory procession. As the Bread and Wine are carried through the midst of the people, their petitions seem to cling to their offering, just as the pleas of the poor, the oppressed, the lame and the blind, clamoured around our Lord himself. We, with our Western habit of fitting things into neat compartments, of doing only one thing at a time, need to recover a sense of the interpenetration of the various phases of our liturgy. We need especially to develop a sense of the Prayers of the People, the General Confession, and the exchange of the Peace as intimately connected with the Offertory.

Let's jump ahead a little and consider what happens at the Great Thanksgiving which follows and see if it offers any insights for our understanding of the Offertory. Justin Martyr, writing in the Second Century, has this to say about the Eucharist:

We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Saviour was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way, the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him -- the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation -- is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh. -- Apologia I, lxv-lxvi
That, by the way, is probably as good a description of what happens at the Great Thanksgiving as we're going to find anywhere. But let's just carry Justin's analogy a little bit further (and here we begin to traverse some very Smythian terrain). Before our Lord took human flesh from the Blessed Virgin Mary he first required her freely-given assent. No doubt he could have done it otherwise, through a kind of divine fascism overruling her human will. But, in fact, within the economy of salvation upon which God has purposed, a freely-given human response was required and only upon that freely-given "let it be" was the Incarnation possible. Similarly, the Holy Eucharist is not possible -- mass cannot be celebrated -- without our provision, out of the material things of creation and out of our labour in the world, of the elements of bread and wine. The simple, material things -- what Conrad Noel has called "the humdrum, everyday bread and the merry-making wine" -- are freely handed over to be taken into the very body and blood of our Lord. In this sense, the Offertory can be called the Church's "let it be".

But this must be qualified somewhat if we are to avoid the charge of Pelagianism, if we are to avoid the notion that we ourselves are offering, by our own efforts, a gift fit to be taken into our Lord's being. Anglicans, praise God, are free to agree with Fr. Smyth in affirming the tradition of the Immaculate Conception. We are also free to assert the other, equally venerable tradition that the same grace was given to Mary at the Annunciation or at some other point in her life. What is constant and basic to both traditions is that at some point, prior to or coincident with the "let it be", the Mother of our Lord was granted the same grace given to us at Baptism. It was only thus, through the action of God himself, that she was enabled to make a perfect offering, freely-given, of her flesh (and thereby ours) to become the flesh of God.

Likewise, it is only by virtue of our incorporation into the Body of Christ by Baptism and through his continual indwelling in us that we are enabled to make an offering acceptable to the Father. More exactly, it is not simply our offering; it is our Lord who offers through us. As Kenneth Leech has put it,

In a sense the bread and wine of the offertory are not ordinary . . . already, through the action of taking and offering, they are contained within the offering of the humanity of Christ, for they are the gift of the Church, the Body of the risen Christ . . . The Church in this act is being presented by Christ to himself. St.Paul expresses it well. Christ, he says, loved the Church so much and gave his life for it, that we might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water (that is, Baptism) that he might present it to himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle.- - True Prayer, p. 103-104.
Surely something like this kind of understanding lies behind the ceremonial accompaniments in the Eastern rites which treat the being-offered elements of bread and wine as already, in some sense, the body and blood of our risen and present lord.

But we still have to raise some further questions about our offerings, remembering our Lord's injunction (finally in our Prayer Book, although in the wrong place): "If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift." (Matt. 5:23,24) . This must be understood in a far wider sense than the making up of some petty personal quarrels. We are, in fact, enmeshed in social structures by virtue of which (with the best of personal intentions) brothers and sisters inevitably "have something against" one another. Let us quote at length from Fr. Smyth:

Whence is this bread? we must always ask, and whence this wine? Was the wheat sown and reaped by men and women who live free, secure, and happy lives in the countrysides of the world? Was the flour ground in mills and carried on trains or ships by workmen who live in conditions of maximum social justice? Did the workmen who handled it receive a wage which corresponds to the utmost which is possible when considered in relation to the ascertained maximum capacity of our lands and of our available technical means? Were all the men and women so involved free to live lives for which they can in any sense be considered responsible and accountable in the sight of the Lord? Or are they even now forced into evil patterns of action in the world, with their individual wills unnecessarily overruled by an economic system which needs only Christian analysis and correlative action to correct? Are restraints imposed upon them by others who have power neither by any natural God-given right, nor through superior individual worth, but rather through the astutely acquired or chance ownership of natural resources and technical means of production? If the workingmen and women who have prepared the bread for us find little or no economic justice in their own lives, if a true freedom within the world of everyday choices is arrogated to the relatively few who are rich and therefore powerful in our present social order, then this bread cannot be accepted as a fit offering, except under violent protest on the part of all faithful Catholics.

In the world of today, further questions must be asked. How have the wheat, the flour and the bread itself been brought upon the market? How have these materials been sold? Can it be thought that wheat, which has been made the matter of professional brokerage operations in 'wheat pit' and other centres of speculative trading, which has been used for the enrichment of a few individuals at the expense of the many in operations which have only the cloak of secular legality to distinguish them from those of great gambling casinos, can such wheat be brought complacently to the Altar of the Church? And how have the materials of our bread and wine been brought before the public for purchase? Has there been truthful and informative advertising, or have inferior materials been foisted upon us with that farrago of lying nonsense which is characteristic of modern 'high-pressure' salesmanship? And analogous questions must also be put concerning the history of the preparation of the wine which we bring, especially now in the present time [1940] when so many workers in the countries where wine grapes grow are oppressed by hateful economic tyrannies enthroned in political dictatorships, and when they cower under the menace of wars.

Such questions,obvious as they should be to all, need not here be multiplied. It is clear that we can bring such deficient gifts to the altar only in fear and trembling, beating the breast, and asking Our Lord to perfect and receive them through his Atonement, only until such time as we may improve their quality. This he is willing to do. - - Manhood into God, pp. 218-219

So the preferred position of the General Confession in our Prayer Book (immediately before the exchange of the peace and the offertory) is no mere whim on the part of liturgical innovators. (It was, in fact, proposed by Fr. Smyth in 1946.) It is a very necessary recognition on our part that "these His offerings of bread and wine are marred through our neglect and our wrongdoings" but that, through the atoning action of the Son, our gifts may be perfected to become, through the Eucharistic Prayer which follows, "a pure host, a holy host, the holy Bread of eternal life, and the Chalice of everlasting salvation".

There is a wonderful rhythm here in our liturgy; intercession, confession, and reconciliation through absolution and the exchange of the sign of peace. And while the rubrics do permit the occasional omission of the confession, its inclusion ought to be our normal practice. Without confession the exchange of the peace is reduced to one of those superficial bourgeois sentiments which skim over the surface of life, experiencing neither the depths of conviction of sin nor the deeper depths of God's merciful love. It becomes an attempt to play at community without regard for the common good.

Out of this rhythm -- confession, reconciliation, peace, offering -- flows quite naturally the Great Thanksgiving, This is a real continuation of all that has gone before; the president of the assembly (a bishop or priest) leads the entire people of God in giving thanks over the offered Bread and Wine. This "Eucharisticized" -- thanksgiven -- Bread and Wine is thereby taken into the very Body and Blood of our Lord. Remember Irenaeus: "His handiwork is perfected by being conformed to the Son and incorporated in him." Our gifts move out of the bondage of corruption, rising above the angels, and with them, our lives as well. As St. Augustine saw, there we are on the paten, there we are in the chalice. And so we pray in Eucharistic Prayer B, "Unite us to your Son in his Sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit."

If this were all there were to the Eucharist it would be glory enough. But our Lord has something more in store for us. He now invites us to gather around his table to share together his Body broken and his Blood outpoured and to experience there a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet which awaits us in his kingdom. This is no mere sneak preview of a coming attraction; it is a true participation here and now in the life of the kingdom which is to come. All sorts and conditions of men and women gather around "God's groaning board" share the fruits of what they have commonly contributed and offered and over which they have given thanks, and in these gifts receive our Lord himself. The poor eat and are satisfied, receiving not a token of justice, but him who is Justice itself; receiving not an empty symbol of "fellowship", but him who is all-embracing Love, reaching down to the lowest part of our common need. Our response to so great a gift can only be in speechless wonder, and so we keep silence for a space, after which, following a simple prayer of thanksgiving, we are dismissed by the deacon. The dismissal is no mere "nice thought" injected somewhere towards the end of our worship; it is an actual commissioning, a true "sending forth" of the Christian army to do battle with the empires of corruption which surround us.

Throughout the history of the liturgy there has been an almost universal tendency to blunt the urgent sending forth of the people into the world by piling up "concluding devotions", "recessional hymns", etc. after everything necessary has clearly been done. This can be seen as a kind of semiconscious attempt to pack insulation between the Eucharist and the world, to put padding over the sharp cutting edge of the deacon's challenge to us to go forth into the world. To bring the liturgy to a neatly-rounded conclusion is to do violence to its spirit. The liturgy is unfinished; we simply move on to another phase of the same liturgy, into our work for the kingdom of God in the world. This work is not an option to be performed, if we have time and inclination, in addition to our worship; this work is a constituent part of our worship itself.

For, as Fr. Smyth continues:

[Our Lord] perfects our present imperfections through his all-encompassing sacrifice, but only on the condition that, as he returns our accepted offerings to us in our Holy Communions, we shall determine, with the help of his grace there imparted and quite regardless on the cost to those of us who now lead comfortable lives in the outside world, to better the quality of our gifts at each succeeding Mass. For such bread and wine as we can now obtain within our present economic system can be placed by Catholics upon their altars only under firm resolution to eliminate within the world those intolerable disorders which, so long as out present economic system is permitted to endure, must unavoidably continue to enter into their preparation. And this resolution must be taken no matter what the immediate consequences within a disordered world environment, no matter wheat the danger of great dislocations in economic and political systems, no matter that our resolution may lead us, through the savage resistance of on unredeemed world, on and up the slopes of Calvary and to the Cross. - - Manhood into God, p. 220.

Let us begin then, our journey towards Jerusalem, rejoicing that this mass is our religion, that the sacred liturgy is indeed "the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed" and "the font from which all her power flows."

-- Ted Mellor


An English note, by John Rowe

Frederick Hastings Smyth came of a rather wealthy American family which produced more than one first-rate intellect. His cousin was Charles Smyth, one of the physicists involved in the research leading to the first atomic bomb. He himself was a chemist, a graduate of M.I.T. and, if I am not mistaken, had contributed to the war effort as a scientist during the first world war. As a man of means with artistic interests -- he was a fine pianist -- he found himself at leisure in Italy between the wars and must have read widely in many fields during that time. Somehow -- this will make a good story, I believe, in a future biography -- an encounter with Bishop Bell of Chichester led to his ordination and although he went back to live in New England he never considered himself canonically a member of the 'P.E. Church' of the U.S. He always maintained the Bishop of Chichester was his bishop.

Smyth created the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth either during or not long before the second world war, primarily in the form of an Oratory in Cambridge, Mass., and there he had a lively influence on several generations of Harvard students. Although Conrad Noel's Catholic Crusade was an acknowledged part of its inspiration, the S.C.C. was conceived as an Order of 'Members Regular', meaning monks under vows, but there was provision for 'Members Secular' who were intended as a kind of auxiliary membership circulating about the Society's oratories wherever they should come to be established. The first Oratory, though moved once within Cambridge and finally to Newburyport on the coast, remained the only one, however, and the secular membership came to exercise a far greater importance in the Society than its founder had intended. I was among a group of students and younger clergy in Montreal who began to join the Society in 1948. Partly through the agency of the Student Christian Movement, partly as a result of the experience of the Anglican Fellowship for Social Action which was very active at that time in the Diocese of Montreal, we had discovered a need for some kind of rigorous intellectual and liturgical discipline which would do justice both to Marxism and to Catholic theology. These were heady years, the years of struggle against McCarthyism and the violent reaction of post-war capitalism which, as a matter of fact, took some especially nasty forms in the province of Quebec. The Anglican Communion in Canada and especially in Montreal was a perfect example of how religion and particularly Christianity in its protestant forms, lends itself to the capitalist system. Fr. Smyth's books -- Manhood into God, 1940, and Discerning the Lord's Body, 1946 -- the weekly Bulletin of the SCC which he wrote and circulated, and later the Allocutions of the Father Superior which were addressed to the SCC's membership, were extraordinarily apt to our requirements as a group of Anglicans who wanted to be revolutionary socialists for Catholic reasons. We devoured the stuff, feasted on it, enlarged it, argued ourselves into the still hours over it, fought battles in the Church and in our student and political circles for all the holy causes we could find.

I remember our visits to the Oratory in Cambridge between 1948 and 1951 as moments of intense stimulation. Smyth was a small man, dapper, and precise in all his movements. For all the weight he place on the words of the Rite as expressing Incanational and therefore political as well as personal meaning, the manner of his performance of it was important to him as well. I think today we would find his ceremonial style precious, over-exact, perhaps even effeminate, but in those days it was all of a piece with the overwhelming cogency of his commitment, as it then appeared, to revolution and a revolutionary 're-founding' of the Church. The SCC Rite, called the Anamnesis (emphasis on the second syllable) was the Roman Rite of the English Missal revised to incorporate the Offertorian theology of which Ted Mellor writes so lyrically in this article 'Liturgy and Commonwealth'; offertorian, and also Transubstantiational in the detailed interpretation put forward by Smyth as an improvement on that of Thomas Aquinas. It is still difficult formed today to use the new Offertory Prayers of the Roman Rite in place of 'We offer unto thee, O God, this Bread of our lives, now made spotless by thy Son's atoning power . . . this Wine of our lives, humbly beseeching thy mercy that thou make this offering to have its portion in the eternal humanity of thine incarnate Son at thy right hand in glory.'

Fr. Smyth's language for liturgy and writing was beautifully exact, and intellectually attractive because unambiguous but it was often pretentious and, to many, even ponderous. Yet his conversation was a delight. The man could cook as well and he made the mealtimes in that place, around a suitably ancient narrow refectory table, great feasts in both senses. One of the Rules of the Society was that members should eat and drink together whenever possible, 'usque ad hilaritatem' and he certainly set us a proper example in that regard. We laughed as we argued and as we deepened together the hold upon our minds of this most perfect of intellectual and spiritual constructions.

Fr. Smyth died on Easter Eve, 1960, and the SCC was vitually disbanded by 1967. There was a great deal of personal foolishness and even perhaps insanity within the causes of its demise. But more, important, as I think, there was a gradual realization of something unreal in the whole ethos of the Society and its theologizing. I speak for myself, of course, others will no doubt feel differently, but as I read this piece by Ted Mellor I shiver a little on recognizing that which I have, as I think, outgrown. The whole thing was, in its own way, so incredibly pretensious even after we of the Membership Secular had to a degree brought it to earth. I carry in my memory the reaction of an ex-Stalinist Marxist in Montreal on looking up the word Allocution and finding it meant the address of a Roman general to is soldiers and, later, of the Pontiff to the Church. His derision was painful. We could laugh at ourselves even then but it took a while and some experiences of the real world for the essential absurdity of our claim to be 're-founding' the Church to be admitted.

This kind of intellectual (and emotional) unreality was not confined to the SCC and did not die with it. It is perhaps a tribute to the SCC that we knew when to stop. But what we had to give up was not only our sense of being the vanguard of the Church's 'antithesis' (in the Marxist sense). Or even, more broadly, just imagining that solutions could be found to the great historic questions by selecting the right theological principles -- sacramental Catholicism -- and modifying them by the use of dialectical materialism. We were among a far greater number who continue to make pretty pictures with religious language, not realizing that all he time they are following a logic of their own, walking around a closed garden from which the vast majority of mankind are forever excluded. To talk about God and the things of God in language which precisely excludes the common people and which they will never in a million years find meaningful is not merely to make a mistake in evangelistic method. It is to falsify whatever you say even when it is in some sense or other true. To erect structures of thought, and get emotionally attached to them, which are internally self-consistent and 'true' enough yet add nothing to truth as experienced by the hewers of wood and drawers of water of our society, can do nothing to bring nearer or even herald the blessed Day we desire. I believe that 'Liberation Theology' claims to achieve something like this. It may be so for the third world but I doubt it is so for us. My experience of the working people leaves me, sadly, with a theologically shut mouth. I cannot open it again to say 'the Mass is your religion' or to speak of 'the centrality of the Eucharist', 'the theology of the Offertory', 'the redeeming process of the Incarnation' and so on. If this seems a painfully gloomy message for the Jubilee Group I am truly sorry. I continue to hope in God, hat he will reveal himself to the common people and that I will not be looking the other way when he does. If I am spared this disgrace I think it will be in part because of the formation of my mind and spirit within the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth and equally because I came to see it would not do.

-- John Rowe


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