This week, in honour of Frank Mbanefo, who died last Thursday, myreflection will be a response to a question that he asked me a while ago. I had this question on my ‘list of possible reflections’, so now to you Frank, here is my answer.
Frank asked me ‘Why isn’t there an ‘interval’ in the Mass as there is when one goes to the theatre?
A cynical answer is ‘There is an interval in order to sell popcorn’. In some theatres they make more money out of selling popcorn, drinks and ice cream than they do from film tickets! But there are more important reasons for having an interval.
The first thing, then, to ask about is the function of an ‘interval’ at the theatre. The first thing to say is that there seems to be something about an ‘hour’ which is hard wired into human’s capacity to be still and attentive. Lectures at a university or other classes for adults go for about an hour, then people need a break. Television shows go for an hour.
A brief look at the internet reveals that it is important to have light and shade: times of intense focus, and times of diffuse focus to enable us to function at our best.
So in the theatre, we need a break from the concentration of watching a play which goes for two hours, so that we can keep up our concentration for the second half. In this case an interval is about maintaining concentration. I think we need this in Church too, but the breaks come in different ways, which I’ll come back to later.
I think that there is something different between what we do in church and what we do in the theatre. I think that going to the theatre is more passive than going to Church. In the theatre the ‘audience’ receives what the active participants, the singers or actors , put on. In Church the ‘audience’ for what is done is God! The performers are all of us! As Richard Norris has said “The Church is a collection of people whose business it is constantly to rehearse a divinely authored play whose first actual, full performance will occur in the Age to Come, what we are doing at the Eucharist is learning our parts.“
The ‘celebrant’ of the Eucharist is the whole congregation. There are different roles within the Eucharist, but we are all ‘the celebrant’. That is why I get annoyed sometimes when I say ‘The Lord be with you’, stay silent waiting for the response, only to have pretty much silence come back at me. That is why I think it is important for as many people as possible to take up their roles in the Eucharist. That is why I think everyone should be able to sing. We are all actors in the Eucharist. No one who participates in the Eucharist is a member of the ‘audience’. That makes a difference. It takes more concentration to be an ‘actor’ than to be a member of the audience. Just ask our communion ministers. One has to remember one’s lines, and know when and how to say them.
The other difference that being a member of the congregation makes is that because we are all ‘actors’ we are involved in a series of ‘actions’. These ‘actions’ are, as Richard Norris said, a rehearsal for the form of life that will be lived in heaven. Being in Church is practising. Practising what? Practising how to bring ourselves into the company of God (communion). Being in the company of God is what heaven is like! So coming each Sunday is a rehearsal for that life. By participating in the Eucharist, we learn how to have communion with God and with each other. We practice how to be opened up. We practice how to be receptive. We practice how to respond. It is these three movements that govern the structure of the Eucharist. Church goes the way it does, not just because someone has decided to put ‘one thing after another.’ The Eucharist is a story of ‘being opened up’, ‘being receptive’ and responding.’ In the Anglican Church we do this twice. Once when it comes to receiving the Word of God, and once when it comes to receiving the Body of Christ in Bread and Wine.
So, in one sense, we do have an ‘interval’ in Church. The sense that I mean is that we have different forms of consciousness at each phase of the Eucharist. We have both active and passive ways of being. In preparing or being opened up, we are passive, in receiving god’s Word, either in the readings or in communion we are ‘actively passive’. In responding in intercession or post communion prayer, we are actively active.
So in the Eucharist, because the members of the congregation are more ‘active’ than an ‘audience’ there is less need for a proper ‘break’. But there is a need for light and shade, more active and more passive modes of being in order for us to participate more deeply in the Eucharist.
The sense of a need for a break also depends upon how actively involved the ‘celebrants’ are. I remember my wedding. We had it on ‘Low Sunday’ and so the actual exchange of vows was added to the normal Sunday Eucharist. The Eucharist went for about two hours without an ‘interval.’ Did I feel bored or in need of a break? No. The time ‘flew by’. Why? Because I was actively involved in the whole thing, as one of the ‘celebrants’.
When people really bring all of themselves into an activity that absorbs them, then how long a thing goes is not an issue. We go on until we have finished what we came to do.
There is a story told by Denis Norden of ‘My Word’ fame. He says ‘Going to see a Wagner opera is like this: You go in at 7.30 and three hours later you look at your watch and it’s a quarter to eight!’ There is the story of someone who needs a break after 125 minutes, not an hour, because the level of involvement is much less.
So Frank, we do not have an ‘interval’ as such in the Eucharist because (1) the members of the congregation are not an ‘audience’ and (2) The drama of the Eucharist is of one piece, and needs to be ‘put on’ without a stop. But we do need light and shade, active and reflective times in the Eucharist, in order to help our concentrated participation. For me, The Eucharist is like Marriage (or the other way around). In the Marriage Eucharist we say ‘with all that I am and all that I have I honour you.’ That’s what I want to do in Church too. That is too absorbing for there to be the need for an ‘interval’.