It must be the conditioning of childhood, which I’m taking as lasting through until the end of your education, whenever that occurs, but the passage of time through September and October always feels like the real beginning of a new year. More than the January 1 celebrations, which tend to get swallowed up in the Christmas or festive season, and certainly more than Advent, which is technically the Church’s new year (and now less than a month away), but feels like the run-up to Christmas. They are officially new years, but Christmas tends to absorb both of them.
September and October are when you get into a new class, when new courses start, when you meet some new people who have joined the same class as you, and the ones who came up with you from the year below think there might be a possibility of turning over a new leaf, or adopting a new name and hoping it will stick. You start doing something new, and you keep on as it becomes real life, not just holiday. And you might get a new pencil case, or at least a new rubber and you get to sharpen all your pencils and work out which colours of crayons you need to replace. I always find sharpening pencils very therapeutic and much more fun than computers.
So now that the new year has started and we’ve even made it through half term and into November, it feels like a good time to evaluate what’s going on in the parish and congregation after the last few years of turmoil. Covid isn’t over yet, but normality is returning; or maybe we’re just realising that the way things are now is probably what they are going to look like for a while. We’ve taken part in the synod process as far as we were allowed, so a new way of doing things is supposed to be at least in the air. The bishops in England and Wales have reimposed the Sunday obligation; we’re all supposed to be keeping off meat on Fridays (though we have a family rule that leftovers count as fish, because actual fish is a treat); the church is back to being open most of the time, and there is holy water in the stoups. How does it feel in the pews?
The pews still feel rather roomier than they used to. Not everybody has come back. It’s November now, so we have our Book of Remembrance on the altar at Mass, and lots of people have been added. We have lost many of our elderly; some have died. Some of them have decided to keep watching the on-line Masses rather than have all the hassle of trying to come in person. We are still streaming one of our Masses every week for anyone who wants to watch on-line, and Communion is sent out from nearly every Mass to various housebound members of our congregation. Of course it’s really good that watching Mass on-line is an option, but having fewer people at Mass is a loss, for us as well as for them.
Our congregation now is more ethnically diverse than it used to be and I’m not sure whether that simply reflects demographic change over the last four years or something else. Of course a lot of the old stalwarts are still here, a bit older, a bit greyer; the children have all got bigger, but thank God, there are also several new ones. We have lost many elderly White British, some of whom may well have become housebound, but gained several Black families with small children. Our parish Poles tend to keep themselves to their own Polish Masses, as their bishops encourage them to do, but I think this is rather a shame. Our Filipinos and Ukrainians are a great asset.
It’s interesting to see how people try to create a bit of space around their family groups, and individuals stay spread out. Some of us still wear masks, but many don’t (and I can’t work out why so many people who cough a lot never think of wearing one). We have had the Mass books and hymnals back for a while now (the danger of cross-infection from them seems reassuringly low) and we’ve just reinstated the in-person collection at the offertory. Paradoxically, most people are now using standing orders for the collection, or have worked out how to use the parish ATMs, but the physical collection and offertory procession take much longer than before, because we have fewer volunteers to take it up. I used to reckon on a three-verse hymn to cover the offertory, but it’s now taking five verses, though I keep it under review.
We are short of volunteers generally, for readers, for catechesis, for altar servers, even for the choir. People are having to relearn that the parish can operate only when everyone chips in and I think this is a noticeable consequence of everyone’s feeling semi-detached from church during the pandemic. We all got used to managing with just the minimum, but now we can do more – if someone is prepared to make it happen. The situation is currently really difficult for First Communion classes, but if we have the children for the class, we may need to rope in the parents as well and think of possible other styles of running the classes which can be delivered partly on-line, like some of the Bible groups which we used to have. But children’s liturgy has started again, and once something is running, people gravitate towards it.
We keep being urged to encourage a new generation of children to be altar servers (most of our previous ones have now left for university), but I have to say, I think the Church is being tone-deaf on this. The abuse scandal was so awful and is still so current, that I think it will take a bit longer before families happily volunteer their children. Earning back trust takes time and there are no shortcuts. We could make a point of recruiting altar servers from among the older women, which would be novel, but would of course work perfectly well. I never encouraged my children to be altar servers because it was only open to boys then and I’m strongly an equal-opportunities mother; but I would still be cautious even now and I’m sorry if that upsets the good priests, who are of course the vast majority. Protecting children has to be the absolute first priority, for some time yet.
Another little thing I have noticed is that people aren’t speaking the prayers (like the Our Father or the Creed) together, but keeping to their own rhythm and pauses, which makes for a much fuzzier sound. There have always been people who prefer to hear their own voice against the backdrop of the congregation, but I think more people are doing it like that than before. It’s partly lack of practice, but also possibly the effect of wearing masks, because when you can see everyone’s mouth moving, there is more of a pull towards uniformity. This will settle, with time. Getting more volunteers, on the other hand, is going to take some serious work.
It’s interesting how many things have just not bounced back. I had assumed that the habits of years would trump any short-term changes as soon as normality returned, but it doesn’t seem to be like that. It makes you realise just how frightened people must have been, how deep the trauma was and how everyone needs to take their own time to feel safe again. And, as I said at the beginning, we know that Covid isn’t over yet, however much we wish it were.
We are a big parish, with four different Masses on Sunday (including the Saturday evening one). The atmosphere at each is different (and so is the music, at the two where we have singing) and people choose which they prefer and tend to stick with it, which is good, because then they join in more as the music becomes familiar. I was thinking about this in the light of the news about some dioceses shrinking the number of parishes, and I wonder about how it will work when only one option is ever on offer. Obviously the style of celebration and the music are far less important than the fact of Mass; but if we are trying to woo people back, we need to make sure that different tastes are considered, or some people just won’t come.
One advantage of having a slightly smaller congregation, though, is that it gives you unexpected opportunities. We’ve just spent October learning the Salve Regina, the Hail Holy Queen, in its venerable and ancient unaccompanied plainsong form, and singing it as our last hymn at the end of Mass. Not just the choir, either; this was a whole congregation effort, and we spent a bit of time on it. This is (I think) the most attractive and accessible of the Church’s oldest songs, much loved for centuries, and used by many orders as a processional, especially at bedtime. It is lovely to sing, from the clarion of its first greeting to the expansive movements of its last lines and the satisfaction of the cadence. It’s also in a major key –quite unusual for plainchant – and very congregation-friendly.
I’ve sung the Salve Regina in many different congregations and every one had something distinctive about it, some way of making it personal to that church with that congregation; an extra pause here, a slight speeding up of the tempo there, a dwelling on particular words. You can do this with plainchant. It’s much more flexible than music written in bars with time signatures. But to be able to get the chant flowing according to the words and the breathing, with the group singing in one voice, you need to be able to spend a little time on it. So we made it our October project, in honour of Our Lady, and it was beautiful to hear it take shape as we went along. The choir learned it first, so that the congregation felt confident to follow, and we grabbed a bit of time before Mass to practise each week.
The joy of plainchant is its flexibility, and its power comes from having a whole group moving and breathing as one. That’s why it’s difficult to get a weekly congregation to do it well, because it’s only by doing it together repeatedly that people learn to listen to each other and move as a group. It’s obviously easier in monasteries, where the same people are singing together all the time, practising daily, but it usually takes more acclimatising than most congregations can manage by singing together only once a week.
I was so proud of my congregation when we reached the last week in October. They sang with enthusiasm, verve and understanding, all pausing together and moving together. The plainchant line flexed and shimmered in the church, and the whole congregation was singing. I hope Our Lady felt honoured; I felt honoured to have been able to be a part of it. I hope it has also been a way for the congregation to start feeling itself as a coherent group again.
Now we’re going to use it as an extra hymn after Communion on Sundays when there is a Mary feast in the week. The next one is the Presentation in the Temple, just after Christ the King. I’m looking forward to it.