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Hallo again to all.

When we are away from home, we always make a point of finding an Anglican church nearby to where we are staying, and attend the main service there. This is easier in London than in Latvia or Laos, but it is usually possible to find, if not an Anglican church, at least an English-speaking liturgical church.

Recently our travels took us to Anglia itself, and on Sunday morning we walked from our hotel to the local parish church for the 11:00 service. The service leaflet described a high-church liturgy, and its use of the word 'mass' to describe that liturgy suggested full-on nosebleed. We were happy in anticipation, and energetically joined the singing of the processional hymn to Abbots Leigh. Smells-and-bells liturgy is unusual in our home diocese, and we were delighted to be here to experience it.

As the procession passed our pew and the incense cloud engulfed us, we noticed that everyone in the long procession was male. With the exception of a couple of teenage boys, in fact, everyone in the procession was a middle-aged man. We couldn't remember the last time we had seen such a large all-male altar party. Perhaps never.

Royal MarinesWe keep current on Anglican news, of course, and we are very aware of the issues and politics surrounding female clergy and bishops. We'd just never experienced an altar party of more than a dozen men before. Our memory isn't good enough for us to recall the days before women priests and deacons in our own diocese and country. If nothing else, even in the most buttoned-down of churches, a large procession would contain a female MC or torch or a boat boy who was a girl.

The entrance hymn was a long one. The procession split with military precision into separate groups. The three priests walked counterclockwise around the altar before lining up facing East. The others split into groups that marched to the two sides of the chancel, after which each member of the altar party took his station and stood still. Parade rest.

As we surveyed the squadron of vested men who had arranged themselves in the chancel with such solemn precision to the larghetto beat of Abbots Leigh, we expected to feel sacramental and anticipatory. But to our surprise we felt instead a strong sense of discomfort bordering on panic. There was something about what we had just experienced that for us evoked more the Changing of the Guard or a military tattoo than Christian liturgy. The authoritative-looking men in their crisp black cassocks and starched white lace-trimmed cottas became, in the illogic of our panic, symbols of guards or soldiers or predators, not servers at worship.

We fled, reaching the narthex door just in time to hear the presider speak the words of the Trinitarian Formula, to which we reflexively answered 'Amen' as we stepped outside into the drizzle. Back in our hotel room, we read Morning Prayer so that the Sunday would not be an utter loss.

This is the problem with symbolism. It works by attaching to the patterns that are already in your head. The only patterns in our head for an array of men marching and assembling like that were from cinematic fiction about soldiers or street gangs. And there is such a minute difference between looking solemn and looking menacing. Regular members of that parish have of course seen such men assemble every week, so they have proper sacerdotal associations for what they see.*

In the USA there is a tourist attraction called Colonial Williamsburg, which is a re-creation of an 18th-century colony. Its buildings are as from that era, and the staff dress in 18th-century clothing and attempt to speak with 18th-century vocabulary and pronunciation. School children are taken there on tours to learn about life back then, to experience so-called 'living history'. Perhaps in a century or two there might be, somewhere in the Commonwealth, a building that looks like a church but is really a theme park, whose all-male ceremonies educate school children about the Way Things Once Were.

Or maybe there already is. And who knows whether school children a century from now will know or care what a church service was?

Have you ever had a viscerally negative response to a church service? Tell us about it?

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

23 June 2013

*Though most of the pews were empty the day we were there; there might not be very many regular members of that parish.

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