On Pentecost Sunday this year I attended services at St. Mary the Virgin church in Oxford, England. This is the ancient church where John Henry Newman was canon in the 1830s and from whose pulpit he gave his famous sermons as an Anglican priest. There's a plaque now at the bottom of that high, dark pulpit to remember its once-famous occupant.
A churchwarden (sacristan) said: "You're a visitor, aren't you?" With that kind question, he proceeded to tell me about today's St. Mary's parish community: high church, diverse (he is himself a Quaker), mellow, liturgically rich in music and the Anglican rites.
He was right. The music by a mixed choir was lovely. A portable altar had been placed in the center of the long, narrow center aisle. The associate pastor who presided wore the bright red vestments of that Pentecost day. Her long dark hair was tied back; concelebrating with her were female and male associate pastors, one of whom gave the sermon; the readings and prayers for Pentecost were almost identical with those going on in Roman Catholic parishes around the world; one knelt at the altar rail to receive from a priest first the bread than the wine, which was not red but white.
Next day I returned for noon services. A different woman pastor, wearing the green vestments of Ordinary time, was the celebrant. This time we were just four women attending in a narrow side chapel where the long benches lining the walls were worn from all the rumps that had sat there over so many centuries. Pastor Rachel Greene (originally from Brooklyn) presided with her back to us. She pronounced the readings of the day forthrightly and the simple, straightforward words of the Anglican liturgy with conviction. She did not preach. Again, we received Eucharist from her, bread and cup, kneeling at an altar rail.
So here was the mix of rubrics, rails, procedures, presiders, words, all the elements roiling our Catholic church now. And here they just seemed ordinary ritual doings left over from all those mightly struggles of Newman's age and Thomas More's age before that. I wondered many times since what either of those fine gentlemen would write about it all now.